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Federal Writers' Project

Federal Writers' Project


The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was an arm of the New Deal's Works Project Administration (WPA) that gave employment between 1935 and 1939 to some 4,500 American writers, 106 of them (as of 1937) African-American. The great majority of FWP writers were hired to work on the American Guide Series, a collection of state guidebooks describing the distinctive folkways and histories of the country's different regions, both rural and urban.

A number of prominent African-American writers participated in the FWP. The Illinois project hired Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Willard Motley, Frank Yerby, William Attaway, Fenton Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and Katherine Dunham. The New York projected hired Wright, Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Tom Poston, Charles Cumberbatch, Henry Lee Moon, Roi Ottley, Helen Boardman, Ellen Tarry, and Waring Cuney. Zora Neale Hurston briefly directed the Florida project, and Charles S. Johnson contributed to the Tennessee state guide.

Because federal funding was cut off in 1939, after which various FWP projects reverted to individual states, much FWP material never saw publication. But in addition to the sections on Negro history in several state guides, a number of important studies of black culture were generated by FWP writers from FWP-based research. Urban studies include: McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940); Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices (1941); Ottley and William Weatherby, New World A-Comin': Inside Black America (1943); Ottley, The Negro in New York: An Informal History (1967); Bontemps and Jack Conroy, Anyplace but Here (1966); St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Negro Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945); Moon, Balance of Power: The Negro Vote (1948); and Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1965).

Rural studies, drawn from the FWP's massive interviewing project of over two thousand ex-slaves from eighteen states, include the North Carolina project's These Are Our Lives (1939); the Savannah project's Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940); Roscoe Lewis, The Negro in Virginia (1940); Benjamin Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945); Charles L. Perdue, Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (1976); and George P. Rawick's nineteen-volume The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (1972), subsequently supplemented (1977, 1979) by twenty-two additional volumes.

The materials gathered in the slave narrative collection, while flawed, continue to be widely used in studies of U.S. slavery. Sterling Brown, the FWP's national editor of Negro affairs, encountered resistance from various state project heads who were reluctant to hire black interviewers or to adhere to Brown's goal of eliminating "racial bias [that] does not produce the accurate picture of the Negro in American social history" (Gabbin, 1985, p. 69). But Brown received support from other project directors and managed to insert substantial material about African-American history and culture into many state guides, as well as to foster the ex-slave interviewing project.

Some historians of slavery insist that because most of the FWP interviewers were white, the former slaves engaged in a self-censorship that "lead[s] almost inevitably to a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution where the chief feature of life was mutual love and respect between masters and slaves" (Blassingame, 1975, p. 490). Other historians, however, argue that "a blanket indictment of the interviews is as unjustified as their indiscriminate or uncritical use" and that the interviews constitute "the single most important source of data used to examine the 'peculiar institution' and its collapse" (Yetman, 1984, pp. 189, 209).

In addition to contributing to the state guides and the slave narrative collection, a number of African-American writers wrote and published works of their own during their FWP tenure. Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Tell My Horse (1938), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939); Attaway worked on Blood on the Forge (1941); Wright published Uncle Tom's Children and wrote Native Son (both in 1940); Bontemps published Drums at Dusk (1939); and Walker wrote an unpublished novel about Chicago ghetto life, Goose Island, as well as an early draft of Jubilee (eventually published in 1966).

The FWP experience did not simply provide these writers with financial support but significantly shaped the content and perspective of their writing. The project provided Hurston with recording equipment and transportation, enabling her to deepen her already established interests as a folklorist. Attaway's Blood on the Forge and Wright's Twelve Million Black Voices, which depict the cultural dislocation of southern sharecroppers in the industrial North, reflect central concerns of the Illinois project. Wright's Native Son was profoundly shaped by the FWP-based urban sociology of Cayton and Drake's emerging Chicago School. Ellison's Invisible Man (1953), which treats black experience as both distinctly African American and broadly human, reflected the FWP's characteristic insistence that the United States is a harmonious blend of distinct cultural particularities.

The work performed by black writers in the FWP showed the project's preoccupation with the nation's diverse folkways. The FWP's distinct approach to diversity cannot be fully understood, however, apart from the influence of the cultural politics espoused by the leftspecifically, the Communist Party of the United Statesin the era of the Popular Front (19351939). The FWP was not, as was claimed in 1939 by House Un-American Activities Committee head Martin Dies, "doing more to spread Communist propaganda than the Communist Party itself" (Penkower, 1977, p. 195). But a number of FWP writers, black and white, worked in the orbit of the left. The admixture of localism and universalism pervading many works of the FWP was strongly influenced by the cultural left's pluralistic project of seeking the "real America" in "the people."

See also Black Arts Movement; Bontemps, Arna; Brown, Sterling Allen; Cayton, Horace; Communist Party of the United States; Drake, St. Clair; Dunham, Katherine; Ellison, Ralph; Folklore; Great Depression and the New Deal; Harlem Renaissance; Hurston, Zora Neale; Literature of the United States; McKay, Claude; Slave Narratives; Wright, Richard

Bibliography

Blassingame, James W. "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems." Journal of Southern History 41 (1975): 473492.

Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.

Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 19351943. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1972.

Penkower, Monty Noam. The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Yetman, Norman R. "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery." American Quarterly 36 (summer 1984): 181210.

barbara clare foley (1996)
Updated bibliography

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