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Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance

Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 536
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    Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance
    Book Description:

    Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance comprehensively explores the contours and content of the Black Chicago Renaissance, a creative movement that emerged from the crucible of rigid segregation in Chicago's "Black Belt" from the 1930s through the 1960s. Heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance of white writers, its participants were invested in political activism and social change as much as literature, art, and aesthetics. The revolutionary writing of this era produced some of the first great accolades for African American literature and set up much of the important writing that came to fruition in the Black Arts Movement._x000B__x000B_The volume covers a vast collection of subjects, including many important writers such as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry as well as cultural products such as black newspapers, music, and theater. The book includes individual entries by experts on each subject; a discography and filmography that highlight important writers, musicians, films, and cultural presentations; and an introduction that relates the Harlem Renaissance, the White Chicago Renaissance, the Black Chicago Renaissance, and the Black Arts Movement._x000B__x000B_Contributors are Robert Butler, Robert H. Cataliotti, Maryemma Graham, James C. Hall, James L. Hill, Michael Hill, Lovalerie King, Lawrence Jackson, Angelene Jamison-Hall, Keith Leonard, Lisbeth Lipari, Bill V. Mullen, Patrick Naick, William R. Nash, Charlene Regester, Kimberly Ruffin, Elizabeth Schultz, Joyce Hope Scott, James Smethurst, Kimberly M. Stanley, Kathryn Waddell Takara, Steven C. Tracy, Zoe Trodd, Alan Wald, Jamal Eric Watson, Donyel Hobbs Williams, Stephen Caldwell Wright, and Richard Yarborough.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09342-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-14)
    Steven C. Tracy

    Even the seasoned critic writing on the subject under consideration here can fall unconsciously and automatically into writingHarlemRenaissance rather thanChicagoRenaissance. That is how prominent the Harlem movement still is in the minds of scholars of African American literature: it is mere second nature to write “Harlem” with “Renaissance.” Not that the Harlem Renaissance is not supremely important. Some scholars believe—though fortunately not all of them—that not much of literary value was written by African Americans before the pivotal era that produced Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Wallace...

  5. ROBERT S. ABBOTT (November 28, 1868–February 29, 1940)
    (pp. 15-29)
    Charlene Regester

    Robert S. Abbott was editor and publisher of theChicago Defender—one of the longest surviving, widely circulated, and politically active black newspapers in the United States. Abbott was a pivotal force at the turn of the twentieth century because of the power and influence wielded by his paper. He emerged during the first Chicago Literary Renaissance, a movement that was initially launched by white literary figures from around 1912 through the 1930s and included those such as Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, and Upton Sinclair. A second wave of this movement...

  6. WILLIAM A. ATTAWAY (November 19, 1911–June 17, 1986)
    (pp. 30-52)
    Richard Yarborough

    William Attaway’s literary reputation rests upon two novels—Let Me Breathe Thunder(1939) andBlood on the Forge(1941)—that establish him as an exceedingly important black fictive voice of his generation. Most notably, his depiction inBlood on the Forgeof the tragic physical and spiritual toll taken by the Northern industrial mills on black laborers from the South remains one of the most vivid and compelling dramatizations of the underside of the Great Migration in U.S. literature. In addition, even though he never published another novel in the wake of this magnificent accomplishment, Attaway did not, in fact,...

  7. CLAUDE A. BARNETT (September 16, 1889–August 2, 1967)
    (pp. 53-59)
    Bill V. Mullen

    Claude Barnett, along with the founders of theChicago DefenderandEbonymagazine Robert S. Abbott and John Johnson, respectively, stands as one of the three most important African American media entrepreneurs in Chicago in the twentieth century. The founder of the Associated Negro Press, the first Black news service in the country, Barnett significantly advanced the role of the Black Press in Chicago and nationally from 1919 to after World War II. An innovator in press coverage, news sharing, advertising, and public relations, Barnett professionalized Black journalism and displayed a middle-road commitment to racial progress and civil rights. He...

