Money  /  Q&A

'Working Class' Does Not Equal 'White'

What it means to be a Black worker in the time since slavery.

Ibram X. Kendi: Black Folk opens by chronicling the life story of your maternal grandfather, who was facing and fighting racism in the town of Canon, in northeast Georgia. What was striking for me was that my maternal grandfather, Alvin, is from Guyton, which is also in eastern Georgia, though closer to Savannah. He dealt with racism there as well, fled to New York City. Your maternal grandfather made his way to North Carolina. Such similarities. Why did you decide to start the book there?

Blair LM Kelley: It’s such a formative story for my family. It’s one my mother repeated many, many times. I think my mother really wanted me to understand the degree to which slavery had ended but the circumstances of subjugation had not. She wanted me to get how close that was to my lived experience, that it wasn’t this far-off, distant thing that was long gone.

Tying my family to this larger history, I know that’s a story so many people have of being forced to flee. I really wanted to begin with that because I knew how universal it was.

Kendi: You specifically wanted Black Folk to “capture the character of the lives of Black workers, seeing them not just as laborers, or members of a class, or activists, but as people whose daily experiences mattered.” Why was capturing the character of their full lives so important?

Kelley: I have never really thought of myself as a labor historian. Labor history had such a focus on institutions and unions, and infighting between organizations. Those were interesting, and things you need to know. But they weren’t the ways that I knew my folks. My folks were workers, but their lives, their whole lives, affected the way that they thought about that work. And I hadn’t seen as much labor history that was focused on what the whole being was like. Not just a factory-floor version of history, but rather a church, a house, a mother-daughter relationship. Those kinds of things I wanted to see amplified, because I think they’re just as meaningful for workers’ lives—if not more so—than the atomized workspace.