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The Black Chicago
Renaissance and After

James Hurt
Historical Research and Narrative

There is a geography of American literature, a map of the places where, at one time or another, cultural forces seemed to focus and literature flourished: New England in the 1850s, the Midwest between 1900 and 1915, the South in the 1930s and '40s. African-American literature has such a geography, too, that includes Harlem in the 1920s and the various centers (New York, San Francisco, and the Chicago-Detroit nexus) of the black arts movement of the 1960s. Chicago, from the mid-1980s to the early 1950s, was also the setting for a major efflorescence of African-American writing that in retrospect has come to be called the Black Chicago Renaissance.

The initial galvanizing force behind the movement was Richard Wright, who had moved to Chicago from Memphis in 1927. His collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and his novel Native Son (1940) introduced a new voice to African-American writing, blunt, direct, and angry. He paved the way for a generation of Chicago African-American fiction writers that included such figures as Arna Bontemps, William Attaway, and Willard Motley. Poetry too, flourished in the Black Chicago Renaissance, much of it by poets connected with the famous poetry workshop of the South Side Community center: Margaret Walker, Margaret Esse Danner, Frank Marshall Davis, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Such playwrights as Theodore Ward found a stage for their work at the Chicago unit of the Federal Theater Project. Many of the best works of the Renaissance were literary nonfiction, especially autobiography, with Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), Katherine Dunham's A Touch of Innocence (1959), and Gwendolyn Brooks's Report from Part One (1972) among them.

The conditions for the Black Chicago Renaissance were created by one of the greatest demographic shifts in American history, the "Great Migration," the exodus of black Americans out of the deep South that began early in the century and rapidly accelerated in the mid-1980s. Between the mid-1980s and the early 1960s, more than half a million African-Americans left the South for Chicago. The immediate cause of the migration was the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker, which eliminated jobs for thousands of farm laborers. A more deep-seated reason was the pervasive racism of the South, which kept African-Americans permanently endangered, impoverished, and humiliated. Chicago held out the promise of good pay in its stockyards and factories and decent treatment in a egalitarian, non-racist society. The economic promise was realized, at least in the short term; the promise of respect and equality was not, as Richard Wright pointed out bitterly in his introduction to St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis (1945), a sociological study of the African-American community in Chicago and itself a classic of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

The Great Migration was often represented in biblical terms by those who experienced it, as the title of Nicholas Lemann's excellent history of the migration, The Promised Land (1992), suggests. The move to Chicago was a journey out of bondage into freedom, like the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, a reversal of another journey branded in the cultural memory, the Middle Passage, the journey out of Africa into slavery in the New World. The Great Migration, including both the dream of the promised land and the failure of that dream, forms the "historical unconscious" of the literature of the Black Chicago Renaissance and of much African-American writing in Chicago since the Renaissance. It seldom appears fully and explicitly, but its resonances appear everywhere, especially in the tension between hope and despair that pervades this literature, articulated in a myriad ways, often in what might be called the "dream deferred" theme, after Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem": "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? ... Or does it explode?" The tension here, as in much Chicago writing, is between the dream and the deferral, between the aspiration toward a fully realized life and the material conditions that prevent the fulfillment of that aspiration.


Richard Wright
Richard Wright

The motif of the dream deferred appears not only in the formal literature of Chicago, poetry, fiction, and drama, but also in the wealth of popular literary forms that make up much of Chicago African-American culture-lyrics to urban blues, gospel, and jazz songs, folk sermons, oral narratives, toasts, and the like. Take, for example, the lyrics to "Louisiana Blues," a classic 1959 recording by the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters:

I'm goin' down to New Orleans
Get me a. mojo hand
I'm goin' down to New Orleans, umm-hmmm
Get me a mojo hand
(Walter, shouting:) Aw, take me witcha, man,
when you go!)
I'm gonna show all you good-lookin' women
Just how to treat your man

I'm goin' down to Louisiana
Baby behind the sun
I'm goin' down to Louisiana
Honey behind the sun
Well y'know I just found out
My trouble's just begun

As with most song lyrics, in "Louisiana Blues," voice is everything, the creation of a speaker whose moment-to-moment shifts in thought and emotion we are invited to share. The speaker spins a fantasy of escape to an idealized "Louisiana" where he will enjoy mysterious powers (a "mojo hand") and sexual prowess. He repeats this fantasy four times, seemingly savoring his dream of flight. But then in the two final lines ("Well y'know I just found out / My trouble's just begun"), the mood suddenly darkens and his fantasy vanishes. What is his "trouble"? It is more effective for being left inexplicit and somewhat mysterious. The lyric is not about "Louisiana" or any specific "trouble," but is rather about the fun of dreaming and the inevitability of a return to reality. The bluesman knows about both dreams and their deferral.

