Robert S. Abbott: Champion of “The Race”

Robert S. Abbott

Robert S. Abbott

In 1905 Robert Abbott began one of the biggest return-on-investment acts of his day: he invested 25 cents to issue 300 copies of his newspaper The Chicago Defender.  Eventually this two-cent weekly paper—which he heralded as “The World’s Greatest Weekly”—made Abbott one of the first self-made Black millionaires.  It became the most widely circulated Black newspaper in American history.  At its height in the 1930’s the paper—bought, passed hand-to-hand, smuggled into the South—is estimated to have had a weekly readership of over 500,000. It was as major a vehicle as our country has ever had for a radical, heads-on attack against the evils of racism.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1868-1940) was born on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, and Chicago’s Kent College of Law, from which he graduated in 1899.  Unable to practice law because of race prejudice, he turned to the newspaper trade which he had learned at Hampton and from his step-father.  In 1940 Abbott’s nephew John H. Sengstacke took over the paper and continued its championing of full equality. It became the Chicago Defender Daily in 1956, and though its circulation has dwindled and the company has experienced some hard times, its history and influence Abbott-Defenderremains vital.  In fact, it is perhaps impossible to exaggerate the Defender’s influence. Running editorials, cartoons, and train schedules, for example, the Defender helped fuel the Great Northern Migration, which brought over a million Blacks north, over 100,000 of them to Chicago.  And though it practiced its own kind of yellow journalism it was a major outlet for some of the most influential Black writers and thinkers in America, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Arna Bontemps, Walter White, and many others.  Reading a collection of letters between Hughes and Bontemps, it was easy to notice the Defender being mentioned more often than any other site of publishing   Its success eclipsed The Broad Ax, The Conservator, and The Illinois Idea, though these other important black Chicago papers deserve mention as well.

In a major review of my book Black Writing from Chicago for Time Out Chicago, Jonathan Messinger spent considerable time on my Chicago Defender selections. He wrote that I had “…included pieces that would otherwise now be inaccessible to contemporary readers.”

“Take, for example,” he continued, “two selections published in the Chicago Defender during the newspaper’s early years.  In an editorial from 1917 headlined ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut, Please!’ the editors exhort new residents to keep their voices down on city buses and trains.  The editorial reads: ‘Cut this out, dear reader, and whenever you see one talking loudly hand it to them.’  It’s a tasty bit of old-school newspaper belly-aching, but it’s also an extension of the Defender’s leading role as a voice of the ‘Great Black Migration,’ when the paper circulated nationwide and printed train schedules to facilitate the movement of blacks from the South to the North.  A few pages later, though separated by nearly 30 years in the paper’s history, Langston Hughes satirizes a similar social problem in one of his popular ‘Simple Stories’ columns, featuring the comic character Jesse B. Semple.  Jesse is perturbed at the amount of grease people put in their hair: ‘…there ought to be a law against people with greasy heads going around leaning them up against people’s walls and spotting them all up.’  It’s to Guzman’s credit that he included both of these.  Though they seem to address frivolous topics, they also encapsulate the different ways literature can speak to social concerns in the space of the same newspaper.”

The major theme running through Black Writing from Chicago is expressed in the book’s subtitle.  It’s a question, “In the World, Not of It?”—pointing to a historic, long-running debate among black writers and intellectuals: given our nation’s deep, persistent racism, how much could blacks really hope to be a fully integral part of the wider American world?  And how much should they want this in the first place?  Complex stances and opinions about these questions flowed across a wide, contested spectrum during the Defender’s heyday, and they continue to flow perhaps even more intensely today. The Chicago Defender manifested this complexity and intensity as much as any publication ever has.  On the one hand it expressed a radicalism that demanded full equality and, perhaps, integration.  Yet its habit of referring to African Americans not as “Blacks” or “Negroes” but as “The Race” maintained a strong separatism.

