Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The History of One (Aspiring) Labor Historian

In my quest to be the most self-obsessed navel-gazer you know, I've decided I want to do some posts about how the professional and political me came to be.

I came to history by a twisted route which I've re-capped before. My BA is in psychology, so I initially went to grad school in a counseling psychology program (I wanted forensic psychology, but there weren't any universities close by and I wasn't ready to leave home again). I had doubts from the beginning--did I think everyone could be rehabilitated? What if I couldn't help someone? Then they upped the program's requirements to 48 hours and some extensive internships, and I admitted to myself that I just didn't want to do all the for an MS in psychology. I took a quarter to think about it and while I was "off," I took some history classes. They reminded me of how much I'd loved my African American Studies minor, and I thought, "I can do this." I applied for admissions to the history department and got accepted.

Now, my plan was to study the 60s. As an aside, that's been an interesting decade in this country's history. In the 1660s, Virginia was cementing the "peculiar institution." In the 1760s, many Americans were on a course to committing quite the treasonous act. In the 1860s, the Civil War--I can't pithily summarize that. And in the 1960s, the country (or at least the laws of the country) was changing in the most amazing ways, socially, politically, culturally, the result of grassroots efforts, people getting sick and tired of being sick and tired. These were the 60s I wanted to study*--as a black southern woman, I was worshipful of the Civil Rights Movement, curious about the movement for women's rights, and interested in exploring the links between those two. As the daughter of a largely silent VietNam vet, I wanted to know more about that era, how and why it happened. And as someone well-acquainted with Motown Records--because that's what my mom did on Saturdays while we all cleaned; she opened the front and back doors to let in the sun and put on old, scratchy records--I admired the soundtrack of the 60s. And I did study them--I took classes on VietNam and Watergate, on the New South and black women. I wrote papers on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the perspectives of soldiers involved in the VietNam war.

Then I graduated. And that was that. Until, burned out from teaching and continuously, lovingly harassed by my friend John and my old advisor, I decided to work on the PhD. I wanted to return to the safety of the 60s.

My advisors here said, "No." The social movements of the 60s were well-documented, both as grand, large-scale things and as small, community-centered efforts. While re-thinking, I fell in love with Linda Gordon's Pitied but Not Entitled, and Jill Quadagno's The Color of Welfare, and virtually everything I touched by Gwendolyn Mink, and even Winifred Bell's Aid to Dependent Children. "I'll write about welfare in Louisiana," I said. Advisor raised a brow, "Mmm, possible, look into it." But it was hard, because I just didn't know how to do the research and I was a bit unmotivated.

Then I read Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. That, along with Pitied but Not Entitled and Deborah Gray White's Too Heavy a Load, are books that I read word for word because I loved them so much. And I knew. I wanted to write about black women's work, in and out of the home. I wanted to write about work that wasn't necessarily liberating or the primary thing by which women defined themselves.

And I knew the poultry industry. I knew about low wages and chicken rashes and finding out on Thursday that you had to work Saturday (plans be damned) and washing the clothes separately and joints aching and being so damned tired. But I also knew about saying "Fuck ConAgra and this job," and slowing down the work and telling the supervisor off and being the best mama you could be and taking time for your children, despite the company's demands and helping the new women on the line.

That, I decided, I could write about. But since I stumbled into labor history, I feel woefully unprepared sometimes. I had to find out for myself about the archives in Madison and at Georgia State and even a few things I needed at UT Arlington. I still am unclear on the "new" versus the "old" labor history. There are bellwethers (book-wise) I'd never heard of before this semester. And my head is swirling with "craft unionism," "industrial unionism," "economic unionism," "pure and simple unionism," "business unionism" and all sorts of distinctions I didn't know. When I talk to the NLRB about my FOIA requests, 90% of the time, I can't be clear, because I don't fully understand the way all of it works.

But, increasingly, I think I made the right choice.**
*Though, if I had to choose, wailing and weeping, another 60s, it'd be the 1860s. Since I heard professors say, "No law or person "freed" the slaves. They freed themselves. They stole themselves away from the plantations," I've been intrigued. That's bold and wonderful, "stealing yourself away."

**Though, after the dissertation becomes a book, I will revisit my 1960s. I want to write a biography of Diane Nash one of the founders of SNCC, whom I've admired since I first read about her.


The History Enthusiast said...

Great post! I used Deborah Gray White and Jacqueline Jones in the paper that I am currently revising. It's good stuff!

Anonymous said...

elle, I love when you write about your PhD! your topic is so closely related to everything you write about here (and so personally interesting to me). and I really love that you always give book titles. it's like a labor history correspondence course!

by the way, about feeling insecure that you don't 'know' your topic well enough, that you're still finding the information and learning the Big Tomes... I think that's good. it can only add to the reading and analyses you've done so far, and who knows, maybe reading in this order will better prepare you for challenging the assumptions in these bellwethers of which you speak.

Kate said...

Wow! That was so enjoyable to read -- like petitpoussin, I love hearing you talk about your work. You make me want to read all those books...

Breena Ronan said...

So you were teaching after your MA? What were you teaching? High school? Junior college?

elle said...

thanks, it still amazes me that people like to hear what i think :-). seriously, not so amazing when i consider that i love similar posts from other people.

pp, my advisor has suggested that i get a notebook and make notes of all these new (to me) works that i'm not at all familiar with and make sure that i look into them later. that way, i don't get bogged down in my writing (which i do!!!)

elle said...


i taught university level as i was finishing the MA, then I taught 4th and 5th grade while working on my social studies certification. i also have a year of middle school and a semester of high school under my belt.

Texter said...

As the others, and as you already know, I too like reading about your work. I am so happy to hear you have crossed that line and finished a draft of every chapter.

How'd ya do it, elle?

I'm still truckin on

But I have gotten the green light on Intro and Chapter one. Still revising Chapter two and three and drafting conclusion... I'm hoping to turn in final copies in April... Good luck to you...

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...