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In 'Black Folk,' Blair LM Kelley examines the Southern roots of the Black working class

Blair LM Kelley smiles at the camera, sitting on an unseen stool and wears a black long-sleeved top.
Blair LM Kelley
Blair LM Kelley is the first Black woman to serve as the director for the Study of the American South at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and co-director of the Southern Futures initiative at the University of North Carolina.

Asking questions about someone’s past doesn’t often lead to an award-winning book, but that's how it unfolded for Blair LM Kelley. She wrote the book Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class about Black laborers, a group that has been historically underrepresented in narratives about the American working class.

Kelley, who has a doctorate in history, is the director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, and she is the first Black woman to serve in that role. Kelley spoke with In Black America producer and host John L. Hanson Jr.about how her family history inspired her to write her second book, how Black laborers became the working class and Black women's role in labor unionization.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class by Blair LM Kelley
W.W. Norton
Black Folk was named on of Smithsonian’s Best Books of 2023

On how her family history inspired her to write Black Folk

I wanted to make sure that I was thinking through my family's history and centering the way that I talk about the Black working class through their everyday experiences. That was so important to me as I thought about the everyday people I wanted to chronicle, the oral histories I wanted to use. My family is not extraordinary. They weren't leaders of movements or those kinds of things, but they were exemplary in teaching us why everyday people matter.

On hardships within the Black working class that date back to slavery

When you think both of the skill that the enslaved, and then the free folks who did that work, had to put into harvesting that cotton, and then the fundamental devaluation of them as people, as humans. That's still part of it. ... I meet people who, all the time, were like, “I picked that cotton. That was my mother. And my father picked their cotton.” It's a tremendous part of our legacy. The skill of our hands making this country wealthy, and yet robbing us of our future in many key ways.

On how Black women became the backbone of household labor

You had Black women who were taking in laundry in the South in the early days, trying to build a cash base and independence. You have Black women who are migrating in the 20th century away from agricultural work, who end up in domestic household labor, working for white households as maids or nannies or cooks and really suffering under a lot of victimization, a lot of sexual exploitation, not being protected by the labor law that kicked in for most workers in the 20th century.

On Black washerwomen unionizing their labor

One of the very first unions I could find of Black women was the washerwomen of Jackson, Mississippi, who in 1866, a year after freedom, come together and demand a living wage, demand certain terms for doing their work, demand that independence. These women come out of bondage with a full sense of who they are as a class and what they can demand because of the stigmatization on doing laundry that white women suffered. They knew that if only Black women are going to do this work, well then we're going to set the terms of how we do it.

Kelley’s full interview on In Black America is available now. The program airs on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on KUT 90.5, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.

John L. Hanson is the producer and host of the nationally syndicated radio series In Black America. It’s heard on home station KUT at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 a.m. Sundays — and weekly on close to 20 stations across the country. The weekly podcast of IBA, the only nationally broadcast Black-oriented public affairs radio program, is one of KUT’s most popular podcasts.
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