    (pp. 60-68)
    Lovalerie King

    In Henry Blakely’s poem, “What If,” the speaker poses the dual question, “What if the atoms of my breath / be galaxies, / and all man’s great philosophies / his fear of death?”¹ Like so many of his other poems, “What If ” displays the poet’s deeply contemplative nature, his need to pose the existential question. Blakely was born in 1916 to Henry Lowington and Pearl Telley Blakely; his maternal family background included Kentucky slavery. His mother’s family settled in Chicago where Pearl met Henry Blakely I at Wendell Phillips High School. Their marriage yielded three sons, Henry, Julius, and...

  9. ALDEN BLAND (1911–1992)
    (pp. 69-75)
    Joyce Hope Scott

    In the early 1930s, as the famed Harlem Renaissance of black cultural achievement was winding down, a new surge of African American creativity, activism, and scholarship began to flower in the South Side Chicago district. This new “Chicago Renaissance” was fueled by two unprecedented social and economic conditions: the “Great Migration,” mass movement of Southern blacks to Chicago in search of economic opportunity and perceived safety from lynch mob rule, and the crisis of the Great Depression that followed. They were fleeing the pervasive white violence and racism of the South, which kept African Americans endangered, impoverished, and dispossessed.


  10. EDWARD BLAND (February 2, 1908–March 20, 1945)
    (pp. 76-82)
    Lawrence Jackson

    As a phenomenon of American literary history, the Chicago Renaissance that began in the second half of the 1930s is most significant for its articulation of an almost complete break with the “Harlem” or “New Negro” Renaissance of the 1920s. The radical tenor of the artists associated with the Chicago movement developed in two distinct forms: the social realism and literary protest of the 1930s and early 1940s, and the high modernism of the second half of the 1940s. The early work of Richard Wright, the early short stories of Frank Yerby, Frank Marshall Davis’s poetry, the novels of William...

  11. MARITA BONNER (OCCOMY) (June 16, 1898–December 6, 1971)
    (pp. 83-95)
    Kimberly N. Ruffin

    Born in 1898, Marita Bonner’s life and writing career are marked by the imprint of three different cities: Boston, Washington, D.C., and most extensively, Chicago. Rather than focus on the lives of the middle-class Blacks that her own life mirrored, Bonner chose to highlight the lives of the Black working class, leading critics to characterize her work as “proletarian fiction.” The New Negro discourse of the early 1900s from intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke encouraged Black writers to counteract racist thinking and institutions with “racial uplift,” which provided upstanding portraits of Black life. Bonner chose...

  12. GWENDOLYN BROOKS (June 7, 1917–December 3, 2000)
    (pp. 96-120)
    Stephen Caldwell Wright

    The second decade of the twentieth century gave rise to tumultuous activity, global and national. The United States, like most of the world, was reeling from the aftermath of war and what was portrayed as the ultimate quest for freedom, making the world safe for democracy while the democracy itself was flawed. For most Americans, this was a time of hope for prosperity. Many other Americans, however, faced a different scenario, one of struggle for redemption and mere acceptance as Americans. Foremost among these, in a severely race-conscious culture, were people of color, particularly Americans of African heritage. In many...

  13. FRANK LONDON BROWN (October 7, 1927–March 12, 1962)
    (pp. 121-133)
    Michael D. Hill

    Whether depicting a young girl’s suicidal reaction to an unwanted pregnancy or a family’s desperate attempt to integrate a neighborhood, Frank London Brown writes about everyday folks and their revelatory encounters with crisis. His works show the sociological imprints that mark his predecessors, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright; however, Brown’s faith in black culture tempers his blunt portrayals of alienating industrialization and institutional racism. His is one of the most celebratory voices in the Chicago Renaissance. Where others stress the city’s ability to erode the individual’s will, Brown unearths the rituals that prepare a hurting soul for redemption. His writings...

  14. ALICE C. BROWNING (November 5, 1907–October 15, 1985)
    (pp. 134-140)
    Bill V. Mullen

    Alice Browning’s cultural entrepreneurship and dedication to local literary production provided important contributions to Chicago’s Black Renaissance. A shrewd literary gadfly, and a modestly gifted writer, Browning symbolized the inclusive spirit of the Renaissance as well as its paradoxical tendencies toward both critical engagement with pressing social issues of the day and overt commercialization of African American culture. Her primary work as editor and publisher also signifies the rise and expanding impact of the Black Press during and after World War II.

