Chicago — The Other Black Renaissance

Emerging from the sprawling McCormick Place convention center complex, heading southward, you are greeted by a man with a suitcase. He’s 15 feet tall, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and his suit is made of shoe soles. They bear the marks of wear: holes near the ball of the foot, as if they’d been walked in for a long journey, or a long time, or both. The man’s gaze is steely and focused, his chin held high. His free hand is held up like he’s waving hello. As you head south, he’s facing north.

He’s facing north because he represents the legion of blacks who fled the South a century or so ago, seeking lives better than the abject poverty and oppression they knew all too well. They rose up and hit the road in search of work and opportunity. But while this mass migration helped change the nature and character of several northern cities (and Los Angeles too, not to mention the South itself), it will forever be primarily associated with Chicago.

And that’s where this man with a suitcase stands, at the symbolic entry point to Bronzeville, the historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side where hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South relocated. But Bronzeville is more than a cluster of streets and blocks. It’s a mythic site from our history, where black people lived, worked, played, and fought discrimination almost as virulent as that back down South. Many of them suffered extreme poverty and wantonly overstuffed housing conditions, due in large part from resistance from the city and landlords to allowing blacks to live anywhere past Bronzeviile’s confines. But within those confines, blacks not only found opportunity, they created it. They built businesses, started churches, and essentially made a city within a city, with a vitality and energy separate from the rest of Chicago.

Today, that 15-foot statue seems more like a welcoming presence than a figure newly arrived. That’s in large part because of the various efforts over the years, both by the city and by local nonprofits, to rebrand and rebuild Bronzeville as a part of the city with its own unique character and style. But those efforts, which have ebbed and flowed over time along with the economy, speak more to the facts that blacks settled in this area, than to the totality of what they did once they got here

What they did, in essence, was set the tone for 20th century black culture.

Chicago was one of the first major outposts of jazz once its earliest artists left New Orleans. Guitarists and harmonica players with roots in the Mississippi Delta transformed blues music from spare, acoustic tales into music loud enough to be heard over a nightclub crowd, and then all over the world. Others desired a new way to make a joyful noise unto the Lord beyond stately spirituals, and created gospel music from the bedrock of those emerging blues idioms.

There were writers, too. They wrote of their experiences in this new slice of America. Many of them were grounded in an empirical, sociological understanding of the horrid conditions so many South Side blacks endured. Others found common ground with progressive white artists and sponsors. They wrote in close-knit circles, they published wherever they could, they even wrote for the government during the New Deal. They wrote novels, poetry, short stories, reports, and a manifesto or two.

There were visual artists, too. Painters worked in a variety of styles, from portraiture to abstraction, to capture the joy, aspiration and resolve of black life. They too worked together, founding institutions that live on to this day. Photographers, for their part, chronicled the day-to-day life of the South Side, producing numerous iconic American images.

And there were media, too. There was a mighty newspaper, perhaps the most influential American newspaper ever that wasn’t published in New York City. It spread the news of the goings-on in Chicago throughout the land, and helped drive the migration to Chicago. It and smaller papers gave space to writers to develop their creative voices. And a pioneering radio program was the first concerted effort to present black history through mass entertainment media.

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Many of their names are well known: Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, the Chicago Defender, Gordon Parks, Katherine Dunham, Archibald Motley, Thomas A. Dorsey. But there were others: Frank Marshall Davis, Charles White, Earl Hines… too many to try to list properly here. The fact is, from roughly the early ‘30s to the ‘50s, Chicago was black America’s most fruitful cultural capitol.

Even with all that, however, there was a “second city” cloud hanging over all that cultural production. It came, as always, from the east: New York City, Harlem, to be specific. What went on in that slice of Manhattan during the ‘20s captured the American imagination of what black life could be, with its explosion of intellectual and literary genius (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, and on and on and on) and the ebullient sounds of jazz at all hours. That period would become known as the Harlem Renaissance, and occupy a place of reverence in the annals of black cultural history.

