Introduction to Black Writing from Chicago – Part 2

Cover for Black Writing from ChicagoThis is Part 2 of the introduction to my book Black Writing from Chicago.  It continues to detail Chicago’s importance not only as a site producing great writers but also some of the greatest publishing ventures in black history, from the Chicago Defender to Johnson Publishing to Third World Press and more.  But Part 2 begins even deeper: with Chicago’s part in the very construction of blackness itself.

 Read PART 1 of the Introduction, which contains many links to related material.  Also read the book’s Foreword and Afterword, go to a list of Black writers (most are in the book), and to the Teaching Diversity main page.


St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton

St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton

Chicago was also the site at which so much about the “modern, urban Negro” came to be constructed.  Charles S. Johnson, the first Black president of FiskUniversity, co-authored The Negro in Chicago, considered a landmark in sociology, as was Black Metropolis, a study of Chicago by Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, the first in-depth study of Black urban life.  And inevitably there is Richard Wright, whose Bigger Thomas, the center of Native Son (a national sensation in 1940) created a mythic kind of Black consciousness that defined decades of thinking about Blackness that continues to this present day.  “The scene of modernism for Blacks,” writes Houston A. Baker, Jr.,

“was to be a Chicago of the intellect and imagination, an urban space in which an archetypal “Bigger” Black consciousness was to find itself caught in a nightmare of acquisitive real estate owners, callous labor leaders, corrupt political officials and morally blind social welfare workers.  Bigger in the electric chair might well have been emblematically and realistically enacted by the Black Panthers’ leader, Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the [Chicago] State’s Attorney’s office in 1969.”7

Robert S. Abbott

Robert S. Abbott

These social and mental constructs emanating from Chicago have been central to Black culture worldwide.  But culture is also literally published forth, and Chicago was the site of some of the most important publishing ventures in Black history.  Robert S. Abbott’s Chicago Defender first appeared in May 1905 and went on to become the largest Black-owned paper in the world, at one time claiming an international readership of over 500,000 a week.  Running editorials, cartoons, and train schedules, the Defender fueled the Great Northern Migration, which brought over a million Blacks north, over 100,000 of them to Chicago.  Among its regular commentators were W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes.  Reading a collection of letters between Hughes and Arna Bontemps, it was easy to notice the Defender being mentioned more often than any other site of publishing.  Hughes is represented in this collection because the Defender was the site of his first regular column and the birth place of Jesse B. Semple and all the “Tales of Simple” which followed.8

In 1996 John H. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, primarily for starting the Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, a signal event in American history.  Besides publishing Ebony and Jet, Johnson, especially when the fiery Hoyt W. Fuller edited for him, had an enormous influence on Black writing through the publication of the Negro Digest (later Black World).  Then in 1967 Haki Madhubuti, with the help of writers like Carolyn Rodgers and Johari Amini, started Third World Press, another publishing institution of incalculable significance to Black writing in Chicago and the world.

Robert S. Abbott with an initial investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300, John H. Johnson with a $500 loan against his mother’s furniture, Haki Madhubuti with $400 and an old mimeograph machine—that’s how these three great sites of Black publishing began.  This collection intends to honor these achievements, as well as hint at the importance of dozens of Chicago writers to the history of Black writing in America.

Carolyn RodgersI have arranged the book roughly in chronological order by author’s birth.  I have not divided it into the standard literary periods mentioned above (Reconstruction, Negro Renaissance, etc.) because I did not always pick a writer’s classic writing from the periods with which he or she might have been most closely associated.  I have chosen, for example, more recent work from Carolyn Rodgers, whose work today seems to me as fine as her work in the Black Arts Movement in the 60’s and early 70’s.  I have not chosen the most fiery 60’s poems of Haki Madhubuti, but later work which turns that fire inward for the sake of rejuvenating the Black community from the inside out.  I thought it more important to try to reflect the unfolding and persistence of the integrationist-separatist tension.  That too sometimes wrinkles chronology.  Leonidas Berry, for example, was never seen as a literary type, and his work was written decades after the place it occupies in the contents.  I have put it close to selections from the Intercollegiate and Era Bell Thompson, however, not only because of his birth date, but also because it carries a similar tone and take towards the in-the-world-not-of-it theme.

