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Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance

Steven C. Tracy

Publication Year: 2011

This collection comprehensively explores 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. This volume covers 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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

A book like this is, of course, the culmination of a great deal of effort by many people. Most important to this book are the subjects themselves, many of whom have waited a long time to receive this kind of critical emphasis and attention, some receiving it only posthumously. ...

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pp. 1-14

Even the seasoned critic writing on the subject under consideration here can fall unconsciously and automatically into writing Harlem Renaissance rather than Chicago Renaissance. 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.” ...

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Robert S. Abbott

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pp. 15-29

Robert S. Abbott was editor and publisher of the Chicago 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. ...

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William A. Attaway

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pp. 30-52

William Attaway’s literary reputation rests upon two novels—Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939) and Blood on the Forge (1941)—that establish him as an exceedingly important black fictive voice of his generation. Most notably, his depiction in Blood on the Forge of the tragic physical and spiritual toll taken by the Northern industrial mills on black laborers ...

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Claude A. Barnett

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pp. 53-59

Claude Barnett, along with the founders of the Chicago Defender and Ebony magazine 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, ...

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Henry Lowington Blakely II

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pp. 60-68

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. ...

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Alden Bland

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pp. 69-75

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: ...

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Edward Bland

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pp. 76-82

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: ...

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Marita Bonner (Occomy)

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pp. 83-95

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.” ...

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Gwendolyn Brooks

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pp. 96-120

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. ...

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Frank London Brown

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pp. 121-133

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; ...

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Alice C. Browning

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pp. 134-140

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 ...

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Dan Burley

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pp. 141-149

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. ...

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Margaret Esse Danner

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pp. 150-160

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 ...

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Frank Marshall Davis

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pp. 161-184

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. ...

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Richard Durham

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pp. 185-192

Thus began each episode of Destination Freedom, Richard Durham’s most significant contribution to the annals of African American history. In its two-year broadcast, Destination Freedom celebrated the achievements of African Americans both past and present in an effort to counter the racist stereotypes dominating the airwaves. ...

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Lorraine Hansberry

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pp. 193-217

Although chiefly known as an award-winning dramatist and author of the classic Broadway hit A 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. ...

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Fenton Johnson

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pp. 218-232

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, ...

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John H. Johnson

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pp. 233-241

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, ...

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“Mattie” Marian Minus

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pp. 242-249

“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. ...

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Willard Motley

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pp. 250-273

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. ...

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Gordon Parks

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pp. 274-289

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. ...

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John Sengstacke

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pp. 290-296

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 the Chicago Defender, arguably one of the most recognized black newspapers in the country. ...

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Margaret Walker

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pp. 297-319

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. ...

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Theodore Ward

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pp. 320-340

A trailblazing author in African American theater, as well a conspicuous left-wing 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, ...

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Richard Wright

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pp. 341-385

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. ...

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Frank Garvin Yerby

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pp. 386-412

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 ...

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Black Writers and the Federal Theatre Project

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pp. 413-423

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. ...

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African American Music in Chicago during the Chicago Renaissance

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pp. 424-447

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. ...

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The Black Press and the Black Chicago Renaissance

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pp. 448-464

In February 1927, Matilda McEwan of Hubbard Woods, Illinois, read an issue of the Chicago Defender, America’s leading black newspaper of the day. She took particular notice of an item in The Bookshelf, the Defender’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 ...

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The Chicago School of Sociology and the Black Chicago Renaissance

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pp. 465-486

The Chicago School of Sociology and the Black Chicago Renaissance represent two defining elements of the African American experience in early twentiethcentury 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 ...

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John Reed Clubs/League of American Writers

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pp. 487-500

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. ...

Materials for Further Study

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pp. 501-506

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pp. 507-512

Robert Butler is professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where he teaches American, African American, and modern literature. He is the author of Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero (1995), The Critical Response to Richard Wright (1995), ...


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pp. 513-523

Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252093425
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036392

Page Count: 536
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
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