While its influence was great, the era was relatively short-lived, not much more than a decade. By contrast, black Chicago’s mid-century heyday of cultural production lasted at least twice as long, and featured some ex-Harlemites in critical roles. And it’s arguable that 21st century black culture is far more reflective of what happened in Chicago than Harlem.

The difference was that what happened in Harlem had that catchy name – “Harlem Renaissance” – and dozens of books written about it. It became something that could be easily framed and studied, and over the years many people did just that. Thus, it became shorthand for the height of black art (even though it was primarily a literary movement, with little parallel activity in visual arts) for pretty much the rest of the century.

Chicago’s peak era, on the other hand, had no simple title to sum it up, and no one to come up with one. Its separate parts were far better known than the whole. It took a dogged professor, Robert Bone, to finally bring all that literature and art and music and dance and academic work under one big tent, and then give that tent a name – the Black Chicago Renaissance.

Bone first declared his sense that there was a lot of cultural history to be mined from mid-century black Chicago in 1975, in his study Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story. Remarking on writer Arna Bontemps, one of those ex-Harlemites who played a key role in Chicago, Bone wrote, “If Bontemps is correct, literary historians should be thinking in terms of the Chicago Renaissance… The torch was passing not only from Harlem to Chicago, but from one generation to the next.”

That idea animated Bone’s work from then on. He officially advanced the notion in a landmark 1986 essay in the journal Callaloo, “Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance”. Centering on the author of Native Son, Bone outlined the network of writers and supporting institutions that blossomed on the South Side in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The essay’s emphasis on Chicago’s literary activity is understandable, since that was Bone’s primary field as an academician. But he didn’t stop digging after publishing that essay, even as other scholars began publishing books about the period. Bone eventually saw the era’s production as ranging across numerous disciplines, and genres within them.

A former student, Richard A. Courage, began working with him on the project in 2006, and took the reins after Bone died the next year. The result of their research is The Muse in Bronzeville: African-American Creative Expression in Chicago 1932-1950 (Rutgers University Press, 2011). It’s a sweeping, comprehensive study of how the Black Chicago Renaissance came to be, beginning with its roots in the University of Chicago’s famed sociology program led by Robert Park (and Park’s own background as right-hand man to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute). It proceeds to tell the story of how Chicago’s black community developed and flexed its artistic muscles. Short profiles of seminal figures open up a larger tale of artists committed to not only their craft, but also their community. Through art, they attempted to tell the story – stories, really – of life on the South Side.

Various books covering the period were published before The Muse in Bronzeville, but it’s the best overall grounding into the field, and just like the period it chronicles, it deserves a wider appreciation. That’s due largely to Bone’s many years of championing the notion; without his curiosity and scholarship, the period might have remained obscure for years untold.

As it happens, in recent years there has been a growing recognition of the Black Chicago Renaissance as a unified movement, at least in Chicago. Each Black History Month around here brings new stories in the media about Chicago’s artistic heritage, and with the 2013 edition just around the corner, there will probably be more.

Formal scholarship on the period continues, as well. Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance (edited by Steven C. Tracy, University of Illinois, 2011) collects chapters on 25 key figures in the literary scene (some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t), plus chapters on music, media and theater. Last year’s anthology The Black Chicago Renaissance (edited by Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey Jr., University of Illinois), goes deeper on various aspects of the period, including the connections between Harlem Renaissance-era jazz and Chicago blues, local and global journalism in the Defender, and the influential American Negro Exposition art show of 1940. The essays reflect the range of discoveries historians are making as they explore this overlooked era. But apart from Hine’s concise overview of the period in the collection’s introduction, there’s not much here that will click for readers without at least an entry-level grounding into the field.

And that’s the emerging problem with all this flowering of research and publication. Since Bone’s 1986 essay, scholars and historians have clearly established not only that there was indeed a Black Chicago Renaissance, but also that it was central to the development of black American culture. But up to this point, it’s a movement only an academician could love, or even likely knows about.

Part of the problem is that any potential sense of discovery for laypeople is muted by their probably already knowing a lot about it. It’s not hard to imagine that anyone interested in black culture has come across the names of Wright, Dunham, Dorsey and Mobley at some point. The major artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance are so well known by now, their impact and influence so widely acknowledged, that there’s little general-audience incentive to draw further connections between them.

