“I’m a Woman Who Knows Her Own Mind”: Narratives of Black Interiority in Washington, D.C., 1919–42

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:40 PM
Washington Room 4 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Paula Austin, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Early scholars of African American urban history identified the stories of either the educated, uplifted accomplished elite, or of a culturally depressed monolithic urban mass in need of the alleviation of structural obstacles to advancement. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we saw the emergence of a more textured history of the black working class: life, culture, community, labor movements, and festivals. But a history of the poor and working class as individuals with both ideas and subjectivity has been difficult simply because there are limited qualitative records.

This paper posits that data collected and other materials created by sociologists and social workers in the Progressive era’s burgeoning field of social science provides historians with a rich archive for studying the every day lives and articulated thoughts of this under-studied population. While sociological and social welfare materials have been criticized for contributing to the racialization of crime and the pathologization of black urban life, this paper shows that they also present a complexity of daily existence that transcends the instrumental renderings of black pathology and the narrow configuration of the black experience. This archive accentuates black interiority and the quotidian aspects of black poor and working class women’s and young people’s experiences and makes space for a disaggregate look at varied conceptions and interpretations or understandings of political action, educational possibilities and aspirations, citizenship, family, and comportment as articulated by black poor and working class individuals themselves.