    The daughter of a minister, Browning was a graduate of Chicago’s Englewood High School, Chicago Normal School, and...

  15. DAN BURLEY (November 7, 1907–October 29, 1962)
    (pp. 141-149)
    Kimberly Stanley

    The “hepcat” that reworked the famous children’s nighttime prayer “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” was Dan Burley, an integral figure in Chicago during the 1930s. The outburst of creativity that took place during the Chicago Renaissance was often linked if not compared to the Harlem Renaissance. The cultural and creative achievements that had taken place in Harlem, by the mid 1930s, seemed to be taking shape in Chicago as well. Music, art, literature, and journalism were part of Chicago’s growing urban environment. Journalism, in particular, kept blacks, some who had recently migrated to Chicago from such states as...

  16. MARGARET ESSE DANNER (January 12, 1915–May 1, 1986)
    (pp. 150-160)
    Keith D. Leonard

    Though she is not as well-known as some of her contemporaries and has not received as much critical attention, poet, editor, and activist Margaret Danner was a central figure in the emergence out of the Midwest of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In her five volumes of poetry, Danner was among the first African American poets to celebrate a continuity between African American culture and West African art and to treat the multiple African, European, and American heritages of African American people as a source of strength for the artist, not a liability. Such...

  17. FRANK MARSHALL DAVIS (December 31, 1905–July 26, 1987)
    (pp. 161-184)
    Kathryn Waddell Takara

    In Chicago, between 1934 and 1948, Frank Marshall Davis embodied a Renaissance figure who played multiple roles: a poet, newspaper reporter, editor, columnist, labor and Civil Rights activist, photographer, radio personality, humanist, and often unacknowledged leader of the Chicago progressive community. As a Renaissance man and an African American writer, his professional task was to use the written and spoken word to expose and break down social and political barriers, destroying the construct of a preordained subordinate place for blacks in society, and to create and cultivate a literary and social consciousness. The indictment of white America as imperialistic, paternalistic,...

  18. RICHARD DURHAM (September 6, 1917–April 24, 1984)
    (pp. 185-192)
    Patrick Naick

    Thus began each episode ofDestination Freedom, Richard Durham’s most significant contribution to the annals of African American history. In its two-year broadcast,Destination Freedomcelebrated the achievements of African Americans both past and present in an effort to counter the racist stereotypes dominating the airwaves. From this program and much of Durham’s earlier work, one sees an avocation for civil rights years before the formal start of the Civil Rights Movement. What is also apparent is his commitment to the city of Chicago, a city with its own legacy of racial segregation and discrimination, in his attempts to educate...

  19. LORRAINE HANSBERRY (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965)
    (pp. 193-217)
    Lisbeth Lipari

    Although chiefly known as an award-winning dramatist and author of the classic Broadway hitA Raisin in the Sun(produced in 1959), Lorraine Hansberry was a significant voice in the Civil Rights era. Beyond her playwriting, Hansberry wrote journalism, essays, and public letters, and gave speeches as well as radio and television interviews. Her chosen genre of drama, however, may have been shaped at least in part by the Chicago Renaissance school’s stylistic emphases on urban speech and spoken language. Like the Chicago Renaissance’s principal figure, Richard Wright, who wrote for theDaily WorkerandNew Masses, Hansberry’s early work...

  20. FENTON JOHNSON (May 7, 1888–September 16, 1958)
    (pp. 218-232)
    James C. Hall

    By some measures, Fenton Johnson is a marginal figure to the Black Chicago Renaissance. He published nothing during its most vibrant period and after the late 1920s seemed to willfully slide into complete and total obscurity; his loyalty to a sardonic, imagist poetic technique, similar to that of fellow Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, would, on the surface, make him out of step with either the general critical social realism or modified high modernism that generally held the day in black Chicago through the 1930s and 1940s. African American poet Arna Bontemps worked diligently to ensure that later work by Johnson...

