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Blair LM Kelley discusses the history of the Black working class in new book

Blair LM Kelley speaks about her new book, "Black Folk" in The Sonja Haynes Stone Center on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.

The room was full, but people were still coming in. 

This was the scene on Thursday in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. It was another installment of their Writers Discussion Series, featuring Blair LM Kelley and her latest book, "Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class." 

Kelley is the director of the Center for the Study of the American South and a Joel R. Williamson distinguished professor of southern studies at UNC. 

"Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class" contains two centuries worth of stories spanning — including Kelley’s own telling of her working-class roots — and presents a personal, researched-based perspective on the experience of Black workers that honors the value of their labor. 

Through the book and its research, Kelley wanted to tackle the obscurity of the Black working class in today’s media, broadening the context of who the working class — specifically, the Black working class — is.

“One of the draws, one of the reasons we wanted to have Dr. Kelley come give a talk about her book was the very refreshing manner in which the story of African American labor is told in her book,” Sheriff Drammeh, the senior program manager at the Stone Center, said. 

Drammeh, the event's administrator, said the book is research-based but still accessible for readers outside of academia, which is a refreshing way to tell the story.

Hallie Brew, a sophomore at UNC who works alongside Kelley at the Center for the Study of the American South, attended the event. 

Being biracial and an American Studies major, she said she went to learn about how the Black population in the South makes up the working class, as well as Kelley’s historical perspective. 

Elizabeth Pham, a UNC junior majoring in medical anthropology, heard about the event through a class, Anthropology 448: Health and Medicine in the American South.

“I feel like there is a lot of controversy surrounding [inequalities faced by minority populations]," Pham said. "But I think this topic specifically is important because it's not something that people feel comfortable talking about, and it's something that should be talked about and researched more into."

One of the main themes Kelley brought up during the discussion was the historical erasure of Black workers and even specific experiences, like those of agricultural workers, domestic workers and laundresses.

“I think the Black experience is not informed enough of how we think and talk about work in this country,” Kelley said to the audience. 

Kelley also talked about Black labor before and outside of the experience of enslavement. When Black laborers were mistreated as property during enslavement, got traded and moved around the country, Kelley said that they still understood their purpose and the value of their labor. 

During her genealogical research for this book, Kelley said she found a beautiful gravestone that enabled her to trace back to ancestors from the early 1800s before slavery was abolished. 

According to Drammeh, the most striking part of the book is how Kelley weaves in her personal story through detail that resonates with the readers’ personal experience.

“I think for every African American or every person of African American descent, they can look back in their own ancestry or around them and see that's the person that Dr. Kelly's talking about, even though that's not the name, but they can identify with some of the historical similarities of those stories,” Drammeh said.

He said that readers can also apply knowledge from this book to the people working around them, which may include service jobs and essential workers.

The Writers’ Discussion Series is not just a one-way learning experience, said Drammeh. The value also comes from enlightening interactions with the writers and each other.

On Thursday, he said he was grateful and affirmed to see that 150 people, more than those who pre-registered, were in attendance.

“I encourage students, and everyone to just join us to learn more about the center, all of the programming that happens there and all of the opportunities that are available to network, to learn and to better understand the African American and African Diaspora experience, history, culture, art and expression,” Drammeh said. 

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