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Post-World War II African-American Literature in Illinois

Maria K. Mootry

"History helps us to understand who we are and where we come from," states Illinois State Librarian George H. Ryan. Literary history, perhaps more than any other history, helps us to understand the complex interaction between place, events, personalities and imagination. To write an overview of African-American writers in Illinois since the post-World War II era requires answering a set of core questions. Who is an Illinois African-American author? Should we include only persons born in the state, or persons who resided in the state for a given length of time? What about a person who was born and lived in the state of Illinois, but never wrote about it? In deciding among African-American writers, we may ask. What do we do with a black writer who never writes about African-American issues, themes or characters? Whatever we decide, Illinois has produced many fine African-American writers, some, like Gwendolyn Brooks arriving at tender ages (three months, from Topeka, Kansas), others, like the poet. Sterling Plumpp, migrated from southern states (in his case, Arkansas) in their early adulthood.

All the writers discussed here lived in Illinois for a considerable part of their lives. As for subject matter, a few Illinois African-American writers became famous for writings that did not deal with African-American experience at all or only tangentially. The novelist Willard Motley comes to mind, as does the prolific theologian/literary critic, Nathan Scott (formerly of the University of Chicago). The noted poet, Langston Hughes, for instance, lived in Lincoln, Illinois for a year during his high school years. One of Motley's novels, "Knock On Any Door," was made into a successful film starring the Academy Award-winning actress. Shelly Winters. Similarly, Scott's scholarly mind seems to be "raceless," ranging from focus on the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1975) to wide-ranging philosophical inquiries with titles like:
Man in Modem Theatre (1965), Visions of Presense in Modem American Poetry (1993) and Scott's TheAmerican Moralists: Mailer, Bellow, Trilling (1973). However, Scott's work includes brilliant essays on the sometime Chicago African-American writer, Richard Wright.

While Wright went on to national and international acclaim, his philosophical novel. The Outsider (1953) vividly details Chicago, opening with a dramatic "el" crash. An autobiographical collection of Wright's essays, American Hunger (1977), published posthumously, recounts Wrights early Chicago working days as postal worker and researcher among rats at the University of Chicago.

Several African-American authors are associated with the University of Chicago. Besides Scott and Wright, we have historian John Hope Franklin, psychologist Alison Davis, literary critic George Kent, and sociologists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake and theologian Chuck Stone. Cayton and Drake co-authored Black Metropolis (1945), a groundbreaking sociological study that place black migrants to Chicago into three overriding categories: the "sacred" or sanctified working class; the secular, "blues" working class and the bourgeoisie. Influenced by Robert Park and The Chicago School of Sociology, Cayton, Drake and their friend, Wright, emphasized "pathologies" generated by racist segregation of Chicago blacks into crowded westside and southside areas. Their focus on black folk is matched by the poetry and imaginative literature of the "Richard Wright School of Fiction," seen in southsider Frank London Brown's protest novel, Trumbull Park (1957) and in Lorraine Hansberry's nationally acclaimed Chicago Play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Raisin, was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and the only play by a black writer to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the year. Its themes of generation and gender conflicts have gained renewed relevance. Other Hansberry titles are: Les Blancs; The Collected Last Plays of Loraine Hansberry (New York: Random House, 1972); The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (New York: Random House, 1965) and her brilliant autobiographical To Be Young, Gifted and Black (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972), a collec-


tion of her works adapted to book form by her husband Robert Nemiroff. Here Hansberry dissects issues of class within the black community as well as racism among blacks and whites. Hansberry/ who grew up upper-middle class in a privileged Hyde Park childhood, lost her Dad, who fought racism in housing, when he died young of a heart attack, due in part to his racial struggles and legal battles.

Less prone to emphasize "pathology" but more "realistic" if not celebrative, Gwendolyn Brooks' first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (New York: Harper, 1945), dramatized life in "Bronzeville" as Black Chicago named itself in the '40s by vivifying the commonplace lives of men and women, children, friends and family. While her second collection of poems, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Annie Allen (New York: Harper, 1949) is overlaid with modernist complexity, Brooks' subject matter is highly "social," dealing with the devastating effect World War II wreaked on women "back home." Brooks' next book, a novel, Maud Martha (New York: Harper, 1953) returns to more accessible detailed portraiture of black life on Chicago's south side, vividly describing various sites, movie theaters, night clubs, a Midway Plaisance cafe, following the story of a young married couple seeking relief from drab life in a claustrophobic kitchenette. In this novel, Brooks' understated style contrasts with the protest school's dramatization of urban distress. She consciously substitutes a mimetic, "realistic" mode for the "naturalistic" emphasis on people as victims of natural or socioeconomic forces. Maud Martin is an excellent teaching text for those of us who want to learn more about the "triple jeopardy" of black females growing up (race, class and gender).