In 2017, Robert Sengstacke Abbott was elected to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Defender-Hansberry case  Go to the article “Lorraine Hansberry: The Battle for Fair Housing,” and to a list of Black Writers on this site.

 

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Willard Motley: His “Race”

In the Afterword of my book Black Writing from Chicago, after I apologize first for not including the great novelist Leon Forrest, I apologize second for not including Willard Motley.  I wrote: “Among other worthy novelists that could not be included is Willard Motley.  The opening pages of We Fished All Night is one of the finest evocations of Chicago’s Loop, and his most successful novel, Knock on Any Door, likewise contains brilliant passages rendering Chicago atmospherics as well as any writer ever has, including Nelson Algren, with whom Motley is often compared.”

MotleyThe Chicago Defender published Motley’s fiction when he was only 13 years old, and Robert S. Abbott himself hired him to write a weekly kids’ column called “Bud Says” under the pseudonym “Bud Billikin,” after the famous parade and picnic still going strong today.  Besides Knock on Any Door (1947), and We Fished All Night (1951), Motley wrote two other novels: Let No Man Publish My Epitaph (1958), and Let Noon Be Fair (published posthumously in 1966).  Born in Chicago in 1912, he died in Mexico City in 1965, aged just 52, of intestinal gangrene.

Despite an early family life of mixed up identities—as a youngster he believed his grandparents were his parents and his mother his sister—that life was steady and full of important role models, including his grandfather, who was a Pullman Porter.  Living in the then mostly white neighborhood of Englewood, he also had few hostile interactions with whites, a situation, we suppose, that made it more normal for him to write mostly white characters.  In fact, Nelson Algren—a good friend, mentor, and early editor—once said Motley “wrote about white people for white people.”  To the accusation that he avoided race, Motley famously replied, “My race is the human race.”  But although race was a relatively minor concern in his novels, these did touch on many social issues, some—like white poverty in Knock on any Door, PTSD in We Fished All Night, and the exploitation of Mexicans in Let Noon Be Fair—which occupy headlines to this day.

Motley-Race2In our 1999 book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, David Starkey picked an excerpt from Knock on Any Door, which basically follows the descent into crime of Nick Romano, an Italian American and former altar boy.  Convicted of killing a cop, “Pretty Boy” Romano—whose motto was “Live fast, die young, and make a good-looking corpse”—becomes something of a media star before he is finally electrocuted.  The novel was an instant success, selling over 47,000 copies in its first three weeks on the shelves, and eventually spawning a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and John Derek.

In an unpublished introduction to Knock on Any Door, Motley outlined his aesthetic: “the writer approaches his subject matter—his fellow man—in humility and understanding, in sympathy and identification.  And he tries—only the serious writer knows how hard—to tell the truth, frankly and unshrinkingly.”  This truth-telling, from Motley’s point of view, garnered less and less praise in succeeding novels, which readers and critics often characterized as grim and hopeless.  Motley, a conscientious objector during the war, was particularly sensitive to the effects of war on both returning vets and the civilian population, a theme grounding We Fished All Night, where he follows the descent of three protagonists from before their induction into the army and through the years immediately following WWII.  It is a vision of individuals, and the entire population, becoming hardened and less tolerant of diversity and dissent.

Motley-FishedIn 2014, Willard Motley was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, the citation reading, in part: “Motley was criticized in his life for being a black man writing about white characters, a middle-class man writing about the lower class, and a closeted homosexual writing about heterosexual urges. But those more kindly disposed to his work, and there were plenty, admired his grit and heart…Chicago was more complicated than just its racial or sexual tensions, and as a writer his exploration was expansive….”  And beautifully written.  Here’s a small passage from the larger Knock on Any Door excerpt David Starkey selected for Smokestacks and Skyscrapers.  It’s about the famous Maxwell Street Market, near which Motley settled when, after traveling the U.S., he returned to Chicago in 1939.

