Gender & Sexual IdentityNLF HighlightsWorking-Class Culture

Portraying the Working-Class

NLF Highlights for February 19th

Some of the best of what New Labor Forum has to offer comes in the form of the artwork we publish and review. In addition to printing poetry in each issue, NLF Books & the Arts Editor Gabriel Winant ensures that we carry appraisals of fine arts exhibits, film, theater, and literature, as well as books you might expect. And our “Out of the Mainstream” listing curated by Matt Witt provides brief synopses of films and books less widely reviewed, but of likely interest to our readers.

In this installment of the newsletter, we offer a review by Adom Getachew (due out in our May issue) on a current exhibit “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers.” This show is on view through Sept. 3, 2018 at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a venue much better known for Presidential portraiture than for the enslaved childcare worker, bobbin girl, powerhouse mechanic, sandwich maker, and other laborers included in this show.

And we include from the current issue of the journal the poem “Winter after the Strike” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Gregory Pardlo, who writes with poignant grace of his childhood as the son of a local union leader in the tragic PATCO strike of 1981. Also on the subject of the PATCO strike, Pardlo’s new book, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, is due out in April 2018.

On the theme of new and forthcoming books, NLF Editor-at-Large Steve Fraser’s Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion is due out next month. In his latest book, Fraser examines six signposts of American history—the settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown; the ratification of the Constitution; the Statue of Liberty; the cowboy; the “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev; and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—to explore just how pervasively class has shaped our national conversation, despite our best efforts to pretend it doesn’t.

And finally, in the run-up to the Academy Awards, we direct your attention to a recent New York Times review of three Oscar-nominated documentary shorts featuring working-class protagonists and themes: Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e), Kate Davis’ Traffic Stop, and Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie.

Table of Contents

  1. Review: Portrait of the Worker as a Black Woman/ Adom Getachew, New Labor Forum
  2. Poem: “Winter After the Strike”/ Gregory Pardlo, New Labor Forum
  3. Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion/ Steve Fraser, Yale University Press
  4. Review: In the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, Moving Portraits and Visceral Stories/ Ben Kenigsberg, New York Times

Review: Portrait of the Worker as a Black Woman 

By Adom Getachew/ New Labor Forum

Portraiture as an artistic tradition emerged from the rise of the European bourgeoisie. It was a mirror that a new ruling class held up to itself, better to preen. That portraiture has largely been limited to representing political and economic elites whose lives are considered heroic or otherwise exemplary is not lost on any visitor to the National Portrait Gallery, which is home to the “nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.” But right next to the presidential portraits, a new exhibition, “The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers,” on view until September 3, 2018, seeks to rethink and expand portraiture. Curated by Dorothy Moss, the Portrait Gallery’s Painting and Sculpture curator, and historian emeritus David C. Ward, the nearly 100 objects offer representations of American workers from the antebellum era to the present…

Read the full review here. 

Poem: “Winter After the Strike”

by Gregory Pardlo/ New Labor Forum

“You believe,
if you cast wide enough

your net of want and will, something meaningful
will respond. Perhaps we are the response—

each a cresting echo hesitating, vibrant with the moment
before rippling back.

But you’re steadfast as Odysseus strapped to the mast, as you were
in ’81 when Reagan ordered you back to work. You were President

of the union local you steered with your working-man’s voice,
the voice that ground the Ptolemaic ballet of air traffic to a temporary stop…”

Read the full poem here. 

Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion

by Steve FraserYale University Press

From the decks of the Mayflower straight through to Donald Trump’s “American carnage,” class has always played a role in American life. In this remarkable work, Steve Fraser twines our nation’s past with his own family’s history, deftly illustrating how class matters precisely because Americans work so hard to pretend it doesn’t.

He examines six signposts of American history—the settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown; the ratification of the Constitution; the Statue of Liberty; the cowboy; the “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev; and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—to explore just how pervasively class has shaped our national conversation. With a historian’s intellectual command and a riveting narrative voice, Fraser interweaves these examples with his own past—including his false arrest on charges of planning to blow up the Liberty Bell during the Civil Rights era—to tell a story both urgent and timeless…

More information here. 

Review: In the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, Moving Portraits and Visceral Stories

by Ben Kenigsberg / New York Times

In some years, watching the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts is the easiest way to spot the winner. This year there are plausible rationalizations for all five. The front-runner is probably Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “Heroin(e),” which bears the imprimatur of Netflix, the company that took this statuette last year with “The White Helmets.” The most visceral of the nominees, it addresses an issue in the news–the opioid epidemic– with ….

Read the full article here.

Subscribe to New Labor Forum

Do you subscribe to New Labor Forum, our publication for labor and its allies to test and debate new ideas?  In this new year, consider giving your favorite friends and colleagues a subscription too. Three times a year scholars, journalists, labor leaders and activists explore topics like the global economy’s impact on work and labor; new union organizing and political strategies; labor’s new constituencies and their relationship to organized labor’s traditional institutions; internal union reform and new structural models for the labor movement; alternative economic and social policies; and the role of culture in a new, revitalized labor movement. It is required reading for anyone who is concerned with issues of work, workers, and social change. Subscribe now to get each issue of New Labor Forum.