The Great Migration as a historical subtext for African-American writing and the theme of the dream deferred as its form of expression are not an "open sesame" to Chicago black writing, of course, but are suggested only as an angle of approach, a way of initially historicizing African-American texts within the actual experience of African-American life in Chicago. Chicago African-American writers, from the Renaissance to the present, are a varied lot, but they are linked in a general movement not only by the pervasiveness of the city in their work, but by an emotional core that they share, a consciousness of both the dream and its deferral. What I mean can be illustrated by brief mention of the work of five exemplary Chicago writers: Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Carolyn Rodgers. No such handful of writers can cover the entire range of sixty years of African-American Chicago writing, of course, but these five can at least suggest that range. Wright, Brooks, and Hansberry flourished in the beginning, middle, and end of the Renaissance; Madhubuti and Rodgers in the years since. (Brooks bridges the Renaissance and its aftermath: her first book of poetry appeared in 1945, and she remains active in her eighties.) The novelist Wright, the dramatist Hansberry, and the poets Brooks, Madhubuti, and Rodgers suggest the generic range of the Renaissance; all five have also written distinguished literary nonfiction.

The five writers (and many others in the Renaissance) might be said to share the subject of life in "the promised land": the failures, successes, and contradictions of the promises the Great Migration held out of a new beginning in Chicago. But they have treated this general subject in highly individual ways. Both the commonalities that characterize a literary movement and the differences that mark strongly individualized voices are clear in the recurrence in Black Chicago writing of three themes that might be thought of as concentric,


Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks

Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry

ever-widening categories of experience: the self, the family, and the culture.

Narratives of childhood and maturation in Black Chicago writing reflect the problematic nature of the self in African-American culture. How does one develop a stable identity growing up under conditions of internal colonization that relegate one's own group to a perpetually subordinate position? Much of Richard Wright's work deals with this question, from his autobiographical memories in Black Boy to such fictional accounts of childhood initiations as "Big Boy Leaves Home," and Native Son. In Wright's dark, naturalistic world, the child's development is warped by white racial fantasies that he internalizes, whether it be the brutal lynch mentality of the deep South in Black Boy and "Big Boy Leaves Home," or the less overt but equally deep-seated racism of the North in Lawd Today and Native Son. I Growing up is an equally prominent theme in Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry, but whereas Wright writes about boys growing up, Brooks writes about girls growing up. Already in her first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), several poems deal with female maturation: "hunchback girl: she thinks of heaven," "song in the front yard," and "the ballad of chocolate Mabbie." Her next two books are each devoted to an exploration of the life of a woman. Annie Allen (1949) is a life in lyrics, a series of short poems that trace Annie's life from "Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood" through "The Womanhood." Maud Martha (1953), Brooks's only novel, again traces the life of its protagonist, this time in a series of lyrical prose fragments. Brooks's children and adolescents are affected less by the direct racism depicted by Wright than by its secondary effects: the material and spiritual constraints of life in the ghetto, a world introduced in the first poem in Brooks's first collection, "kitchenette building." ("Kitchenettes" were the one-room apartments into which large buildings were carved up to provide cheap housing for the poor.)

We are things of dry hours and
the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream"
makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like "rent," "feeding a wife,"
"satisfying a man."

Brooks's characters struggle against the grayness to construct selves that can experience intensity and vitality. Their struggle is reenacted throughout the literature of the Renaissance.

The struggle for personal identity can hardly be separated from the family within which it begins, and the micropolitics of family life is a second recurring preoccupation of these writers. Lorraine Hansberry in the 1950s looked back on her Chicago childhood and, in A Raisin in the Sun, interpreted African-American family politics in the idiom of the American family plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The setting is precisely the kind of kitchenette apartment Brooks writes about, and it functions similarly as a dramatic image of the narrowness and constriction of the Younger family's life. Hughes's "Harlem" provides the title, the epigraph, and the metaphoric structure for the play. Each of the major characters in the play has a dream of escape which has the potential to either dry up "like a raisin in the sun" or explode, dreams that are activated by a $10,000 check from the dead father's life insurance (in an updating of the nineteenth-century "legacy plot"). Mama Younger and her daughter-in-law Ruth dream of moving out of the kitchenette to a house in a good (white) neighborhood, her son Walter dreams of escaping his subsistence job as a chauffeur by making a down payment on a liquor store, while her daughter Beneatha dreams of using part of the money to go to medical school. Each character's struggle for individual self-realization is fully and sympathetically represented, but the emphasis is on the family structure. The Youngers constitute a matriarchal family, six years before Daniel Moynihan made that interpretation of the African-American family a commonplace in his controversial report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (1965). The somewhat idealized Mama rules the Younger roost, while the inadequate and underemployed Walter Lee struggles to establish his manhood and the frustrated Ruth is in training to take over her mother-in-law's role. The dream of escape to the suburbs seems, in the face of threatened racist retaliation, even more illusory than Beneatha's dream of becoming a doctor and emigrating to Nigeria.

