The Writing Lesson

Woman seated at table, looking at book, pencil in hand, about to something
The Writing Lesson  by Morris Schulman, sponsored by the WPA, ca. 1935–43, and digitized by the New York Public Library.

This image of a middled-aged African American woman won’t let go of me. Seated at a table doing her writing lessons, many years of experience clearly visible on her face, she reminds me that much knowledge is not bound up in the written word. At the same time, her patient work suggests the power of the written word. She clearly wants  to learn how to write. Why? Perhaps she was part of the Great Migration and her urban life required new skills or offered new opportunities? Perhaps it was a point of pride or so that she could read and respond to texts important to her emotional or spiritual life?

The picture also embodies learning by the artist through the Works Progress Administration. Besides reminding me about the techniques and skills the WPA fostered, it makes me wonder about the personal encounters between different worlds that the production of this piece must have entailed. What did those involved take away from the experience?

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC.