Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey, Jr., editors: The Black Chicago Renaissance (University of Illinois Press, 2012)

Part One:  Richard Wright (1908-1960) was one of the many ‘intermittent’ black Chicago artists, that is Chicagoans who were not born and bred in the city, who were in many cases – like Wright – migrants from the rural South, who made Chicago their home for a while, and then moved on, in the case of Richard Wright to New York, and then on to exile in Paris, France.

Never the less, as literary critic and historian Robert Bone was one of the first to argue in his groundbreaking article Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance (Callaloo # 28, Summer 1986), Richard Wright became a key figure in what we now call The Black Chicago Renaissance.

Richard Wright set his great novel Native Son (1940) in Chicago’s South Side community. And the following year, in the classic photo-essay 12 Million Black Voice: a folk history of the Negro in the United States – with photos from the Farm Security Administration’s file compiled during the Great Depression, edited by Edwin Rosskam –, he divided his ‘folk history’ between descriptions of a rural South with its ‘Lords of the Land’, much like his native Mississippi, and an urban North with its ‘Bosses of the Buildings’, much like the Chicago South Side that he came to know all too well.

He wrote the introduction to another classic, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, originally published in 1945. This massive study was conducted by fieldworkers in Chicago’s South Side community as part of  WPA, the Work Progress Administration program, its findings “offering a comprehensive analysis of black migration, settlement, community structure, and black-white race relations in the first half of the twentieth century,” according to the revised 2015-edition from the University of Chicago Press.

Wright was, like St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, a product of, or much influenced by, the famous Chicago School of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

In 1936 Richard Wright was a founder of the South Side Writers’ Group, out of which grew his influential manifesto “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937). And at the FWP, the integrated Federal Writers Project in Illinois, an important meeting ground for numerous black Chicago writers and artists, like novelist William Attaway (Blood on the Forge, 1941), Arna Bontemps, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, Willard Motley, poet and Wright biographer Margaret Walker, and bestselling novelist Frank Yerby, Wright was again a ‘towering figure’.

Richard Wright thus embodied in his own person at least three constitutive elements of the Black Chicago Renaissance: Southern migration to the urban North, the WPA’s Federal Writers Project in Chicago, Illinois, and the impact of the Chicago School of Sociology.

At the segregated Federal Theatre Project in Chicago there was playwright Theodore Ward (Big White Fog, 1937); and poet Frank Marshall Davis with the title alone: 47th Street (1947), set his third volume of poems right at the center of Chicago’s South Side – all of this, and more, making Chicago for a time perhaps the most vital center of African American creativity in the country.

Part two:  Not surprisingly, then, Richard Wright figures prominently in several of the ten essays   in The Black Chicago Renaissance, edited by historian Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey Jr., novelist and professor emeritus of African American and African Diaspora Studies.

The editors suggest that the Black Chicago Renaissance lasted – or had its great period – from the 1930s into the 1950. But periodization is always problematic, and even the contributors to The Black Chicago Renaissance do not all agree as to when it began or ended (see DePillars below).

Harlem Renaissance writer (and ‘intermittent’ Chicagoan) Arna Bontemps has argued that the Black Chicago Renaissance following Harlem represented “a second awakening, less gaudy but closer to realities”, Chicago as an urban industrial center giving the Chicago renaissance a unique working class and radical politics perspective, according to editor Darlene Clark Hine.

Editor John McCluskey Jr. writes about ‘Richard Wright and the Season of Manifestoes’; there is a fine essay on Horace Cayton of Black Metropolis fame, and on his sometimes troubled friendship with Wright; one on ‘Chicago’s Native Son: Charles White’, the painter; and one chapter setting Richard Wright up in comparison to black Chicago’s greatest poet, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), who’s first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), opens with her poem kitchenette building: “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan/ Grayed in, and grey. “Dream” makes a giddy sound,/ not strong/ Like “rent”, “feeding a wife,” "satisfying a man”/…”.

McCluskey wants us to pay special attention to Murry N. DePillars’s ‘encyclopedic’ essay on the visual art and artists in the Black Chicago Renaissance, divided in two parts, 1914-41 and 1941-60, featuring 24 pages of mostly color plates of works by artists such as Charles White, Archibald J. Motley Jr. – uncle to black Chicago novelist Willard Motley, author of the bestselling Knock on Any Door (1947) – , sculptor Richard Barthé, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Sebree, and Margaret Burroughs – artist, activist, poet and co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History and the WPA-sponsored South Side Community Art Center – as well as artists with a more local reputation like Walter Ellison – see the book’s cover for his 1937 painting Leaving Macon Georgia.

Surprisingly readable is Hilary Mac Austin’s account of Patrick and Annabel Prescott’s series of letters home to Robert S. Abbott’s important paper, the Chicago Defender, from their ‘Grand Tour’ through Europe in 1934, comparing the lack – then! – of color prejudice in white Europe with white America. Conclusion: Color prejudice in America is artificial, deliberately cultivated. It still is.

ROBERT BONE and Richard A. Courage’s The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950 (Rutgers University Press, 2011) is still the most comprehensive introduction to The Black Chicago Renaissance.    

You can read examples of the writings of many of the Black Chicago Renaissance writers in Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?, edited by Richard R. Guzman (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006); and portraits of many of these writers, and others, in Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance, edited by Steven C. Tracy (University of Illinois Press, 2011).