One of Chicago's most prolific authors, black or white, other Brooks' titles include several collections of poems for and about children. After the publication, Brooks turned to children's literature publishing Bronzeville Boys and Girls (New York: Harper, 1956). Later, she would publish other children's titles, including, Aloneness (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971), and The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (Chicago: Third World Press, 1974). Brooks' third collection of poems. The Bean Eaters (New York: Harper, 1960) was considered her most socially conscious book before she entered her "black arts phase." Dealing with issues of racism, civil rights, and fair housing. The Bean Eaters got mixed reviews, some readers objecting to its "protest" emphasis. In 1963, Brooks culled some of her best poems in her mini-anthology. Selected Poems (New York; Harper, 1963). This work is a compilation of works from Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters and A Street in Bronzeville, but includes some poems which had not appeared in print. Brooks broke with her "white" publisher and turned to black publishers, particularly Detroit's Dudley Randall's Broadside Press and Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press. Her last two titles with Harper were In The Mecca (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) a long poem about the rape of a young girl in a Chicago slumbuilding and an omnibus The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971), which includes all five Harper titles: A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters and In The Mecca.

Turning to black presses. Brooks' titles include:
Riot (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969), Beckonings (Broadside Press/ 1975), Family Pictures (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970), both poetry. Brooks co-edited and co-authored books like Broadside Treasury, 1965-1970) (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971) and A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975), with Dudley Randall, Madhubuti, and South African-Chicago poet, Keroapetse Kgositsile. Also, Jump Bad; A New Chicago Anthology (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971). Brooks' autobiography. Report From Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972), is a collage of memories, interviews, pictures, marginalia and comments on her work, analyzing her poems and her philosophy about art and the black community. To Disembark (Chicago: Third World Press, 1981) was Brooks' first publication with her protege, Don L. Lee, who changed his name to Haki Madhubuti.


In 1963, Dr. John Hope Franklin was appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago. Franklin's prolific output includes histories, a biography and essays: The Militant South (1956); The Emancipation Proclamation (1963); Reconstruction (1961); The Negro in 20th Century America; Reader on Struggle for Civil Rights (1967); From Slavery to Freedom (1967); Color and Race (1968); An Illustrated History of Black Americans (1970); Southern Odyssey (1976); Racial Equality in America (1976, A Jefferson Lecture); Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982); George Washington Williams (1985, a biography) and The Color Line; Legacy for Twenty-first Century (1993).

The University of Chicago "connection" raises questions involving time and the issue of identifying "Literary Movements." From 1945 until 1960 for instance, the primary purpose of Illinois African-American writings was to protest racial injustices, and to seek inclusion and equality in American society. By the mid-'60s, protest literature yielded to a literature of racial pride, racial defiance and a quest for new forms of writing by what is known as the Chicago Black Arts Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Illinois


Black Feminist literature of the 1970s and '80s, to match a national trend, is less identifiable.

In nonfiction writing, Lerone Bennett, historian, writer, educator and senior editor of Ebony magazine emphasized a black ethos in his popular History, Before the Mayflower (1967). In addition to his numerous journalistic historical essays written for Ebony, Bennett's books include historical surveys, biographies, and cultural studies. Some titles are: Black Power USA: The Human Side of Reconstruction (1967); Confrontation Black and White (1965); What Manner of Man? (1968), a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; Pioneers in Protest (1968), The Challenge of Blackness (1972); The Shaping of Black America (1975) and Wade in the Water; Great Moments in Black History (1982). Bennett's books constitute excellent background reading for a broad "popular" audience.