  21. JOHN H. JOHNSON (1918–2005)
    (pp. 233-241)
    Jamal Eric Watson

    During World War II, African Americans found themselves battling two very different wars as part of what was known as the “Double V” challenge: a war against fascist forces in Europe and a war on the home front against racism in the United States. Even as African Americans enlisted in the U.S. military to defeat the Nazi’s occupation in Europe, they knew that life under a set of regimented Jim Crow laws would prevent them from achieving recognition as full citizens in America. When they returned to America after fighting abroad, these heroic African American soldiers were prohibited from drinking...

  22. “MATTIE” MARIAN MINUS (1913–1973)
    (pp. 242-249)
    Donyel Hobbs Williams

    “Mattie” Marian Minus was a prolific writer who invested a significant portion of her life in uplifting the African American race. Although Minus was born in South Carolina, her parents, Laura Whitener Minus and Claude Wellington Minus, moved the family to Ohio around 1920. Eventually, Minus left Ohio to attend Fisk University in Tennessee; she graduated magna cum laude in 1935. Between 1935 and 1937 Minus attended graduate school at the University of Chicago where she majored in social anthropology.

    During her stay in Chicago, Minus met Richard Wright, and in 1936 she became a member of the South Side...

  23. WILLARD MOTLEY (July 14, 1909–March 14, 1965)
    (pp. 250-273)
    Alan M. Wald

    Willard Motley was in all likelihood the most prolific novelist associated with the concluding years of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Nonetheless, two features pivotal to a discernment of the intricacies his life and work remain nebulous in biographical and critical scholarship. One is Motley’s convoluted political connection to the city’s principal tradition of African American literary radicalism; only in his late thirties did Motley emerge as a committed leftist, and his fiction was largely concerned with European ethnic groups and, later, Mexicans. The second enigmatic peculiarity is the presence of a degree of biographical mystery; Motley was a gay man...

  24. GORDON PARKS (November 30, 1912–March 7, 2006)
    (pp. 274-289)
    Elizabeth Schultz

    In 1999, Gordon Parks received his fifty-sixth honorary doctorate degree. In accepting this award from Princeton University, the nonagenarian Parks expressed his wish that the white high-school English teacher in Kansas who had told him and his black classmates that their families should not waste their money on sending them to college might have been present for this occasion. Although he did not go on to finish high school, Parks, who died in New York in March, 2006, during his lifetime received accolades, honors, and distinctions from a wide range of national organizations, including the National Medal of Art, presented...

  25. JOHN SENGSTACKE (1912–1997)
    (pp. 290-296)
    Jamal Eric Watson

    In chronicling the history of the African American press in the United States, John Sengstacke emerges as one of the nation’s most powerful African American newspaper publishers. In 1940, at the ripe age of 27, the young Sengstacke gained national notoriety when he became the second publisher of theChicago Defender, arguably one of the most recognized black newspapers in the country. Founded in 1905 by Sengstacke’s uncle, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, theChicago Defenderquickly emerged as a powerful voice in articulating the widespread oppression that African Americans throughout the nation faced. It also served as a creative outlet for...

  26. MARGARET WALKER (July 7, 1915–November 30, 1998)
    (pp. 297-319)
    Maryemma Graham

    A few months after a little known group of radical black artists and intellectuals assembled to meet on Chicago’s South Side in 1936, the youngest member was inspired to write her most famous poem, “For My People.” It stunned the group, since the author, Margaret Walker, was a virtual unknown and barely twenty-two. Five years later, fresh from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Walker made history as the first African American to claim the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Those who knew Walker saw a tiny determined woman who broke more barriers by the time she was...

  27. THEODORE WARD (September 15, 1902–May 8, 1983)
    (pp. 320-340)
    Alan M. Wald

    A trailblazing author in African American theater, as well a conspicuous lef-twing cultural worker in the 1930s and 1940s, Theodore Ward was a principal contributor in dramatic art to the early stages of the Black Chicago Renaissance. In 1935 he was a founding member of the radical Black South Side Writers Group, and in 1938 hisBig White Fog: A Negro Tragedy in Three Actsexpressed the classic Chicago Renaissance theme of the impact of Northern racism on veterans of the Great Migration.

    The triumph ofBig White Foglaunched Ward on a forty-five year career during which his performed...