John Jones

John Jones

Given exceptions like these, however, reading this book cover to cover unfolds a story that roughly reflects literary periods.  The history of Black writing in America is usually divided into seven periods, of which I mentioned the middle five above.  These five are flanked on the front end by the so-called Colonial Period (1746-1800) and on the back end by the Neo-Realist Movement (the 1970’s and on).  Writers from Chicago have played a major role in every period except the Colonial, for obvious reasons.  In this collection, John Jones’ The Black Laws of Illinois represents the Antebellum Period (1800-1865); and Ida B. Well’s pamphlet against participation in the 1893 World’s Fair is a major document of the Reconstruction Period (1865-1900).

Audrey Petty and Tyehimba Jess

Audrey Petty and Tyehimba Jess

Among the most important authors of the Negro Renaissance (1900-1940, of which the Harlem Renaissance was just a part) are Fenton Johnson and Frank Marshall Davis, although Davis is often seen as a key player in the next movement, too.  Davis, with Richard Wright, Frank London Brown, Lorraine Hansberry, and Gwendolyn Brooks were central to the Protest Movement (1940-1959), though Brooks is also seen as central to the next movement.  This Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the 60’s was fueled by Haki Madhubuti, Carolyn Rogers, Johari Amini, Angela Jackson, Hoyt W. Fuller and many other Chicago writers, some of whom—like Sandra Jackson-Opoku—have gone on, with the likes of Chicago-area native Charles Johnson, to produce important works in the Neo-realist Movement which began in the 70’s and, under the powerful influence of Toni Morrison and others, dominates Black writing today.  This writing shares the stage, however, with still-vibrant 60’s influences, part of which show up in the resurgence of performance poetry.  Chicago performance and Slam poets like Tyehimba Jess, Tara Betts, Regie Gibson, and Marvin Tate are among the most exciting in the nation and read almost as well on the page as they play on the stage.

BettsReflecting literary periods, following the complex flows of a theme, catching the gritty, occasionally sentimental tone of Chicago Black writing—besides these duties I have also tried to choose writing I by and large enjoyed for its use of language, its honesty, its probing logic.  In a forward to Johari Amini’s collection of poems Let’s Go Somewhere, Gwendolyn Brooks summed up so much of what writing can do and be all at once in terms of language and form and feeling and social and thematic significance.  She also captures a uniqueness related to what I tried to convey at the beginning of this introduction.  There is no better way to end an introduction to Black writing from Chicago than to return to the very beginning and again quote Gwendolyn Brooks, who always preferred “Black” to African-American:

“There is such freedom in what the “new” Black poets are doing now.  They feel FREE to do what they want to do, to commit Sins against any of the Academies, against any of the musty Musts.   To use—as they experiment, feel out, grope toward their various kinds of Way—Too many capitals, Too many dots and slants and dashes, Too much alliteration.  They feel free to run words together, or pull them impudently and unprecendentedly away from each other.  To make a squalling harmony.  Johari’s poems are of the essence of this constructive impudence, this endorsement of chainlessness, this singular blend of confidence and awe.” 9

I am haunted by the many who have been left out—Leon Forrest, for example—and try to make some small amends in my Afterword.  But I hope enough have been included for you to catch some glimpse of Chicago Black writing’s more quality, a quality compounded of “squalling harmony” and “constructive impudence,” of  “confidence and awe” blended in a singular way indeed.

1  Hoyt W. Fuller, “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Anchor Books, 1972): 9.
2  For an example of the standard divisions of Black literary history see the Table of Contents in Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones (eds.), The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall,2000).
3  Hoyt W. Fuller, “The New Black Literature: Protest or Affirmation,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Anchor Books, 1972): 330, 336.  This essay, along with the one mentioned in note 1 above, is considered a seminal essay in Black cultural critique.
4  See James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook,” the first part of The Fire Next Time, in Collected Essays (New York: Literary Classics of the United States/Library of America, 1998): 293.
5  In his essay “Junior and John Doe,” in Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, ed. Gerald Early (New York: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1993): 175-176, James Alan McPherson quotes Ellison as saying: “I tell white kids that instead of talking about black men in a white world or about black men in white society, they should ask themselves how black they are because black men have been influencing the values of the society and the art forms of the society.  How many of their parents fell in love listening to Nat King Cole?”
6  “Controversial Cosby,” ABC Nightline, 26 May 2005.
7  Houston A. Baker, “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” in The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 31.
8  See Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967, ed. Charles H. Nichols (New York: Paragon House, 1990).
9  Gwendolyn Brooks, Introduction to Johari Amini, Let’s Go Somewhere (Chicago: Third World Press, 1970): 7-8.

