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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