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.

Intersectionality and the History of Knowledge

On March 6, 2016, at the height of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton or someone on her campaign posted a tweet about intersectionality. Commenting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the accompanying diagram depicted the various issues that had intersected to cause the crisis. This was a curious moment, as a theory with roots in radical feminism was brought to the center, part of a modish interest in intersectionality as an explanatory framework for understanding contemporary America.[1] Indeed, where her main primary challenger was positioned as a more economically progressive choice, Clinton’s supporters often claimed (with varying degrees of sophistication) that in an intersectional sense she was the more properly anti-establishment candidate, over the white male Bernie Sanders.[2] Had Clinton won in November, this discourse of intersectionality would probably have been a main theme of her presidency. That this seemingly centrist liberal set of ideas can be traced to the radical wing of second wave feminism, the New Left, and even Marxism, adds to the curiosity of its move to the political mainstream. Continue reading “Intersectionality and the History of Knowledge”