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Introduction to Black Writing from Chicago – Part 1

Cover for Black Writing from ChicagoNote:  I have divided my nearly-3500 word introduction to my book Black Writing from Chicago into two parts for this website.  Part 1 begins with a quote from Gwendolyn Brooks about her objection to the term “African-American.”  It’s my justification for not calling the book “African American Writing from Chicago,” a title some had suggested as more “proper.”  Below I explain how Chicago writing fits into the standard literary periods scholars use to talk about Black writing, but I focus most on the character of Black writing that has come from Chicago, and on explaining my rather odd subtitle—a question: “In the World, Not of It?”  It ends with a statement about the centrality of Chicago, especially Bronzeville, to Black writing around the world, a theme I detail later.  When the book came out one critic noted that at last we had a book that firmly established Chicago as a counterpart of the Harlem Renaissance.  I post this Introduction in mid-2015, in the wake of racism’s effects in Ferguson, Long Island, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore, Charleston, etc. etc. etc.  From this perspective, as well as sheer literary merit, it seems to me that Chicago’s Black writing is more relevant today than ever.

  Read PART 2 of the Introduction and go to a list of Black Writers, most of them from this book.


Gwendolyn BrooksThis objection of mine to the designation African-American is not popular.  Nevertheless!  The phrase is ISLANDING.  The phrase is limiting.  The phrase is weak…Almost a honeyed music: AF-ri-can A-MER-i-can.  (As opposed to B-L-A-C-K !  Which comes right out to meet you, eye to eye.)  —Gwendolyn Brooks,  Report from Part Two

As might be expected, the writing collected here is sometimes less refined.  It’s Chicago writing.  Instead, it’s “more.”  Describing the daring of the city’s Black writing, Hoyt W. Fuller said it was like Ray Charles’ music: more gritty, more blunt and aggressive, more raw and free-wheeling than most American writing.1  Some of it is more hopeful—Era Bell Thompson’s writing, for example.  But Fenton Johnson, one of the city’s earliest literary stars, expressed more despair and more fatalism than any Black writer ever had.  He stunned turn-of-the-century America, just as Chicago, the “City of the Century,” stunned America with an explosive growth and grinding materialism which always threatened to crush the human spirit.  The arts, too, had to struggle harder, get scrappier, grittier, and when artists survived they expressed more triumph, and sometimes more sentimentality, than elsewhere.

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

Race added that much more to the struggle.  In part, this collection attempts to follow the complex, often clashing, currents of a crucial race theme.  My subtitle turns a phrase of Jesus into a question.  His followers, he said, were certainly in the world, but were not to be of it, were not to be “worldly.”   It has always been a pivotal question for Black Americans:  the extent to which they could be, should be, or should want to be part of the world of American culture and society at large. On the one hand, Black culture has contributed in incredible disproportion to what makes the United States so distinctive culturally, politically, spiritually.    It has made the U.S. what it is to such an extent that every American could be said to be one-third Black at the very least.  Why wouldn’t Blacks want to be integrated into something they have so largely made?  Racism blocked this, of course.  And it is obvious that American culture has always manipulated Black culture, swallowed it, commodified it, profited from it, while shutting Black people out.  Because of this, separatism and integration become opposite poles of a continual spectrum of tension which has played out more powerfully in Chicago than virtually anywhere else.

Rather humble appeals to “play fair” and let Blacks be fully part of America characterize much of the rhetoric of the earliest pieces in this collection, pieces an academic might place in the so-called “Antebellum” period of Black writing in America (1800-1865).2   These give way to more aggressive appeals to reason in the “Reconstruction” period (1865-1900).   But after the forging of distinctly Black styles in the “Negro Renaissance” (1900-1940), the “Protest” period (1940-1959) and the “Black Arts Movement” (the 1960’s), Black writing almost obsessively foregrounds the question of assimilation—of how much Blacks should ever want to be part of a larger society that continued to mistreat them.  The answer, shouted in Chicago probably louder than anywhere else, was often: Not much, Not in any way if it can be helped.  In Chicago from the 60’s to the 80’s, the Organization of Black American Culture, OBAC, was a megaphone for this shout, as well as a major world site for the ferment of Black styles and themes.

