Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Muse in Bronzeville
    Book Description:

    The Muse in Bronzeville, a dynamic reappraisal of a neglected period in African American cultural history, is the first comprehensive critical study of the creative awakening that occurred on Chicago's South Side from the early 1930s to the cold war. Coming of age during the hard Depression years and in the wake of the Great Migration, this generation of Black creative artists produced works of literature, music, and visual art fully comparable in distinction and scope to the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance.

    This highly informative and accessible work, enhanced with reproductions of paintings of the same period, examines Black Chicago's "Renaissance" through richly anecdotal profiles of such figures as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Charles White, Gordon Parks, Horace Cayton, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, and Katherine Dunham. Robert Bone and Richard A. Courage make a powerful case for moving Chicago's Bronzeville, long overshadowed by New York's Harlem, from a peripheral to a central position within African American and American studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5073-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Amritjit Singh

    At one point in a 1989 interview, Chinua Achebe, author of the definitive postcolonial novel,Things Fall Apart(1959), responds to the younger writer Nuruddin Farah and his provocative questions regarding Achebe’s categorization of Nigerian literature written in English as “national literature” and Nigerian writing in Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba as “ethnic literature”: “We were pioneers and pioneers have to make statements. . . . [But] these statements need not stand for ever. If someone comes up with a better idea, let these statements be disconfirmed” (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London). Robert Adamson Bone, widely respected yet sometimes dismissed as...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
    Richard A. Courage
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    Richard A. Courage
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1945 social scientists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described the South Side of Chicago as “a community of stark contrasts,” at once an impoverished ghetto—densely populated, dirty, disease- and crime-ridden—and a mighty Black Metropolis—a city within a city boasting its own cultural and economic institutions, its own business, professional, and political leadership, and its own intellectual and artistic elite.¹ Geographically, it was a thin corridor, seven miles long and one and a half miles wide. For some three decades, the so-called Black Belt had slowly expanded southward. The area was hemmed in on all sides:...

  8. Part One: An Account of Origins

    • CHAPTER 1 The Tuskegee Connection
      (pp. 13-32)

      Nihil ex nihilo; all things have their beginnings. Humans are time-bound creatures, and in tribute to this reality Hesiod places Clio, the Muse of history, foremost among the nine sisters. When the mind encounters a strange phenomenon or new situation, it summons the historical imagination by looking for antecedents, forerunners, continuities with the past. These early chapters invoke Clio’s assistance in the search for distant origins of Bronzeville’s cultural efflorescence before attention turns to the aesthetic and intellectual currents that dominated the 1930s and 1940s.

      The present chronological focus, the period marked by the ascendancy of Booker T. Washington within...

    • CHAPTER 2 Charles S. Johnson and the Parkian Tradition
      (pp. 33-58)

      Robert Park was forty-nine years old and on the threshold of a new career when he taught his first classes at the University of Chicago in 1913. In less than a decade, he emerged as the dominant star in a brilliant constellation known to posterity as the Chicago School of Sociology. Not the least of his achievements was creation of a cadre of African American social scientists to carry on a tradition of inquiry, much of it centering on the Great Migration. Among them was Charles S. Johnson, whose life and career weave together many threads in this narrative.


    • CHAPTER 3 The New Negro in Chicago
      (pp. 59-86)

      In December 1918, Chicago Urban League president Robert Park observed that the World War had “disturbed the equilibrium of the races.” “What is going to happen,” he wondered, “when the negro troops return from France?” Three months later, white civic leaders gathered at the City Club to hear A. L. Jackson, director of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, describe the dramatic increase in black population, the cramped misery of tenement housing, and the pervasive health problems of the Black Belt. Jackson added that black veterans were returning from Europe with a new “sense of manhood” and “consciousness of power hitherto unrealized.”...

  9. Part Two: Bronzeville’s Social Muse

    • CHAPTER 4 Year of Transition
      (pp. 89-93)

      By all accounts, A’Lelia Walker had a splendid funeral, one of the finest Harlem had ever witnessed. The bejeweled and silver-turbaned heiress of Madam C. J. Walker’s hairstraightening empire, hostess of the Dark Tower and Villa Lewaro, had expired suddenly on August 13, 1931—victim of a fatal combination of high living and high blood pressure. Like the lavish parties that drew the rich, famous, and clever of all hues to her mansion on 136th Street, her apartment on Sugar Hill, and her Irvington-on-Hudson estate, Walker’s funeral was by invitation only, and once again far too many invitations had gone...

