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Edna Capehart


Main Ideas
With the influx of African-Americans from the South into the North during the Great Migration (beginning early in the twentieth century and accelerating after 1930), Chicago became the locus of a great center for realization of a dream for the Promised Land—a place where self-determination, freedom, and economic prosperity were possible. During the latter period of this movement, Black Chicago was in the midst of a great cultural and literary renaissance.

In the narrative portion of this article, it is argued that while the economic promise was realized in the form of good jobs provided by the stockyards and factories, the promise of an "egalitarian, non-racist" society was not. The literary renaissance continued in spite of these


The Great Migration

disappointments, and for many authors, this became an omnipresent backdrop for characters and themes. Thus, a recurring theme in the literature of the Black Chicago Renaissance and for the many years after is the failure to realize dreams. What happens when dreams are deferred?

Connections with the Curriculum
This unit is appropriate for high school students in Language Arts and Social Science classrooms.

Teaching Level
Grades 9-12

This is especially appropriate for students who have some understanding of the history and literature of the period. For students in the lower levels and grades, I would suggest using some of the activities and materials in ILLINOIS HISTORY TEACHER 3:2 (1996): 48-51.

Materials for Each Student
• Copy of the narrative portion of the article

• Copy of James Grossman, "Chicago and the Great Migration," ILLINOIS HISTORY TEACHER 3:2(1996): 33-38

• Copy of Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem"

• With the Hurt and Grossman essays, use the film The Promised Land (three-part series, Discovery Channel Presentations, 1995) If unavailable through your local library system, this video can be ordered from:

Knowledge Unlimited
Box 52, Department C96
Madison, Wisconsin 53701
(800) 356-2303
Cost: $49.95 + $5 shipping
and handling

Objectives for Each Student
Language Arts
• Analyze and interpret a literary work.

• Apply knowledge gained from literature as a means of understanding contemporary and historical economic, social, and political issues and perspectives.

Social Science
• Interpret how changing geographical, technological, and social forces affect United States political ideas and traditions.


Opening the Lesson
Begin the lesson by exploring what information students already have regarding the Great Migration and the flourishing of literature and the arts during this period known as the Black Chicago Renaissance. Connections should be made between the recurring theme of the dream deferred and Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem." Students should be given a copy of the poem to read and discuss thoroughly. This will form the basis for students' understanding of the meaning of this work and the references to the poem in the essay. Students should come to understand that, as many African-Americans failed to realize their dreams in the promised land of Chicago and the North during the Great Migration, so do many of the characters in the literature of the period known as the Black Chicago Renaissance.

As suggested in a previous issue of ILLINOIS HISTORY TEACHER (3:2, 1996), K-W-L (a reading strategy to explore prior knowledge) is a good way to assess what information your students already have and what information you will need to help them fill in. The first task is to find out what students already know. Begin by having students contribute ideas and information to webs of ideas about the Great Migration and the Black Chicago Renaissance. This collective knowledge should be shared by grouping information and ideas on the board. If students do not make connections with the Harlem Renaissance and European Renaissance from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, this information should be introduced in a brief discussion to help place the term in an historical context. A definition should also be given. From this point in the process, proceed in assessing what things students would like to know as a result of their reading. Aside from the literary background given in the discussion of the poem, students will need more information about the times.

For more historical background, have students read James Grossman's essay "Chicago and the Great Migration." Other readings are recommended in the bibliography at the end of this issue. Students will understand why the exodus of blacks from the Southern states occurred and how many African-Americans felt about this phenomenon in both the North and the South. Other sources are listed in the materials list. The video presentation The Promised Land will give the students visual images of the times, the issues, and the people. These pieces provide ample background for understanding the lesson. Have students list all the ideas and images that are conjured up when one thinks of the idea of "the promised land." You should get many responses that relate to an idealized situation. Use these examples to examine the expectations of the newcomers compared to what existed in reality. Have students contrast this idealized view of the North, and Chicago in particular, with the reality of Chicago in the period of the Great Migration.


Developing the Lesson
Tell students that the essay they will read will show how important the theme of the dream deferred is in Black Chicago literature of the Renaissance, but that, in addition, they will be looking for clues to what happened, in a real sense, when the dreams of the newcomers were not realized. Tell students that some of the authors mentioned in the essay they will read will imply answers to this question, but that they will use their skills, the essay, and their own research to suggest more answers. What the students will learn will form a basis for writing assignments, oral presentations, or whatever culminating assignments are chosen later.

What Happens to a Dream Deferred

Next, have students read the essay "'Promised Land'?: The Black Chicago Renaissance and After." During the reading, have students list works and authors that deal with this theme. They should also indicate or predict what the works suggest happens when dreams are not realized. While reading, they should write down any questions they have about the essay. When the reading is completed, students should organize into groups to discuss their ideas and information collected. Groups should report to the class and discuss what various works conclude about what happens when dreams are not realized.

Concluding the Lesson
To conclude the lesson, give students a choice of works from the essay to read and later to write a paper on the theme "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" This will give students a chance to study a work from the period in detail and to explore more works by African-American authors. In addition to writing the paper, students should present a discussion of the work and their findings orally to the class.

