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Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story Under the WPA
Tuesday, December 12, 2017 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Join us for a screening of “Soul of a People” and discussion of the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project, active between 1935 and 1942. We will be joined by the film’s director, Andrea Kalin; Maribel Gray and Antonio Alcala, designers of the WPA posters commissioned by USPS this year; and Dr. Dana Williams, Professor of African American Literature and Chair of English at Howard University, who will highlight Zora Neale Hurston’s contribution to the project.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration to spur the economy by hiring millions of unemployed people for public projects to build roads, bridges and schools. The WPA became a political lightning rod. Newspaper cartoons lampooned WPA workers for wasting taxpayer money, and public polls ranked the WPA as both the best and worst part of FDR’s New Deal. Congress designated a small part of WPA funds for the arts including the Federal Writers’ Project, which hired jobless clerks, journalists, librarians, nurses and poets. For thousands of those WPA writers, documenting American life for the WPA was the first time they were paid to write or able to call themselves writers.
The WPA writers nationwide had a mandate to produce state and city travel guides, called the American Guide series. They also conducted life-history interviews with citizens that paved the way for oral histories and StoryCorps interviews today. In those books and interviews, they assembled a portrait of America on an unprecedented scale. In the process, they also stirred controversy about what was American and un-American.
The film, “Soul of a People,” explores one of the most controversial public assistance programs of its time and illustrates the creation of America’s first ever self-portrait.
Co-hosted by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation