African-American literature, authors central to Labor Department’s "Books that Shaped Work in America" project

Logo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Labor
Thursday, December 12, 2013 - 7:50pm

From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” African-American literature and authors are represented in the titles of fiction, nonfiction, plays and poetry included on the initial roll of Books that Shaped Work in America.

The Web-based project, www.dol.gov/books, part of the U.S. Department of Labor ongoing commemoration of its 100th anniversary, and in partnership with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, aims to engage the public about the department's mission and America's history as a nation of workers as portrayed through published works. The project serves as an online book club where people from all walks of life can share books that informed them about occupations and careers, molded their views about work and helped elevate the discourse about work, workers and workplaces. At the same time, the site provides a unique way for people to learn about the mission and resources of the U.S. Department of Labor.

"The Books that Shaped Work in America initiative explores the dignity of work and our progress in expanding America's fundamental promise of opportunity for all through the lens of literature," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. "This progress cannot be understood and fully appreciated without also examining the struggle for access to opportunity and equal rights that has been a part of the American experience, particularly with respect to African Americans in the 20th Century.”

Work, like our nation, is constantly evolving, and so Books that Shaped Work in America is no different. To get it started, 24 individuals, including Perez, eight former secretaries of labor from Democratic and Republican administrations, civil rights leaders, authors and media personalities submitted suggestions. Among the contributors: former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, President of the National Urban League Marc Morial and the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau head Latifa Lyles. Their recommendations are included on the initiative's website, along with brief summaries of each book and links to related U.S. Department of Labor resources. Now the public is invited to expand the list. A simple, online form, which can be found at http://www.dol.gov/books/form, makes it easy for anyone to suggest a book.

From August Wilson’s collection of plays in ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’ to Claude Brown’s ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’ to Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’ many of the books on the list demonstrate the relationship between work and the African-American experience. While workplace discrimination was often a barrier to opportunity, good jobs and hard work was also a tool for overcoming inequality. Many of the books on the list reflect this and demonstrate the positive impact a changing workplace had on the nation. Books like Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ and Nora Zeale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ along with memoirs from Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Height, have influenced the working lives of both those who fought for equal rights and all of us who benefitted from their efforts.

The project was inspired by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress' 2012 Books That Shaped America exhibition, which explored the impact of books on American life and culture. Many of the books in that exhibition had work as a central theme, bringing to light the significant role published works have played in shaping America's view of workers and workplaces throughout its history.

Created in 1913, the mission of the U.S. Department of Labor is to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights. To learn more about the department's history, visit www.dol.gov/100/

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