Dorothy West

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Works Progress Administration, financed by the federal government during the Great Depression in the 1930s, was the largest public relief project ever attempted. It set thousands of unemployed Americans to work building roads and bridges, sweeping streets, and, through its Writers Project, recording daily life.

In New York City, aspiring African American writers such as like Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West earned weekly paychecks as they probed Harlem, the unofficial capital of black America. Ellison wrote edgy, political tales; Hurston sought out “folklore,” and West, raised in an insular middle-class community in Massachusetts, turned her observant and ironic eye on Harlem “society” and a particular kind of woman.

The party West recorded in 1939 took place in a four-room flat filled with “a surge of varicolored faces, the warm white of fair Negroes, the pale white of whites, through yellows and browns to rusty black.” The hostess, graduate of a “first-class Negro college” was, as West described her, a mannered, taxi-riding woman who “hates to come home late at night in a subway with a lot of funny-looking derelicts” and who had written four o’clock on the invitations-“cause I know colored folks, and I knew they’d start coming around six.” The hostess was surprised by white guests who “don’t keep c.p. time.”

An inexpert maid turns out to be the janitor’s wife dressed up in cap and apron, with one black shoelace, the other “white, ink-stained black.” West archly describes the divans, cigarette holders, actresses, Communist organizers, the badly “cut”-diluted–liquor and the guests’ talk about the Spanish Civil War and Germany’s pogroms against Jews. The man of the house, southern-born, “wished we were all down South, celebrating the Near Year right, with black-eyed peas and hogshead.” His wife calls him drunk and “coldly” tells him to go and eat.”

Dorothy West’s writing career spanned seven decades. Her 1995 novel, “The Wedding,” became a bestseller and a television drama produced by Oprah Winfrey. But West’s original, savvy, warm and witty view of the panorama of black culture, including the skin-color bigotry and fakery in some quarters, was all in that New Year’s sketch, recently excavated from dusty archives. She died in 1998.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].