Working in the Big Easy: The History and Politics of Labor in New Orleans by Thomas Jessen Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Picked this up on for a Tuesday flight out of town and finished it by Thursday. My speed is partly due to the bumpy flights to Portland but more credit should be given to the interesting essays included. Most of these writers research labor or New Orleans as their work, starting with Eric Arensen, the well-known labor writer and author of the landmark book “Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics.” Arensen encapsulates that history here again while taking the time to credit other history and labor writers and researchers in this update. In his essay and in the entire book, a prime topic is the bifurcation of race in New Orleans that has meant black and white class struggles remain separate and rarely equal.
Matheny’s essay on how the two local musician unions (one black and one white) struggled for cohesiveness during the Civil Rights era is a telling story about how cultural connections can often be stretched but how political power remains less elastic. Additionally, the subjugation of new ethnic minorities in the city can be seen in Murga’s excellent day laborer essay that centers on the growing Latino population who toiled at the thankless jobs that grew in those toxic days directly after the 2005 levee breaks, and in the Schneider/Jayaraman ROC essay on the shocking statistics of the restaurant and construction workers. These essays should encourage us all to stand with our sistren and brethren in active support or at least, to tip VERY well and stop honking at those work trucks in front of us. Both of those essays include the researchers process for the data collection which is a nice addition.
The labor and organizing essays are almost all well-researched and definitive, but the historical pieces on work are the choice meat. Ugolini’s piece on African-American women and the market economy, Roberts’ piece on Voodoo economics (not the Reagan version here, but those New Orleans spiritual entrepreneurs) were both engrossing, as was the praline mammy story and its accompanying myth. Writer Nunez presents the last so skillfully that the full shame of those mid-century life-sized dolls chained to the front of the shop door can be felt by even modern readers. I also appreciate the addition of historic terms such as “higglers” (Ugolini) and “hoodoo” (Nunez) which will send me back to the New Orleans WPA guide for further research (is Nunez asserting that hoodoo is a term that denotes voodoo mixed with capitalism? love the idea if so).
Dillard professor and author Nancy Dixon offers a parallel review of the service industry using its appearances in New Orleans literature over the last 200 years (as befits her experience as the editor of the recent anthology N.O. Lit), interwoven with her own personal recollection of waitressing and bartending in some of the infamous holes across town while she worked through college. Her empathetic view of the unequal nature between black and white workers gives another example of the racial segregation that continues to this day.
The last nod of approval goes to the late Michael Mizell-Nelson and his examination of the short-lived unity among the (white) streetcar and (black) gas workers in the 1920s, as well as the sad story of their later resegregation. Having his writing on New Orleans blue-collar work contained in this book gives it an added level of authenticity and hopefully in future editions (Mizell-Nelson passed away in December of 2014), the editors will add a posthumous postscript for New Orleans’ own Streetcar Mike.
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