Wednesday, November 10, 2010

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Published Nov 7, 2010 9:06 PM

The recently released documentary, “The Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story,” highlights the role of cultural workers during the Great Depression when they participated in the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project administered by the Works Progress Administration.

The film revisits the WPA’s provision of millions of jobs for laid-off industrial and service employees and its establishment of a program that hired writers, actors, painters, journalists, researchers and other creative artists to document the history and culture of the United States.

The documentary is based on David A. Taylor’s book, “Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers America,” which explores the FWP and sheds light on the U.S. government’s continuing failure to support cultural workers who seek to realize social change.

The reforms won through the WPA resulted directly from labor and community struggles waged during the Depression’s early years. In 1930 unemployed workers joined in mass demonstrations, and Unemployed Councils formed in many cities to demand jobs and fight against foreclosures and evictions.

Federal Writers’ Project work

The Federal Writers’ Project was established on July 27, 1935. It was directed by the journalist and theater producer Henry Alsberg and was later taken over by John D. Newsome. Both of them commissioned the compilation of historical studies, oral histories, books for young people and assorted ethnographic research projects.

The FWP employed more than 6,600 writers, teachers, researchers and artists. Their work resulted in the documentation of thus-far-unpublished aspects of U.S. political and cultural history.

A notable project was the American Guide Series which provided information on all 48 states as well as Washington, D.C.; Alaska, then a U.S. territory; and Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony. In every state an FWP committee was formed which sent out field workers taken from the unemployment lines.

Many of the FWP writers were labor unionists, left-wing activists, members of the Communist Party and other progressive organizations. Importantly, the FWP collected narratives of African Americans who had been enslaved prior to the Civil War.

Additionally, many of the blues and folk artists of the period made their first recordings through the work of Alan Lomax, who traveled through the South and recorded musicians such as McKinley Morganfield, known as Muddy Waters. In recent years, these documents and recordings have become available to the public.

Some of the well-known writers and artists who worked in the FWP included Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, John Steinbeck, Arna Bontemps, May Swenson, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Dorothy West, John Cheever, Saul Bellow and Frank Yerby.

Nonetheless, overall the FWP employed very few African Americans. One possible exception was the Illinois Writers’ Project, which helped launch the literary careers of Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham and Frank Yerby.

The federal government ended support for the program in 1939, even though it continued under state sponsorship until 1943. A program of this scope and magnitude does not exist today in the United States, even though there are untold numbers of teachers, poets, scriptwriters, actors, producers, painters, musicians, sculptors and other creative cultural workers who are unemployed, with many living in abject poverty.

Demand for federal jobs program including cultural work

The Bail Out the People Movement, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition and other organizations around the country are calling for the creation of a WPA-style jobs program that would employ, with decent wages and benefits, the 30 million to 35 million people who are unemployed or underemployed. The role of cultural workers is crucial within the movement for jobs and a living income.

In other societies, particularly under socialism, artists, athletes, educators, scientists and others are employed by the state and are guaranteed the right to pursue their creative capabilities. Within a capitalist society, artists can only make a living working outside their field of interest and specialization or if their cultural productions are marketable within the economic system.

The U.S. economic crisis has had a significant impact on popular culture. Radio and television stations restrict diverse programming in order to capture advertising revenue. Fewer musical artists are able to release their music and spoken-word material because the major recording companies only want to produce a select group of artists who sell millions of compact discs and therefore maximize corporate profits. Likewise in the book publishing industry.

This is why many musicians and cultural workers have taken to producing their own work independently of the large corporations. This movement, largely among youth, should be mobilized into local and national campaigns, which fight for jobs and income.

As the “jobless recovery” continues, leaving tens of millions of workers and oppressed people without employment, housing, healthcare and education, mass struggles must emerge to address the deepening class inequalities and corresponding cultural divide within the U.S.

For information on “The Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story,” see
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