FullerIn his seminal 1970 essay “The New Black Literature: Protest or Affirmation,” Hoyt W. Fuller wrote: “The trouble with black literature in America is—and always has been—the white literary establishment.”  “Even James Baldwin,” he continues, “…bought the assimilationist philosophy and proceeded to launch a brilliant literary attack against the works of Richard Wright in particular and all ‘protest’ literature in general.  He lived to regret it.”3   Indeed, shortly after such “assimilationist” attacks, Baldwin began articulating a kind of reverse assimiliation, saying that Blacks needed to forget about integrating with whites.  Whites, in fact, needed to integrate into Blackness.4   Ralph Ellison voiced it another way, saying it was time for whites to ask how Black they were, instead of Blacks always having to struggle with being absorbed into whiteness.5   These attempts to see assimiliation in reverse is one of many strategies that map a hazy middle ground between a separatist and an integrationist Black ideology.

Haki MadhubutiMany of the pieces in this collection can be heard talking to each other along this separatist-integrationist spectrum.  Some writing focuses on figures who have become icons of that hazy middle ground: Colin Powell, for example—or, more intriguingly, Josephine Baker, who held herself at such a distance from white America even as much of the white world here and elsewhere idolized her.  The Intercollegiate Wonder Book can be seen as a handbook for Blacks who want to step fully into American society, while Haki Madhubuti’s Black Men: Obsolete, Single Dangerous? can be seen as a handbook for separatist Blacks, just as his Third World Press championed business, writing, and education by Blacks for Blacks.

The flows across this spectrum are complex.  The Chicago Defender newspaper manifested 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 contrast, the writing coming from Chicago’s Johnson Publishing moved clearly towards an integrationist ethic, not only in the way its Negro Digest was styled largely after Readers Digest, or Ebony magazine after Life magazine, but also in its increasing championing of less radical, middleclass values.  Yet the content of Negro Digest and Ebony was often very radical, particularly when Hoyt W. Fuller himself worked for Johnson.  However, as the excerpt included here makes plain, Fuller’s break with Johnson was largely over the more middleclass direction of Ebony, along with Fuller’s empathy for Palestinians.  A clearer case of contrast would be Johnson protégé Era Bell Thompson whose sunny optimism stands in contrast to Richard Wright’s pessimism, just as her American Daughter was deliberately named to stand in contrast to Wright’s Native Son.  Yet here, too, Wright cannot be said to be wholly separatist, only hyper-conscious of the difficulties of integration at any level.

Ronald L. Fair: We Can't BreatheIt often comes down to attitudes about middleclassness.  That theme runs through selections from Sam Greenlee and many others.  Hoyt W. Fuller and Ronald L. Fair excoriate the Black middle class while Dempsey J. Travis, Leonidas Berry, and others hold it up.  The controversy continually flares, in recent times most famously over Bill Cosby’s May 2004 “lectures” on the problems of Black youth.  A 2005 ABC Nightline special on the controversy featured Shelby Steele touting individual responsibility and initiative as the key to full opportunity in American society.  But Michael Eric Dyson said it was disingenuous to  put the burden so squarely on “the poor.”  Not only is the problem more systemic, he said, but the Black middleclass who abandon their brothers and sisters is even more to blame.6  In this book, perhaps the most interesting formulation of the tension occurs when Barack Obama notes a church brochure which says it is all right to seek “middle-incomeness” but not middleclassness.  The emotional center of this book, however, is Leanita McClain’s writing.  To read her pieces—and Rohan Preston’s poem which alludes to her suicide—is to understand how the question of middleclassness can victimize, how she, like many others, can careen from one end of the integration-separation spectrum to the other.

The story by Cyrus Colter shows that the degree to which one embraces the world also depends on the subtleties of personal relationships and the interior landscapes of regret and fear related to, but also beyond, race and class.  For Gwendolyn Brooks I chose not more readily available classics like “The Chicago Defender Sends a Reporter to Little Rock,” which would have closely reflected her contributions to the Protest phase of Black writing, but pieces which also show how very personal choices shape our decision to be less “of the world,” as Maud Martha decides.  Then again, her wonderful poems to Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) and Walter Bradford reflect, successively, a delight in a certain kind of “being in the world,” and a determination to “Stay” and not to be beaten down by it.  As I have said, the flows across the spectrum of this theme are extraordinarily complex.