A Raisin in the Sun's white-derived dramaturgy and its rather simple characterizations, as well as its author's status as a Chicago writer working in New York within the establishment theater, make it peripheral to the Black Chicago Renaissance. But its treatment of African-American family life—the stresses of economic deprivation, the conflict of the generations, the uncertainty of gender roles—resonates throughout the literature of the Renaissance. Both Haki Madhubuti and Carolyn Rodgers, for example, a generation after Hansberry, have addressed questions of masculinity, femininity, and family structure in the African-American community. Rodgers began to attract critical attention in the 1960s, only a few years after Raisin in the Sun, as one of the strongest poets in the Chicago OBAC group (Organization of Black American Culture.) Rodgers is thoroughly Afrocentric and often employs Black English in her poetry; she thus seems worlds apart from Hansberry.


But many of her poems about male-female relations (especially in Paper Soul, 1968) and mother-daughter relations (especially in how I got ovah, 1975) could have been written by a more eloquent Ruth Younger. In such poems as "NOW AIN'T THAT LOVE," "FOR SOME BLACK MEN," and "TESTIMONY," she explores male and female identities and the barriers that are raised between them by the psychological scars of racism, while in an important sequence of poems about her mother, including, "for muh' dear," "IT IS DEEP," and "Jesus Was Crucified," she struggles to resolve the conflict between herself, as a militant, secular modern woman, and her mother, who is "religious-negro" but is nevertheless "a sturdy Black bridge that I / crossed over, on" ("IT IS DEEP"),

Picture of Two Ladies Sitting

The division between Rodgers and her mother suggests a third area of experience explored by the writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance: the larger culture within which personal and family experience takes place. The turn to political and cultural critique was present already in the foundational work of Richard Wright, who was active in the Communist Party through most of his years in Chicago and who remained firmly leftist in his political views even after he left the party in 1944. The last chapters of Native Son make his political interpretation of the story explicit. Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the many black artists who became more politicized by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 70s, which advocated developing a distinctive black voice, rather than seeking acceptance by the white literary establishment, as well as a politically committed revolutionary stance. She traces her own change to 1967, when she attended a Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University. Haki Mahubuti (who changed his name from Don L. Lee in 1973) was a major figure in the Black Arts movement. An activist with the civil rights movement, he founded the Third World Press, the Organization of Black American Culture, and other black arts and post-black arts institutions.

The self, the family, the culture: we have taken things apart. Now it is time to put them back together, because writers, unlike critics, seldom write about only one register of experience. The personal is the political (and vice versa) in the literature of the Black Chicago Renaissance. As an example, we might end with a brief look at one of Gwendolyn Brooks's greatest poems, "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon." The poem was written to mourn Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi who was brutally lynched in 1955 for having allegedly "leered" at a white woman. The Bronzeville mother hardly appears in the poem, which focuses tightly on the wife of the principal lyncher as she makes breakfast for her husband and children. The Mississippi woman's thoughts shuttle distractedly between the lynching and the rigid gender roles that govern her marriage, all the more resonant for being presented in the idiom of the Southern ballads that have passed the categories of a corrupted chivalric tradition from the Old World to the New, until she breaks down in a sudden rush of revulsion.

She did not scream,
She stood there.
But a hatred for him burst Into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them—big
Bigger than all magnolias.

The last bleak news of the ballad,
The rest of the rugged music,
The last quatrain.

This is political writing, in the best sense of the term, placing the individual within history and its threadbare ideologies. But it is personal, too, working outward from the anguish of a vividly imagined person through the tangles of her family to those of her culture. Emmett Till's journey from Chicago to Mississippi has reversed the direction of the Great Migration his people had taken a generation before, and it has ended in death. Brooks's dramatic elegy takes on a greater resonance from its roots in African-American history, a resonance that marks the best and most characteristic works of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

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