Soul of a People at Annual Conference

Zora Neale Hurston. Saul Bellow. John Cheever. Richard Wright. Studs Terkel. These are just a few of the thousands of unemployed writers put to work by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). At the ALA Annual Conference, attendees gathered on Sunday afternoon for a special presentation of Soul of A People: Writing America’s Story, a documentary about the Federal Writers’ Project, created by Spark Media. The FWP was a branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the controversial program created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to alleviate the economic and political crisis of the Great Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project produced the American Guides series for states, documented slave stories, and recorded American folk life and lore. Conference goers were treated to an hour-long preview of the film, scheduled to premiere on the Smithsonian Channel HD over Labor Day weekend.

To support the broadcast of Soul of A People, thirty libraries across the country were selected to present programs exploring the Federal Writers’ Project. “Soul of A People” library programs are sponsored by the American Library Association Public Programs Office with generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Even if your library is not participating in the NEH sponsored project, the online “Soul of a People Site Support Notebook” is available to any library interested in presenting programs about the Federal Writers’ Project.

To set the mood, the conference program began with dramatic readings of excerpts from the Federal Writers’ Project city guides, giving attendees a taste of Depression era Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. To contrast these historical texts, several Young Chicago Author participants provided a contemporary interpretation of the city guides through their original works. The Young Chicago Author program encourages self-expression and literacy through creative writing, performance and publication. Federal Writers’ Project authors served to inspire many future generations of writers, including those performing at today’s session.

Documentary filmmaker Andrea Kalin, President and founder of Spark Media, introduced the screening of Soul of A People. Kalin believes the Federal Writers’ Project is not as well-known as other WPA initiatives because of the “sheer scale of materials collected … it is difficult to wrap your arms around” all of the content that exists. She described the Federal Writers’ Project state guidebooks as a “gem"—a snapshot of a moment in history that looks beyond economics and examines our country’s ability to cope through creative expression.

The film, rich in words, images and music, not only praised the Federal Writers’ project as a success, but examined its challenges and controversies. For example, the “American Guides” series painted the cultural details of everyday life, including an unexpected version of America many did not find inspiring. Some individuals felt that the WPA wasted federal money on projects; others believed that Federal Writers’ Project authors were involved in “subversive activities,” ultimately creating a threat to democracy. The film also noted praise for the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives and folk life stories. These documents gave voice to the voiceless and created a record of historical perspectives omitted from traditional history books.

The session ended with a final performance from a Young Chicago Author participant who performed a very personal piece about Chicago’s history and future. This fitting conclusion served as a reminder of the power of words and the unique perspectives each of us bring to the written tapestry of our country’s historical record, and ultimately, our country’s soul.