Such incentive could possibly come from a book or project that combines the detail and gravitas of the scholarship to date with some pop appeal for the masses, a little sizzle to garnish that steak. But the aforementioned volumes, while each a major contributor to the overarching story, don’t seem to have been marketed to non-academic audiences. The Black Chicago Renaissance especially feels, and often reads, like historians and professors talking to historians and professors. There’s an obvious value to the work they’ve done, but the next phase in developing an appreciation of this era should be finding a way to make it accessible, tangible and exciting to people who aren’t already steeped in it.

One way might be a Black Chicago Renaissance history tour, which would be especially fruitful since there are major landmarks and vestiges from the era still standing (including the DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in 1961 by Dr. Margaret Burroughs and others who were active during the Renaissance, and the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, housed at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library). In fact, one such package was offered last year for educators: “Renaissance in the Black Metropolis: Chicago, 1930-1950,” a Landmarks of American History and Culture program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities in conjunction with the Chicago Metro History Fair. But it’s not on tap for 2013, with educators instead referred to an online teaching guide.

It doesn’t help that Chicago, while proud of its contributions to American culture, hasn’t always been shrewd about packaging that legacy for modern times. Its musical heritage is a screaming case in point. One would think that the birthplace of modern blues and gospel would have some sort of signature markers of it: a museum, a hall of fame, even a street where the music is celebrated. But no, there’s nothing here to tell the casual visitor that art forms that have traveled the world grew their respective wings here.

Efforts to create something of a music history/entertainment district around the location of Chess Records’ recording studio have proceeded with fits and starts over time, usually much more of the former. The former Chess studio is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, named for the label’s legendary songwriter and bassist, but there isn’t all that much to see there and it isn’t on the radar of anyone but the most devoted blues pilgrims. Similarly, plans were announced last summer for a Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum in Bronzeville to open in the fall, but it has yet to come to fruition.

One could chalk that up to the problem of getting modern audiences interested in music that even smacks of bygone times. But how, then, to explain the city’s abject failure to adequately market its diverse musical history and culture, which includes not only blues and gospel but the free jazz movement of the ‘60s (and still going), an epicenter of the folk music boom, a major punk scene in the ‘80s, a still-vibrant house music community, and a Big Five symphony orchestra?

A bigger problem facing celebrants of the Black Chicago Renaissance may be the most elemental one. How do you make people care about history when the present day is so ripe with carnage and despair? We just ended a year with more than 500 homicides in Chicago, most of them happening to and by the hands of young black men. A tour of Black Chicago Renaissance sites would reveal long stretches of emptiness and poverty between them. Bronzeville’s revered entertainment and commerce strips – 31st Street, 47th Street – are now but shadows of their once-bustling selves, in varying states of rebound. While it would be nice to see some significant investment in black Chicago’s cultural history, it’s the here and now that is in desperate need of, at the minimum, a civic laying-on of hands. Creating decent jobs and functional public schools are complicated and daunting issues, but far more pressing than an afternoon bus tour.

The work of Bone and the scholars and historians who have followed in his wake is admirable, valuable and important. But it’s going to take a different kind of energy for those championing the Black Chicago Renaissance to achieve mass awareness of it as a distinct cultural period. Perhaps a major touring exhibit, collecting significant examples of the arts, music and letters under one roof? Or instead of a series of research papers, how about a lavish coffee-table book with pictures and documents of the times (and a companion cd of the music if licensing arrangements can be forged)? Or at the very least, a website geared more to the curious masses than to students and educators?

The professors have done their job, and they’ll probably uncover even more stories to tell. But the biggest difference between the Black Chicago Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance is brand awareness. The latter has had that for generations, and the former just recently hung out its shingle. If black Chicago’s cultural legacy is ever to be universally acknowledged as the glorious, influential and unified whole it was, it will require energetic and savvy marketing, creative programming, and more than a few buckets of cash. A mighty task to be sure, but not impossible. After all, working in much more dire circumstances, a community of artists on these very streets once imagined and created a whole wide world.