Elizabeth AlexanderSo too is the reality of cultural flow which has made Chicago such a central site of Black writing in America, a site flowed to and criss-crossed over and over by thousands of migrants, and by the words, images, spirits, and bodies of the greatest Black artists in the U.S. and the world.  Some writers included here, like Charles Johnson and Elizabeth Alexander, have moved on from Chicago.  Can we call them Chicago writers?  I looked for a certain tone, such as I alluded to in the first paragraph of this introduction, but also for significance of time spent and works published.  In Alexander’s case, for example, I included poems from Body of Life, published in Chicago by Tia Chucha press.  But the reverse scenario is much, much more the case: why not call more Black writers Chicago writers?   Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Chester Himes, Margaret Walker, Carter G. Woodson, James Alan McPherson, even Harlem’s James Baldwin—it was tempting to claim these and many, many others as “Chicago writers,” so central was the site of Chicago to their careers.  For example, Baldwin’s titantic struggle with the father figure brought him to Chicago to seek out Elijah Muhammad, a story he told first in The Fire Next Time; and one of McPherson’s first big writing breaks came when the Atlantic Monthly published his pieces on Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers.  For example, perhaps the biggest of them all, Margaret Walker, claimed proudly by Louisiana, wrote For My People, her most famous work and winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, while she was with the Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago and participated as a key figure on the Chicago writing scene.

Bronzeville: Black Chicago in PicturesIt has become common to acknowledge a Chicago Renaissance (1932 to 1950) flowing across the traditional line between the Negro Renaissance and the Protest Movement mentioned earlier.  This renaissance was led by individuals like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, but perhaps as much by a powerful community, Bronzeville, a site stretching seven miles from 22nd to 63rd Streets between Wentworth and Cottage Grove.  The home of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, of Johnson Publishing and the Chicago Defender (initially at least), of Brooks and many other writers, and of such luminaries as Joe Louis and Mahalia Jackson, Bronzeville supplanted Harlem as the center of Black culture in American during the 40’s.

 Read PART 2 of the Introduction and go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Count Your Blessings

Nedra-Akk3The song and video below is in memory of three friends: Nedra Groggins-Sage, Ahkkmand Sage, and Mike Feldmann.  About 10 years ago Nedra put together a band for Friendship United Methodist Church and hired Dan Guzman as lead guitarist.  Linda and I followed Daniel there to hear the music and just stayed.  I got to play lots of keyboard for this extraordinary group of musicians.

“Count Your Blessings” (below) shows us at one of our peaks.  It’s pretty good—especially considering that this is a first take, I had never played the song with them before, and our regular bassist, Leonard Jones, had his arm in a sling, so recording engineer Dan Ryan had to step in.  We talked maybe 2-3 minutes about what we should do, then Mr. Ryan turned on the mics, picked up a bass, and away we went, tearing through the story of old Job.

That story has caused countless thoughts on the nature of suffering, the role of God in it, and how we should respond to these mysteries.  I think of the band often, of all the turmoil and suffering of its members.  Maybe that’s why we rode the song so joyfully and brought to this first and only take such detailed, flowing music.  Mistakes, sure, but on the whole everyone worked so hand-in-glove.  My favorite part is the fade-out at the end where Daniel hits a beautiful bluesy note, and I respond with a blues vamp, an instant transformation of a similar one I’d been using throughout the song.  You had to have played years together for that to happen, and Daniel and I had.  It’s one of my most beautiful memories of playing with my boys.

Mike FeldmanAnd now Nedra and husband Akkhmand are gone.  And Mike Feldmann, too.  He moved years ago, but in early July Daniel brought the shocking news that Mike, always so fit, had died suddenly earlier this year.  If anyone played perfectly on this song, it was Mike.  That’s him in your right speaker, with a delicate rhythm guitar that’s rock-solid on.  He was also the band’s gear head, and set Daniel up with his first great guitar, amps, and speakers.

The original video was done before I’d learned about Mike, so I re-did it, adding a memory page for him.  It started mainly as a tribute to Nedra, though she doesn’t take the lead vocal, but contributes the alto harmonies behind the voice of Theresa Huberty, who’s family actually toured with the famous Gaither Singers.   I guess that partially explains the soaring beauty of Theresa’s voice.  Because Nedra’s not in the lead, I saw this video as the band singing to her…and now to Mike, too.

Hear more music on this site, especially Dan Guzman’s.

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