Chicago's Black Arts Movement

In the '60s, black consciousness led to quests for new styles, new themes and new audiences. Writers organized groups and found places to hammer out their theories and practice their revisionist impulses. The Southside Community Arts Center became a center of Afrocentric dance, plastic arts, poetry and writing groups. John H. Johnson's publication, Negro Digest, edited by Hoyt Fuller, guru and mentor, offered attractive space for aspiring and established poets, literary critics and essayists. Swayed by burgeoning black pride movement, Negro Digest changed its name to Black World in 1971 and remains a major source of images and information about Chicago's Black Arts Movement. Some poets, mentored by Fuller and Illinois State Poet Laureate (since 1967) Gwendolyn Brooks are still productive, including Sterling Plumpp, Carolyn Rodgers, and Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti). For those interested in getting a flavor of this turbulent but fermentive time, Carole A. Parks edited Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987), with representative essays, poems and fiction as well as literary essays tracing the movement by Maria Mootry, Haki Madhubuti and Angela Jackson. Poetry was the dominating genre. New poetry titles by then young writers who are now "veterans," illustrated restless seeking for "relevant" artforms. Carolyn Rodgers, who returned to "universalism" recently in We're Only Human (1994) with her emphasis on the "universal" themes of human suffering and personal dilemmas, was one of the most prolific of the sixties poets. How I Got Ovah (1975) was nominated for the National Book Award. Some of her other titles include her first publication Paper Soul (1968) and The Heart as Ever Green (1978), an excellent selection.

Gwendolyn Brooks, who mentored Carolyn Rodgers and the Black Arts poets, after the '60s went on to take up South Africa's crisis in Near Johannesburg Boy (1986) and Winnie (1988). In her long poem, Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle (1989), she continues to warn American society about its tendency to appropriate multicultural arts and dilute them into "pop" art.

Chicago poet. Sterling Plumpp continues an eclectic folk/blues/literary style in his Titles: Portable Soul, (1969), Half Black, Half Blacker, (1970); Steps to Break the Circle, (1975).

Angela Jackson, one of several women writers to emerge from OBAC published her popular Voodoo/ Love Magic, (1974).

As we have noted, Gwendolyn Brooks followed her laid back domestic novel Maud Martha (1953) with more poetry, including The Bean Eaters (1960) and Selected Poems (1963). Her tragic portrait of city life. In The Mecca, 1968, marked her transformation from an "integrationist" poet to the black-oriented poet her mentees looked up to. She explains these painful psychological seachanges in her autobiographical collage of interviews and memories. Report From Part One (1971). Brooks "black" titles include: Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1981). For more insight into this major Illinois author, see Maria Mootry's co-edited collection of literary critical essays, A Life Distilled; Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987;1989). In this volume, modernist, feminist and black aesthetic studies of Brooks' work are accompanied by a useful chronology and bibliography.

Writers on the "Riverfront" and in Southern Illinois

Shifting to other regions in Illinois, the East St. Louis literary critic, Eugene Redmond, in 1976, published a delightful poetry survey, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, a Critical History, the same year he was named the Poet Laureate of his native East St. Louis. The founding editor of Drumvoices Revue, Redmond's sense of landscape and history is found in the names of his books such as River of Bones and Flesh and Blood and Sides of the River: a Mini Anthology of Black Writings. Returning to his "roots" after a long sojourn in California, Redmond continues to write poetry and perform, infusing his writing with an aesthetic enriched by the Yoruba/Haitian cultural training of East St. Louis "cultural mother, the world-renowned anthropologist/writer/dancer Katherine Dunham. A University of Chicago Ph.D. in Anthropol-


ogy, Dunham's scholarly inquiry was published in a study of Haitian culture. Island Possessed (1969).

Throughout the 1980s, in Illinois' Southern tip, Maria Mootry and The Poetry Factory published poetry addressing the social issues of peace, sexism, racism and apartheid by a diverse group of writers, including African-Americans, Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Cranston Knight, Mootry, and Joyce Jones.

In the 1990s, poets include Marcellus Leonard (Springfield), Ricardo Cruz (Carbondale) and Jeanne Towns (Chicago). Their personal voices address racial concerns, but without the racial exclusivity or protest of previous times.

Third World Press and Illinois Black Writers

Madhubuti's enterprising Afrocentric spirit continues to drive a large segment of black-oriented Chicago literary output by way of his Third World Press. Very early in his writing career he added essays to his poetry Think Black! (1967), Black Pride, (1968), Don't Cry, Scream, (1969) and We Walk the Way of the New World, (1970); Book of Life (1973) and Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors, (1987). His nonfiction essayistic titles include: From Plan to Planet, (1973), Black Men: Obsolete, Single, and Dangerous? (1990), and Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption: Blacks Seeing a Culture of Enlightened Empowerment (1994). Other writers published by Third World Press include social worker/poet, Useni Perkins. Among his own titles are Home is a Dirty Street, a study of black youth at risk in a cruel urban environment that offers ways to reclaim those lives.

