The demonstrations in Madison may give us an idea, but, apart from uprisings like this one, American workers have had little or no public voice since the Reagan era. The 19th- and early 20th-century tradition of workers writing their own stories and putting out their own newspapers is long gone. In situations of organised struggle, such as we've been witnessing in Wisconsin and Indiana, workers can find a collective voice and break the silence. But these situations are rare.
Forty years ago, oral historians and writers like Studs Terkel went around recording the lives of working people; the closest thing we have to such efforts today are NPR and StoryCorps. On the rare occasions that the mainstream media run stories about workers, these stories are filed by professional journalists and, while one or two workers may be quoted, "experts" will probably be brought in to do the heavy lifting.
Economic censorship is fundamental to class society. From childhood, working people are trained to be voiceless. Kids in well-off neighbourhoods are encouraged to speak up and be creative, while kids in poor and working-class neighbourhoods are taught not to question teachers or other authorities. Teens in urban schools are policed and warehoused, equipped for little but submission in the workplace – those who can still find jobs. Since the US poor are so largely black and Latino, the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline runs through the ghetto. Silencing is also shaped by gender: working-class boys are expected to talk with their fists, while working-class girls are assumed to chatter but say nothing of any importance. Stories of the rich and famous are everywhere, but stories of working people are hard to find and mostly written by others.
Which is why getting people to write for themselves makes such a difference. I recently had the experience of teaching some night school classes in writing. Most of my students were black or Latina women who work for New York City and whose tuition was subsidised by their unions.
I am not an experienced teacher but, when the coordinator of the Queens College Urban Studies programme extension in Manhattan asked me if I would like to teach city workers, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to teach a course like the one my friend Mariella Sala, a Peruvian writer, taught in Lima. She developed a course in writing personal memoirs at the University of San Marcos, where most of the students are poor or working-class. After I attended one of her classes and saw what a wonderful spirit of community the students had, I resolved to try to do what she did, here.
When they started my most recent course at the Joseph S Murphy Labour Institute, many students were worried. They felt uncomfortable as writers; they knew their grammar was poor – the primary language of many was Spanish. Worse, they were sure they would have nothing interesting to say.
The key to changing that was finding readings that gave the students a sense of doors opening in their minds. We read memoirs by James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, John Edgar Wideman, Malcolm X and others. But we talked about more than writing, for, as the students got to know one another, the class became a safe space to write and talk about marital problems, conflicts with children or aged parents, horrible childhood experiences, or sickness and death in the family. This was particularly true in one class, in which the students were all women. It is now clear to me that, if the left ever wants to connect with working women, it will have to address more than economic issues: parents, kids, relationships and mental and physical health loom far larger in most people's lives than workplace problems.
From the start, I promised that we would produce a book at the end of the course. The new print-on-demand technology makes it possible to produce a real book at a reasonable cost (it can be ordered here or downloaded direct). I will never forget the astonished pride on the faces of my students when they saw the book, Night School Voices, and, even more, when they gave a public reading.
I hope people will read our book, because the stories in it are wonderful – stories of violence, passion, brutal parents, defiant kids: all that good stuff! But I want more than readers. I hope that other people will use this model to teach such courses, more workers will become confident writers, and maybe even, eventually, the American working class will develop its own strong public voice. As the workers of Wisconsin have begun to show us, people in the US need to hear the voices of the people who actually keep this society going. We need to hear them in a swelling chorus – so much more interesting than the usual mosquito buzz of media nattering on about the rich and famous.