    • CHAPTER 5 Birthing the Blues and Other Black Musical Forms
      (pp. 94-113)

      In the flowering of African American creative expression in Bronzeville, music was the precocious discipline, blossoming earliest, most spectacularly, and with the broadest audiences. The South Side was the hot center of jazz creativity in the 1920s, but in fact European art music had a considerably longer history among black Chicagoans. Building on deep roots in the community, classical musicians such as Margaret Bonds and Florence Price made landmark achievements that establish the early boundary of this study as 1932. In the same year, Thomas A. Dorsey penned his most famous song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” setting in motion...

    • CHAPTER 6 Bronzeville and the Documentary Spirit
      (pp. 114-138)

      In the friendship and professional collaboration of Richard Wright and Horace Cayton in the early 1940s, the Black Chicago Renaissance may be seen enpetit. Like Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson in 1920s Harlem, Wright and Cayton brought complementary skills, values, and bodies of knowledge to a productive alliance that advanced their careers while enriching and even shaping the cultural milieus within which they worked. The fiction writer and the sociologist understood their areas of expertise as cognate disciplines animated by a common impulse to document, interpret, and ultimately change the realities of a society built on racial and...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Documentary Eye
      (pp. 139-160)

      In 1896, English journalist George Steevens memorably captured Chicago’s paradoxes: “Queen and guttersnipe of cities. . . . The most beautiful and the most squalid, girdled with a twofold zone of parks and slums; where the keen air from the lake and prairie is ever in the nostrils, and the stench of foul smoke is never out of the throat; . . . widely and generously planned with streets of twenty miles, where it is not safe to walk at night; . . . the most American of American cities, and yet the most mongrel . . . the first...

    • CHAPTER 8 Bronzeville’s “Writing Clan”
      (pp. 161-181)

      Bronzeville’s writers came of age in hard times and in a hard city, and this was reflected in their literary work—its themes, forms, tropes, and goals. If writers of the Harlem Renaissance tended to turn inward, toward heightened ethnic consciousness and a romantic identification with a southern-rooted folk culture, writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance tended to turn outward, toward social transformation achieved through the cold-eyed documentation of oppressive social realities. Portents of this aesthetic and generational shift could be found as early as 1932 in such works as Langston Hughes’sScottsboro Limitedand Sterling Brown’sSouthern Roadand...

    • CHAPTER 9 Bronzeville and the Novel
      (pp. 182-206)

      Chapter 8 described a Bronzeville of brick and stone—tenements, schools, churches, settlement houses, libraries, and offices—actual places where writers lived and worked and interacted, creating a generational milieu. This chapter explores a Bronzeville of the mind—figurative reconstructions of time and place in works of the literary imagination—Chicago as one of the “invisible cities in the Afro-American novel” that Charles Scruggs discusses.¹ Chapter 9 focuses on five writers associated with Black Chicago—Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, William Attaway, Alden Bland, and Willard Motley—and considers their novels written during the focal time frame of this study. Each...

    • CHAPTER 10 Bronzeville and the Poets
      (pp. 207-224)

      Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks each published books of poetry that proved to be milestones for African American letters. These breakthroughs culminated when Brooks received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first time a black writer had been so honored and an event that helps establish the final boundary year of this study. As poets and people, the three were quite different, yet Bronzeville—as place and metaphor—was indelibly woven into their experiences, values, allusions, imagery, symbols, tropes, and themes—the very warp and woof of their writing. Twelve years separate the birth dates of...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Wheel Turns
      (pp. 225-234)

      The scholarly delineation of historically distinct periods is always somewhat arbitrary. A case could be made for closing this narrative a year or two earlier or later, but 1950 stands out as not only the midcentury mark but also the year of Gwendolyn Brooks’s symbolically resonant Pulitzer Prize. That award was a highpoint of generational achievement by Black Chicago’s writers, but the prize-winning collection,Annie Allen(1949), also signaled a shift toward modernist poetics that valued well-honed craft and formal innovation over commitment to portray social realities and address mass audiences. This was one in a series of changes—cultural,...

  10. APPENDIX A: Artists of Bronzeville
    (pp. 235-236)
  11. APPENDIX B: African Americans Employed by Illinois Writers’ Project
    (pp. 237-238)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 239-276)
    (pp. 277-282)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 283-302)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)