Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class
Named one of Smithsonian's Best Books of 2023
An award-winning historian illuminates the adversities and joys of the Black working class in America through a stunning narrative centered on her forebears.
There have been countless books, articles, and televised reports in recent years about the almost mythic “white working class,” a tide of commentary that has obscured the labor, and even the very existence, of entire groups of working people, including everyday Black workers. In this brilliant corrective, Black Folk, acclaimed historian Blair LM Kelley restores the Black working class to the center of the American story.
Spanning two hundred years—from one of Kelley’s earliest known ancestors, an enslaved blacksmith, to the essential workers of the Covid-19 pandemic—Black Folk highlights the lives of the laundresses, Pullman porters, domestic maids, and postal workers who established the Black working class as a force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Taking jobs white people didn’t want and confined to segregated neighborhoods, Black workers found community in intimate spaces, from stoops on city streets to the backyards of washerwomen, where multiple generations labored from dawn to dusk, talking and laughing in a space free of white supervision and largely beyond white knowledge. As millions of Black people left the violence of the American South for the promise of a better life in the North and West, these networks of resistance and joy sustained early arrivals and newcomers alike and laid the groundwork for organizing for better jobs, better pay, and equal rights.
As her narrative moves from Georgia to Philadelphia, Florida to Chicago, Texas to Oakland, Kelley treats Black workers not just as laborers, or members of a class, or activists, but as people whose daily experiences mattered—to themselves, to their communities, and to a nation that denied that basic fact. Through affecting portraits of her great-grandfather, a sharecropper named Solicitor, and her grandmother, Brunell, who worked for more than a decade as a domestic maid, Kelley captures, in intimate detail, how generation after generation of labor was required to improve, and at times maintain, her family’s status. Yet her family, like so many others, was always animated by a vision of a better future. The church yards, factory floors, railcars, and postal sorting facilities where Black people worked were sites of possibility, and, as Kelley suggests, Amazon package processing centers, supermarkets, and nursing homes can be the same today. With the resurgence of labor activism in our own time, Black Folk presents a stirring history of our possible future.
Praise for Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class
In Black Folk, Blair LM Kelley ties the exodus of another six million or so to a moving memoir of Black family migration, as well as to the wider sweep of time from slavery to the present. . . . Black Folk also has a bone to pick. When we think of ‘the American working class,’ we think of whites, she notes. But much of that class is Black, and, compared with white laborers, a higher proportion of all Black people are part of it. . . . The 2024 election cycle has barely begun, and Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already made their way to Detroit to court working-class voters. Some foresee a replay of the North-South civil war, with Donald Trump playing to the Southernization of the North and Joe Biden to the Northernization of the South. Race is again central, and we’re having a hard time talking about it. The very human stories in [this book] could be just the thing to break the ice.
— Arlie Russell Hochschild - New York Times Book Review
'Black Folk’ . . . [is] a groundbreaking account of the Black working class in the generations that have come after Juneteenth . . . Juneteenth recognizes and honors a struggle that continues. Like Labor Day, it recognizes the past successes and undermining of workers as well as the unfinished work left to secure equity for them. Amid increasing efforts to criminalize and erase Black history, what better day to shine a spotlight on what Black labor has endured, and the overdue compensation their descendants are owed?”
— Jamil Smith - Los Angeles Times
[O]ne of the greatest books I have read about labor in America. The fascinating, revealing, at times heartbreaking—yet inspiring—319-page volume chronicles the role of the Black working class who contributed mightily to this country’s wealth and development as a global superpower.
— Thomasi McDonald - INDY Week
Remember how totally dry your high school history books were? Yeah, this is nothing like those. ‘Black Folk’ lets readers get to actually know people who lived a century ago or more. It’s like being carefully handed a living, breathing story to hold.
— Times Weekly
Kelley's indictment of the systemic barriers that have affected countless Black families in work, housing, and more begins with her own family history of enslaved ancestors . . . [Black Folk] explores the topic of the Black working class in America by following a clear chronology, adding a necessary subtopic to the field of contemporary labor studies.
— A.E. Siraki, Booklist, starred review
[A] poignant and celebratory chronicle of Black labor movements in America. Alongside more well-known stories, such as the unionization of Pullman porters, Kelley also sheds new light on Black women’s contributions to labor struggles . . . Full of persuasive insights into Black working-class life and the legacy of communal care spearheaded by Black women, this is a powerful reimagining of the history of labor in the U.S.
— Publishers Weekly
Award-winning historian Kelley, director of the Center for the Study of the American South and author of Right To Ride, provides a powerful counter to the assumption that the term working class refers only to Whites. Rather, she argues convincingly, Black workers have been the nation’s ‘most active, most engaged, most informed, and most impassioned working class.’ . . . A well-researched, engaging, corrective American history.
— Kirkus Reviews
Brings a dazzling blend of compassion, storytelling, and deep research to a subject that is vital to anyone aiming to understand the future direction of American politics and the nation itself.
— Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
Black Folk is at once a love song, a blues, and an epic account of the Black working class in the United States. In lyrical prose, Blair LM Kelley draws on her own family history to tell the story of how Black laborers built, fed, repaired, served, cleaned, cared for, enriched, and worked to democratize this country. By tracing the roots of the Black working class, Kelley reveals the history of the whole nation. The toils of ‘Black folk’ made the soul of America.
— Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
Black Folk is a revelation, indeed one of the most important works of history to come across my desk in a long time. . . . Far from a small nameless and faceless group, the Black working class has been and continues to be the very heart of dignified working America and the animating force behind so much of our unique American culture.
— Michael Eric Dyson