  28. RICHARD WRIGHT (September 4, 1908–November 28, 1960)
    (pp. 341-385)
    Robert Butler

    When the eminent sociologist Robert Park met Richard Wright in Chicago in 1941 he exclaimed, “How in hell did you happen?”¹ For a relatively conservative thinker like Park who believed character was a function of environment and environment was slow to change, Wright was indeed a puzzle. For Wright, who had a year earlier achieved national prominence as writer with the publication ofNative Son, had grown up in the worst possible environment, the brutally segregated world of the Deep South, but had somehow risen well above the society that had tried to put severe limitations on his development.


  29. FRANK GARVIN YERBY (September 5, 1916–November 29, 1991)
    (pp. 386-412)
    James L. Hill

    From the Jim Crow section of Augusta, Georgia, to voluntary expatriation in Europe, from automobile plant technician during World War II to recipient of honorary doctorate degrees, from social protest writer in the 1940s to American King of the Costume Romance, and from Chicago Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers’ colony to international celeb novelist translated into twenty-three languages, Frank Garvin Yerby did indeed make history both as an African American and American writer, becoming one of the most commercially successful and popular writers of the twentieth century. Seminal to each of these Yerby journeys were his work with the Federal...

    (pp. 413-423)
    Angelene Jamison-Hall

    Chicago’s black cultural life in the 1930s and 1940s was as vital as New York’s during the Harlem Renaissance. Literature, art, music, theater, and other creative activities thrived and developed into what has recently been referred to as the Chicago Renaissance. The migration of African Americans during the twenty years before the Depression had contributed to the development of a spirited Black community. By 1930 it was estimated that Chicago’s black population reached 230,000 people, and many of these migrants were generally segregated to the South Side or what became known as “Bronzeville.”

    Chicago boasted of many organizations that added...

    (pp. 424-447)
    Robert H. Cataliotti

    While the Black Chicago Renaissance is primarily recognized for the flourishing of African American literature, during this era the city played host to a flourishing of African American music. Chicago’s black musicians applied their creative talents and technical mastery to jazz, blues, gospel, an emerging form, rhythm and blues, and European classical music. One distinction, however, that existed between the literature and the music was that Chicago had already established itself as a crucial center for African American music during the New Negro Renaissance era of the 1920s, when the earlier white Chicago Renaissance was in full swing.

    Throughout the...

    (pp. 448-464)
    Zoe Trodd

    In February 1927, Matilda McEwan of Hubbard Woods, Illinois, read an issue of theChicago Defender, America’s leading black newspaper of the day. She took particular notice of an item in The Bookshelf, theDefender’s book review column and self-styled “literary club.”¹ The item was a request from a reader in Dallas, Texas, for information on a half-remembered poem.² Matilda’s response ran in The Bookshelf on February 19, 1927: “I saw in ‘The Bookshelf’ where someone is asking for the complete poem ‘The Face on the Barroom Floor.’ Having memorized it years ago, I shall be glad to send it...

    (pp. 465-486)
    William R. Nash

    The Chicago School of Sociology and the Black Chicago Renaissance represent two defining elements of the African American experience in early twentieth-century Chicago. On an empirical level, methods and attitudes developed in the sociology department of the University of Chicago during the first decades of the twentieth century helped shape local and federal policy on racial matters, and thereby affected black-white race relations in the city. On an artistic level, black authors writing in and/or about the city of Chicago in the period between 1935 and 1959 (a slight modification of Robert Bone’s definition of the era) brought the landscape...

    (pp. 487-500)
    James Smethurst

    The John Reed Clubs (JRC) and its successor, the League of American Writers (LAW), played crucial roles in the development and direction of the Chicago Renaissance. Both organizations were major institutions of the cultural world of the Communist Left during the 1930s and early 1940s. Though the national images of the two groups reflected quite different political and cultural moments, in practice both played much the same role with respect to black artists in Chicago. Each actively sought the participation of African American artists and intellectuals, breaching the walls of Jim Crow in a notoriously segregated city and providing black...

    (pp. 501-506)
    Steven C. Tracy
    (pp. 507-512)
  37. INDEX
    (pp. 513-523)
  38. Back Matter
    (pp. 524-526)