Margaret Burroughs; Chicago Artist and Poet

A friend and colleague of Gwendolyn Brooks, Burroughs is an artist, poet, activist and founder and president emeritus of Chicago's DuSable Museum of African-American History. Her collections of poems include: Did You Feed My Cow (New York: Crowell, 1956), a collection of street games, chants and rhymes; For Malcolm (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969), edited with Dudley Randall; and What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Chicago; DuSable Museum Press, 1968), a long anguished poem popular in the black community.

Autobiography and Biography

Turning to other forms of nonfiction, notably autobiography and biography, Chicago and Illinois offers fewer titles, but many reflecting the rise of courageous individuals from poverty to success. Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black doesn't fall into this category because she was never poor, but painfully, pridefully captures the intraracial conflicts and personal dilemmas of girlhood as a member of Chicago's black elite. Down in Southern Illinois territory of Du Quoin, Ruby Berkley Goodwin wrote about growing up in a small town with a preacher/miner father in her charming autobiography. It's Good To Be Black (1954); reprinted by Southern Illinois University Press in 1976. Those who pulled themselves up by various bootstraps include: Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (1971); Barbara Reynold's disapproving Jesse Jackson; The Man, The Movement, The Myth (1975); Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, My Own Story, with Richard Durham (1976). Millionaire real estate businessman Dempsey Travis' personal/public narrative, The Autobiography of Black Chicago (1981), vividly captures pre-World War II Chicago, his pals including Nat King Cole, singers, entrepreneurs and sports figures all rubbing shoulders in the fascinating if sometimes shady Bronzeville. After the untimely death of his friend, we find fond memories and the key to understanding the black intellectual/bourgeoisie in Travis' biography of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington: 'Harold'; The People's Mayor: An Authorized Biography, (1989). In Succeeding Against the Odds (1989), the man who arguably casts Chicago's longest shadow in Bronzeville, if not nationally and internationally, journalist/businessman John H. Johnson, President of Johnson Enterprises chronicles his rise from humble Arkansas beginnings to spectacular success, including a highrise office building on Chicago's elite Michigan Avenue and a multi-million-dollar apartment on Chicago's North Lake Shore Drive's "Gold Coast."


Illinois has produced many African-American fiction writers, from the very complex prose of Leon Forrest to Cyrus Colter's Chekvian mimesis to Charles Johnson's mythic narratives and recent pop detective fiction.

Cyrus Colter

Cyrus Colter, who attended Chicago-Kent College of Law, began writing fiction at the age of 50. The author of an award winning collection of short stories, and five novels. Colter has received the Patron Saints Award of the Society of Midland and the $1000 Iowa School of Letters Awards for short fiction. His books include The Beach Umbrella (short stories), (1970) and The Rivers of Eros (1972), novel about Clothida Pilgrim who devotes all of her time and energy to rearing her two grandchildren, but haunted by the fact that her only child, Rosie, was by her brother-in-law. She is finally forced to face her past when her granddaughter


becomes involved with a man. In The Hippodrome (1973), Parker nee Yaeger is a Bible-toting middle-aged black man who decapitates his wife, walks around with her head under his arm and is finally locked up in a house of ill repute that specialized in kinky sexual floor shows. One of the prostitutes falls in love with him and tries to get him to flee the house and reform. Also, Night Studies (1979); Chocolate Soldiers (1988) and City of Light (1993) former divorce lawyer and a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission, Colter writes empathetically about familial conflicts.

