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The Muse in Bronzeville

African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950

Robert Bone and Richard A. Courage

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

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...

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pp. xv-xvii

When Robert Adamson Bone died in November 2007, he left behind, besides a grieving family, a substantial but unfinished manuscript. Begun in the mid-1980s, this work was intended as the capstone of Bone’s career, the book that would fully develop the core assertions of his seminal essay “Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance,” published in 1986. Focusing on such figures as Wright, Arna...

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pp. xix-xx

Because of this book’s long gestation, thanks are due to many people, no fewer than three generations of scholars, archivists, community leaders, friends, and colleagues (including some no longer with us), who offered assistance and support to both authors. Limitations of space preclude offering the detailed, individual acknowledgment due to each, but this simple list of names is accompanied by a deep sense...

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pp. 1-9

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...

Part One: An Account of Origins

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1. The Tuskegee Connection

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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...

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2. Charles S. Johnson and the Parkian Tradition

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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...

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3. The New Negro in Chicago

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pp. 59-85

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...

Part Two: Bronzeville’s Social Muse

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4. Year of Transition

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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 hair-straightening 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...

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5. Birthing the Blues and Other Black Musical Forms

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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...

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6. Bronzeville and the Documentary Spirit

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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 en petit. 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...

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7. The Documentary Eye

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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...

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8. Bronzeville’s “Writing Clan”

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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...

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9. Bronzeville and the Novel

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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...

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10. Bronzeville and the Poets

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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...

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11. The Wheel Turns

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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...

Appendix A: Artists of Bronzeville

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pp. 235

Appendix B: African Americans Employed by Illinois Writers’ Project

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pp. 237


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pp. 239-275

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 277-282


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pp. 283-302

About the Authors

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813550732
E-ISBN-10: 0813550734
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813550435

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 38
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

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