The “Chicago Renaissance” is largely understood as a moment of black cultural outpouring based in Chicago’s African American community known as “Bronzeville” during the first half of the 20th century. The Great Migration’s first wave brought almost 200,000 black southerners to the city and shaped a new surge in black creative achievement. The Great Depression soon followed and exacerbated the racial and economic roadblocks African Americans already faced in this industrialized metropolis. A new sense of culture work emerged in this crucible of aspiration and angst molded by older traditions of black economic self-determination and a proletarian outlook informed by the rise of the Communist Party alongside other progressive organizations. This heightened race and class consciousness cultivated a creative flowering in the shadows of soot spewing factory smokestacks and the crushing dehumanization of segregated slum living. A Chicago Renaissance would arise. Alongside writing workshops and art exhibitions stood a dynamic black public sphere of newspapers and radio programs; a vibrant realm of music, filmmaking, gambling, and sport; a growing cadre of civic, sacred, and politically leftist organizations; and an overlapping network of community and university scholars. These artists, intellectuals, and activists were deeply immersed in all parts of this vibrant Bronzeville community on the city’s South Side; they drew on its life blood for creative inspiration while also circulating work in its public sphere of performance, publication, patronage, and critique. The Chicago Renaissance ultimately developed a black cultural aesthetic that was distinctly geographic and class-conscious in its approach, fully engaging the promise and pitfalls of modern living. For scholars, the recovery of this Chicago Renaissance fills the void of sustained critical attention to black creativity and activism in the period between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, a moment and movement with a unique aesthetic directly engaging the social world from which it emerged.
Understanding the creative flourishing of the Chicago Renaissance requires examination of the aesthetic meanings of its written, sonic, and performed texts and their relationship to the South Side’s black urban landscape. General overviews offer concentrated cultural biographies of various creative forms by exploring the work and lives of individual artists situated within particular genres of cultural production, from literature and visual arts to blues music and filmmaking. These works also pay attention to artistic influence and training, institutional and neighborhood networks, and patronage systems. Robert Bone’s essay, published in 1986, offered the first sustained treatment of a black Chicago Renaissance while also expanding the very notion of “renaissance” by accounting for a more dynamic relationship between literary and visual artists and their patrons and cultural institutions, all within their political contexts. Bone’s posthumously released book version (Bone and Courage 2011) maintains the earlier socio-artistic framework but widens the scope of cultural forms to include the social sciences, music, dance, and photography. But in the time between the essay and the release of its book form, a whole Chicago Renaissance subfield emerged. Tracy 2011 and Miller 2012 primarily offer a combination of biography and cultural analysis of individual authors within the context of their Renaissance framework. Dolinar 2014 and Mullen 1999 use the political radicalism of Chicago’s black cultural front of the 1930s as the backdrop for their treatment of black literary and visual artists and journalists. An anthology, Hine and McCluskey 2012 follows the lead of Bone to examine a wider range of cultural forms in the 1930s and 1940s, which serve as a distinct counterpoint to the Harlem Renaissance. Knupfer 2006 and Green 2007 stay true to the standard historical time period of the 1930s and 1940s but place women’s community activism and commercial culture, respectively, at the center of renaissance. Baldwin 2007 also examines the black commercial marketplace as a key site of cultural and intellectual life but challenges the temporal distinctions between Harlem and Chicago by focusing on the period from the Great Migration to the Great Depression.
Baldwin, Davarian L. Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Pushes Chicago’s black cultural renaissance back to the Great Migration by chronicling black Chicago’s turn to the consumer marketplace of gospel, film, beauty culture, and sports as sites of class conflict, community building, and intellectual life.
Bone, Robert, and Richard Courage. The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932–1950. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Published posthumously, the book version of his pathbreaking 1986 essay focuses on interwar Chicago to extend notions of a black cultural renaissance beyond Harlem and past the 1930s, while accounting for a more dynamic relationship among culture workers, patrons, and community institutions.
Dolinar, Brian. The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
Focuses on the work of Langston Hughes and cartoonist Ollie Harrington to describe how Great Depression–era social movements steered black artists and writers toward the left.
Green, Adam. Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Places Chicago at the center of an emergent black national consciousness in the 1940s and 1950s by examining the agency and activism within the consumer culture of the Associated Negro Press, the music industry, the American Negro Exposition in 1940, and the Johnson Publishing Company.
Hine, Darlene Clark, and John McCluskey Jr., eds. The Black Chicago Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Anthology that focuses on Chicago as the chronological follow-up to the Harlem Renaissance with special focus on music, performance art, the social sciences, and visual and literary expression.
Knupfer, Anne Meis. The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Introduces the vital role of women’s community activism as a key site of renaissance through their culture work in social settlements, women’s clubs, classrooms, and housing projects.
Miller, R. Baxter. On the Ruins of Modernity: New Chicago Renaissance form Wright to Fair. Champaign: Common Ground, 2012.
With a focus on Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ronald Fair, Miller argues that by the last third of the 20th century the trajectory of the African American literary imagination had shifted to Chicago.
Mullen, William. Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935–1946. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
A cultural history of the convergence between African American militancy and the US Left in the making of Chicago’s Black Renaissance through examinations of art but also art-producing institutions.
Schlabach, Elizabeth. Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
Situates the Chicago Black Renaissance within the Bronzeville neighborhood to argue that a geographic orientation largely shaped the work that came from this cultural movement.
Tracy, Steven, ed. Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
Offers a collection of individual critical essays about various Chicago Black Renaissance writers with additional essays on black newspapers, music, theater, and film.
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