“Before him [Nick Romano] stretched the Maxwell Street Market extending between low, weather-grimed buildings that knelt to the sidewalk on their sagging foundations…On the stands were dumped anything you wanted to buy: overalls, dresses, trinkets, old clocks, ties, gloves—anything…There were still other rough stands—just planks set up across loose-joined wooden horses: hats for a quarter apiece, vegetables, curtains, pyramid-piled stacks of shoes tied together by their laces—everything…The noises were radios tuned as high as they could go, record shop victrolas playing a few circles of a song…men and women shouting their wares in hoarse, rasping voices, Jewish words, Italian words, Polish and Russian words, Spanish, mixed-up English. And once in a while you heard a chicken cackling or a baby crying.”

Go to lists of Chicago Writers and Black Writers (mostly from Chicago) on this site.

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Homelessness and Public Libraries

ThePublic1bThe VIDEO below shows a couple of minutes of a sneak preview we attended for the movie The Public on March 18, 2019.  It featured a wonderful Q&A with Emilio Esteves, where he explains the connection between public libraries and homelessness.  It hits theaters April 5th.  Here’s my review:

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There’s a scene in The Public—a new film about homelessness and public libraries written, directed, and starring Emilio Esteves—where a homeless man, buck naked, stands in front of big windows belting out Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”  Myra, a librarian played by Gena Malone, turns to the head supervisor, Stuart Goodson, played by Esteves, and says, “Are you going to do something about this?  Because he’s really ruining the song for me.” That nakedness and that song return in a big way near the end of the film, and Myra’s quip captures a lot of the feel of this movie.  At first, that feel confused me.

One knock on The Public is that it’s a bit slick: it pushes all the right movie buttons, pleasing the crowd in all the right ways, and some have said it presents too simplistic a view of homelessness.  I myself would just say the movie is very well crafted, even if a bit too smooth, too well fitted together.  And it’s funny. That’s what most confused me at first.  I’ve seen a few movies on homelessness and most are pretty dire.  The Public felt light, clever, full of good feeling.  It’s entertaining.  I imagine that’s why some have called it simplistic. That’s not to say there weren’t darker moments, but the light and dark were balanced in a way we don’t usually think about homelessness, a world we see as irretrievably skewed and unbalanced.  Then I suddenly realized The Public was reflecting what I myself have felt in more than 30 years volunteering in homeless shelters. A homeless shelter holds many tragic stories, it’s true—stories of bad choices, mental illness, addiction, tough, tough, tough breaks—but so many  people there are also incredibly smart, knowing, and very, very funny.  You’re both brought down by the weight of terrible consequences, and also lifted up by the sheer light of human resilience.  The Public captures this range of darkness to light, tragedy to comedy, better than any film on homelessness I’ve seen.  It presents a range of homeless people, too, and it gives them a voice.

DeFactoAnd everything doesn’t fit together smoothly.  The storyline of Detective Ramstead (played by Alec Baldwin) and his son, whom he suspects has joined the ranks of the homeless, seems ragged, and the emotions of it seem poorly motivated.  Perhaps more scenes were shot that would have explained it better, but these wound up on the cutting room floor for the sake of movie time limits.  But outside the world of film what really doesn’t fit is the fact of homelessness itself.  In the richest country in the world, if we take the full spectrum of homelessness into consideration, there are millions without a true home—1.5 million of them being children, a fact that pushes the average age for a homeless person in the United States down to around ten years old.

The Public is a good movie.  As the poster above shows, it’s a Hollywood film acted by some of America’s most prominent, popular stars, and Esteves is particularly good.  Let’s hope that all this star power—and, again, the fact that it’s very entertaining—will hold our attention long enough so we can have a hard  look at homelessness and some ways we can begin curbing this blight.

(I say Three Stars)

I coordinate the homeless shelter program of Friendship United Methodist Church, Bolingbrook, IL.  We serve at Daybreak Shelter in Joliet.  Check the service dates and come join us.

Go to a list of Reviews on this site.

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