Extending the Lesson
There are numerous ways to extend the learning for students on this topic. From a standpoint of history, students can look at areas of African-American settlements in their area from the period of the Great Migration. They can, in the form of oral history, collect studies of families of the migrants who still live in these areas. These stories might also include personal accounts about unfulfilled dreams and what happened as a result. Even settlements outside the Chicago area could provide information about the time and the people. As some African-Americans settled along the migration route leading to Chicago, this could provide students with areas for further research in their own communities. Visits to the Bronzeville area in Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Bronzeville website ( would provide a rich array of detail about the people, spaces, and times.

In terms of the literature, the possibilities are limitless. There are many works that students can read and use to develop plays and skits. They can also take a play such as A Raisin in the Sun and develop it beyond the original story line to visualize what happened to the family's dream. For many students, this will be another opportunity to develop interests in reading the literature and studying the culture of African-Americans. The numerous titles mentioned in the narrative portion of the article provide an excellent bibliography for African-American literature of the period of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Students can use these resources to pursue other themes in the literature and develop ideas about how these themes may also be related to or be traced back to the historical experiences of the newcomers.

Assessing the Lesson
This will be a good opportunity to introduce the use of rubrics to students, if it has not been done previously. Using rubrics developed for the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests for writing would give students experiences in understanding the formats. In addition, teachers should share with students which learning standards are involved and how students can demonstrate their mastery of the standards. Finally, some attempt should be made to involve students in evaluating their own work and that of fellow classmates using these rubrics and others developed for assessing various performance tasks. Cooperative groupings could provide students with an arena to examine and comment on the work of classmates. If outside reading is assigned, this could be an independent project lasting for several weeks. It is important to develop a time-line and a framework for regular student-teacher conferences for report and evaluation. As with any project extending over time, students need feedback. Brief assessment conferences can be effective in helping students learn to monitor their own progress toward producing quality work. A chart can be posted showing where students are in the development of the project and deadlines covering various aspects of the project, including outside reading.

To assess students' overall comprehension of the essay, a test could be developed. This test could include some multiple-choice questions as well as open-ended questions that give students a chance to explore divergent ideas that they may feel are significant.


Activity 1
Using a Graphic Organizer for
Thinking and Writing about
an Historical Event

The Promised Land

After students have read the selection and/or have viewed the video "The Promised Land," have them use the following web to organize their ideas about what they have read. This is a simple graphic to help students see how historical movements and events can have repercussions in a wide range of human endeavors. It can improve higher-order thinking and help organize details for writing.


  1. Give students copies of the graphic organizer prior to reading the selection. Tell them that they will use this organizer as a guide to thinking about how historical events are often caused by many factors, and in turn the effects produce a ripple toward other developments, discoveries, and events.

  2. The historical event, the Great Migration, is written in both of the circles that form the center of the web.

  3. Focusing on people, space, and time, have students fill in the first part of the web with causes or factors leading to the Great Migration. They should use all the ideas and information gained from the selection and/or the video.

  4. Students should then proceed to fill out the second portion of the web, which deals with the effects of the Great Migration. In this section students should make note of consequences, or effects of the Great Migration as it related to people, space, and time.

  5. After the web has been completed, students can be organized into small groups to share their ideas, and add ideas to their web. Students in each group should determine which of the ideas are most accurate and relevant.

  6. Using maps, works mentioned in the narrative portion of the article, and any other materials, groups should give presentations to the class.

  7. This web could also be used as an organizer in having students prepare to write an essay. Work with students to develop a rubric for evaluating the essay, and let them use this rubric in peer evaluations.

Describing Causes and Effects of the Great Migration:



Activity 2
Open-ended Questions for
Writing and Discussions on
"Promised Land"?

The Promised Land

Directions for students:

Listed below are seven questions about the selection that your are about to read. These are open-ended questions. After you have read the narrative portion of this article, answer one of the questions in an essay. Make sure that you explain your answer thoroughly and give supporting details from the selection, using any prior knowledge that you have of the subject. Be prepared to read your essay and discuss your ideas with classmates.

  1. After reading the narrative portion of the article about the themes of African-American literature of the Black Chicago Renaissance, explain what aspect of life in the promised land most fulfilled the dreams of the newcomers.

  2. What reasons and examples can you give to best explain why the author of the narrative portion of the article used a question mark in the title "Promised Land'?"

  3. Both Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks deal with themes of identity and growing up in Chicago. How do these themes play out in Native Son and Black Boy (Wright), when compared to Maude Martha and A Street in Bronzeville (Brooks)?

  4. Using a recent article taken from a newspaper or magazine, describe how one of the themes represented in literature of the Black Chicago Renaissance, for example, struggle for personal identity, growing up, or dreams deferred, is also represented in the article.

  5. Using information given in the selection about A Raisin in the Sun, Native Son, and A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi, explain how the issue of race is important in each work.

  6. Describe how the music of the Black Chicago Renaissance mirrored themes in the literature of the times.

  7. Select two authors from the selection. Explain how the characters depicted deal with their dreams that have gone unrealized.

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