Ron Fair

Ronald L. Fair, who was born in Chicago on October 27,1932, writes for younger audiences. He attended Chicago public schools and business school. He has been a hospital corps man in the United States Navy and a court reporter. His novels include Many Thousand Gone, An American Fable (1965). In this novel, Granny Jacobs, a resident in a small imaginary county in Mississippi where black people are still held in slavery, manages the escape of her great grandson, Jesse. He is the son of the last pure black in Jacobs County. He and Granny Jacobs communicate furtively through Preacher Harris, the only black in the County who can read and write. She hears that Jesse has published a book and his picture will appear in Ebony. She and the preacher decide to write the president and ask for help for the blacks of Jacobs County. This brings chaos, strife and a sudden climax to life in Jacobs County. Hog Butcher (1966), tells a story of 10-year-old Wilford Robinson and his pal. Earl of Chicago, who witness the accidental shooting of their friend (Cornbread), an 18-year-old high school basketball star, by two policemen, one black and one white. The neighborhood is incensed, a small riot erupts and the policemen are beaten. The police prepare a story for the inquest, which is to whitewash them and degrade Cornbread. The two boys are the key witnesses. Wilford and his family are pressured to make him change his testimony. World of Nothing (1970), contains two novellas, Jerome and World of Nothing. Jerome is the out-of-wedlock son of Father Jennings who plots to have Jerome put away because Jerome seems to accuse and unsettle him. The title novella, World of Nothing, is a first person narrative of life in the Chicago ghetto. The narrator and his friend Top live from one moment to the next. A vivid treatment of ghetto life, this compassionate book is serious as well as comic. We Can't Breathe (1971), is the story of Ernie Johnson growing up in the slums of Chicago in the '30s and '40s. Ernie and his friends experience the destructive forces of white society. After serving as the leader of a street gang, he grows into an awareness of his surroundings and their effect. He finally becomes a writer.

Leon Forrest

Leon Forrest (1935- ) is a writer's writer. His complex books won him the title, "The James Joyce of the South Side." He was born in Chicago and was educated at Wilson Junior College, Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago. He edited Chicago community weeklies from 1965 to 1969, and he was managing editor of Muhammad Speaks in 1972-73. His novels include: There is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973), The Blood-worth Orphans (1977), Two Wings to Veil My face (1983) and Divine Days (1992). Forrest's novels, written in a freeflowing spoken-voice, jazz-style, are full of puns and word play. An admirer of Faulkner and Joyce, Forrest creates a sense of place and history and immediacy. His first novel focuses on family and community in the voice of its young narrator; his second novel centers on Sweetie Reed who tells her life story to her grandson. Forrest is a master of the "dialogic mode."

Forrest's Relocation of the Spirit (1994), a collection of 27 essays, offers witty and often autobiographical glimpses into Afro-American Chicago cultural life.

From "Tree" to "Divine Days"

Forrest's maturation as a writer is seen in the sheer size of his novels. In the novella-length Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Nathan Witherspoon's life is recalledóhis childhood and his junior high school daysóduring the funeral procession of young Nathan Witherspoon's mother. At the same time, there is a focus upon the deceased mother. The mammoth 1135-page Divine Days follows a week in the life of one Joubert Jones, an aspiring playwright recently returned from a two-year stint in the Army. Jones hopes his journal-keeping will serve as inspiration for his writing, particularly a play he intends to write about the life of Sugar-Groove, the mythic soul of Forrest (read Cook) County. Forrest calls this novel the "Ulysses of Chicago's South Side," but the real model for Divine Days is Finnegans Wake. Forrest's novels, with their cast of multi-masked characters intending to encapsulate the history of a people, are probably too complex for the young readers. For teachers, however, his essays are informative and an excellent background for understanding black Chicago from 1950 to the present. Mr.Forrest's third novel. Two Wings to Veil my Face, won the DuSable Museum Certificate of Merit and Achievement in Fiction, the Carl Sandburg Award, the Friends of Literature Prize and the Society of Midland Authors for fiction.

In 1994, Forrest's engaging collection of 27 essays, Relocations of the Spirit (Asphodel Press/Moyer Bell), further revealed his southside roots, its diversity


of role models, the why and wherefore of Forrest's sense of self-transformation. Relocations's essays include book reviews, articles from Muhammad Speaks (for which Forrest was associate editor) speeches before scholarly gatherings, and discuss subjects as diverse as a visit to the city by James Baldwin to the influence of Chicago's black preachers, whom Forrest considers "bards of the race." In many ways, Forrest's "sermonic" style in his fiction is clearly influenced by his admiration of the black preacher's oral tradition. In fact, at Northwestern University, Forrest regularly teaches courses on the oral tradition, showing his cozy integration of creative and academic work.

Sam Greenlee

Sam Greenlee (1930-) was born in Chicago in 1930. He studied at the University of Wisconsin, University of Chicago and the University of Thessaloniki. Greenlee, who joined the '60s Black American movement, saw his novel. The Spook Who Sat By The Door, made into a successful movie. It is the story of Don Freeman, a black ex-gang leader, who lets the CIA teach him everything it knows about judo, guns and strategy. He uses his knowledge to organize the gangs of Chicago into a crack guerrilla force and sends his lieutenants out to train the fighting gangs of every other ghetto city in the country, turning snipers into marksmen, rioters into combat troops. In addition to his novels, he has written many articles and short stories.

