Summer Reading: Working Class Studies Association Award Winnerss
Each year the Working-Class Studies Association (WCSA) issues a number of awards honoring publications in the field: books and articles, documentaries and dissertations. A panel of judges identifies “excellent work that provides insightful and engaging representations of working-class life, culture, and movements; addresses issues related to the working class; and highlights the voices, experiences, and perspectives of working-class people.” The 2012 prizewinners were announced May 1 and offer outstanding examples of this work, across a range of genres: social history, poetry, media criticism, documentary film, and cultural studies. The working-class people and cultures represented in these projects include Mayan market vendors in Guatemala City, high school football players in a small Texas oil town, blue-collar Baltimore police officers, Dominican-American kids on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and residents of a depressed steel-town campaigning to keep their community hospital open.
The issues addressed by the five prizewinners are current and pressing, including the social costs of globalization and deindustrialization, the collapse of upward mobility, and the possibilities of allegiances across lines of class, race, and gender. And the writing itself, in these varied accounts, is accessible and compelling, making for some excellent summer reading. As one of the judges, Peter Rachleff, said of the large stack submissions he read for the C. L. R. James book award:
Every book made a significant contribution to the field of working-class studies, showed dedicated research and original thinking, and inspires the rest of us in the field to maintain our own efforts. . . . The value of their work reached beyond the chosen subject matter in suggesting questions, analytical frameworks, and arenas for working-class studies, which many of us, regardless of our formal disciplines or fields, might pursue.
The winner of the CLR James Award for a book for academic or general audiences is J.T Way for The Mayan in the Mall: Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala (Duke University Press). Way, who is now an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Georgia State University, was previously the Director of CIRMA (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica) in Antigua, Guatemala. His book, which Rachleff calls “a veritable history of the making of the Latin American working class,” uses oral and literary sources as well as archival research to reveal the impacts of “development,” national and US-directed, on the people and neighborhoods of Guatemala City through the 20th and early 21st centuries. The city’s contrasting street markets and glittering malls, corporate towers and sprawling shantytowns are products and symbols of globalized capitalism, with its attendant class segregations and racial violence. But Way pays as much attention to the agency of Guatemala’s indigenous working-class people as he does to their exploitation and misrepresentation, including the story of “grass-roots everyday development that built neighborhoods and made them function… and the striving of ordinary individuals to survive even as their efforts defined the life and feel and texture of the land.”
The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing went to Pittsburgh-based Italian-American poet and fiction writer Paola Corso for her collection of poems, The Laundress Catches Her Breath (CavanKerry Press). The book’s epigraph by Arundhati Roy states, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Catching one’s breath, though, is a struggle for a low-wage woman in a smoggy steel town, still living at home and doing her father’s laundry. In the words of judge Jeff Gundy, “Paolo Corso’s laundress is a vivid, richly detailed character, hard-working, chain-smoking, grouchy and smart, memorably imperfect and entirely winning.” She is also an “Heiress to Air” in a poem Gundy calls “brilliant, a moving tour de force that William Carlos Williams would certainly have loved.” In the book’s final poem, the laundress “flashes a charge card and her middle finger then leaves her father’s house” to move into “A Well-Ventilated Basement Apartment.” Mobility, it turns out, is possible, even for her, if not “upward,” at least into freer air.
The Studs Terkel prize for Media and Journalism was awarded to documentary film-makers Tony Buba and Tom Dubensky for their full-length feature We Are Alive: The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital. Buba has made a number of films about his hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in the Monongahela Valley steel district, a town hit hard by the effects of mill-closings and depopulation. We Are Alive documents the struggle — in the streets, the courts, the press — to keep Braddock Hospital open after its new owner, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), slated it for demolition. Jack Metzgar comments:
We Are Alive is my top choice because the analysis is embedded in the story-telling and in the voices of the people documented. The basic reporting narrative of the fight to save Braddock UPMC is clear, compelling, and engaging from beginning to end. It also has spirit – not just a spirit of struggle, but of the glories of plainness in working-class life, even when it is creatively zany. It leaves you not only with knowledge, but also a bit of sly inspiration.
Although the Braddock hospital was torn down (and a shiny new one built in the nearby, more affluent suburb of Monroeville), UMPC now faces broad public censure and a lawsuit challenging its status as a charity, which pays no property taxes while its CEO makes upwards of $6M a year.
The C. L. R. James award for the best article or essay was won by Tim Libretti of the English Department at Northeastern Illinois University. His article “Working the Case: The Wire and Working-Class Cops on American Television” (in Blue Collar Pop Culture, Praeger) examines the motivations and dynamics of the team of Baltimore police investigating the city’s endemic drug trade. Whereas much commentary on HBO’s hugely popular show focuses on the corrupt symbiosis between the political system, including the police, and the criminal organization, Libretti explores the possibilities for “non-alienated” labor on the part of individual cops working for the greater good, however compromised. Judging this category, Jim Daniels comments: “What I admired about Libretti’s piece is that he was getting at a tension that exists in all workplaces—personal ambition vs. the larger good—in fresh, interesting ways. This essay gets at why The Wire was such a transcendent TV show, and a lot of that has to do with work and class.”
Finally, WCSA honors emerging contributors to the field with the Constance Coiner dissertation award, won this year by Sara Appel, of Duke University, for Football Wishes and Fashion Fair Dreams: Class and the Problem of Upward Mobility in Contemporary U.S. Literature and Culture. Upward mobility, Appel suggests, is a problem not only because it is now such a diminished possibility for the majority of Americans, but also because of the powerful ideological grip it holds on our national imaginary, including narratives in fiction, non-fiction, film and TV. Through close readings of a range of current texts, including Terry Macmillan’s stories and the book/film/TV series Friday Night Lights, Appel illuminates an alternative social and cultural possibility: “a hopeful vision of collective accountability” visible in relationships based on romance, sports, education, neighborhood, etc. Courtney Maloney comments: “The nimble way [Appel] triangulates between the texts under discussion, her personal experience, and the pertinent economic/political contexts is cultural studies writing at its best. Most importantly, her readings . . . expanded my thinking about the power of narrative to help us conceive what is possible in our current conjuncture.”
Together these prize-winning projects demonstrate the scope and vitality of cultural and scholarly production in working-class studies today. Reading them, I was struck by a generosity of spirit and a love of their subject that animates all of them, and each one deepened my analysis and expanded my sense of the possibilities. These works are sharp and nuanced in their representations of how class operates and how it can be contested. At their best they show both a clear-eyed gaze on harsh realities and an equally clear recognition of how people who are up against it act in their own interests and care for those around them. I look forward to seeing what work from 2013 will be honored next year. The call for submissions will be circulated in September.