Charles Johnson

One of our most successful nationally recognized authors is Charles Johnson (1948- ). Johnson, who worked with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, later worked as a cartoonist and comic book writer. As an editorial cartoonist and reporter, he published more than 1,000 drawings. His work has been collected and published in one volume, Black Humor. He created, hosted and co-produced an educational television series called, "Charlie's Pad." He attended Southern Illinois University and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Charles Johnson is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, a Guggenheim fellow, an NEA fellowship recipient, a former board member of the Associated Writing Programs, and Fiction Editor of The Seattle Review. He has received the Writers Guild Award (1986) for his PBS drama "Booker," the Callaloo Creative Writing Award (1983), the Washington State Governor's Award (1983), and Southern Illinois University's Journalism Alumnus of the Year Award (1981), and has published numerous short stories, critical articles, drawings and book reviews and has written for many television series.

Charles Johnson is best known to the literary world as the author of Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), Middle Passage (1990) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The first two are highly praised works of philosophical fiction; the third, a 1987 PEN/Faulkner nominee, is a brilliant collection of short stories. All three have been widely reviewed in scholarly as well as popular media.

Johnson's Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), enlarges our vision of what fiction is for, how it arises from our common life, how it lives in language as we live in language. In passionate prose, Charles Johnson tries to meditate on what it means to be human, beneath divisions of race and gender. Johnson's analyses works of black writers, how he became a successful writer, his training in philosophy, and the problem of the black writer trying to come to grips with the American literary tradition and the black experiences. Johnson is concerned that standards of artistic excellence are not overwhelmed by racial "posturing." We are not surprised when he tells us that of all the African-American Illinois authors, he most admires Cyrus Colter.

Willard Motley

Willard Motley (1912-1965) was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 14, 1912. His literary career began in 1922 with the introduction of a column called Bud Billiken in the Chicago Daily Defender. He is best known for his novel Knock on Any Door (1947) and as such became one of the major writers of the 40s. Motley's novels deal with other ethnic groups rather than the Black Experience. Motley's We Fished All Night (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951), is about a young Polish man drafted into World War II, who later casts aside his deals for a political career in Chicago. Motley died of gangrene in Mexico City, March 4,1965. His last novel, published posthumously, Let Noon Be Fair (1966) is a story about Las Casas, a Mexican fishing village, which is a virtual Eden. The natives live their lives uninhibited. However, gradually Americans inundate the village, tourists, residents, greedy businessmen. The village becomes as the villagers had feared, a resort town, a decadent tourist trap.

Melvin Van Peebles was born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 21, 1932. He grew up in Phoenix, Illinois, and attended Thornton Township High School, West Virginia State College and Ohio Wesleyan. He has written novels, plays, movies and music. His novel includes: A Bear for the F.B.I. (1968).



In conclusion, when we survey regional authors, we cannot avoid "generic issues," such as the difference between art and propaganda, questions of form, including realism, naturalism, satire or the bildungsroman (novels about growing up). At times, we may choose to downplay these literary critical issues and focus on the literary texts as means to understanding social, political, psychological, and/or economic "realities." We are justified in this doing this, particularly for the younger readers, even though prize-winning writers like Charles Johnson, whose fictions and essays form a new "school of writing," devote much time and ink to defending the "aesthetics" of art.

Finally, there is the question of form. What kinds of writing do we include in any literary history: autobiography, biography, fiction, poetry, drama, diaries? Here we may make a distinction between "high" and "low" literature, "classic" and "popular" or the "vernacular." From this perspective, Illinois African-American writing ranges richly from Cyrus Colter's subtle Chekhovian short stories in The Beach Umbrella (1968) to recent forays into the mysteries genre. In the '90s, Agatha Christie has been joined by such Illinois Afro-American writers as Anita Williams and Hugh Holton.Holton's Presumed Dead (1994), and Williams' Harlequin Romance detective novel, Looks Are Deceiving (1994) both draw on local landscapes and urban settings. A lawyer, Williams is the first African American writer to be published by Harlequin Enterprises. Her tale of love and intrigue would be enjoyed by teenagers and adults. Holton, a former law enforcer and technical consultant to the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, uses the Museum of Science and Industry area as the backdrop to weave a novel of suspense.

Special thanks to Margaret Collins, Illinois State Library, for her generous assistance.

*Maria K. Mootry, Convener, African-American Studies, University of Illinois at Springfield.


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