Chicago’s Black Literary Renaissance

I do a lot of tours. I have been doing tours of architecture, geography, history, industry and all sorts since the fall of 1983 for organizations ranging from the Geographic Society of Chicago and Field Museum to the Chicago History Museum and Department of Housing and Urban Development. I have done a fair amount of tour training as well, including the Community Showcase tours Rolf Achilles and I did with Jean Guarino last year for various Chicago neighborhoods.

The last few years I have been doing a fair amount of tours for Art Institute of Chicago members – Illinois & Michigan Canal, Farnsworth House, Chicago churches (coming up March 18 and 19, 2010!), parks and boulevards. Last fall I resurrected a tour I first did in 1994 at the urging of the Geographic Society of Chicago – Literary Chicago. The tour consists of an extensive driving tour of Chicago soundtracked with the recitation of a fair amount of poetry and prose inspired by, written in and about the sites we are passing.

This year the tour added some of the newest literary landmarks in Chicago – sites associated with the Black Literary Renaissance. Our tour went past the home at 6140 S. Rhodes where Lorraine Hansberry lived the events she later dramatized in A Raisin In The Sun, the home of Native Son author Richard Wright at 4831 S. Vincennes, and the Hall Branch Library at 4801 S. Michigan. Woodson of course founded Negro History Week which has become Black History Month, which is February which is now. The tour did not take in the longtime home of Gwendolyn Brooks, Illinois’ first poet laureate, since it was several miles further south, but I have always included a half dozen of her poems on the tour, recited as we drive past the streets of Bronzeville that inspired her 1947 collection A Street In Bronzeville.

This recognition of Chicago’s important role in African-American letters helps balance a history that has often focused too narrowly on the Harlem Literary Renaissance, which was certainly the epicenter but not the only center. Chicago’s gritty, realistic and unpretentious style had an important and influential role to play in the cultural awakening of Black America throughout the 20th century. Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison are essential, but so are Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, Richard Wright, the first black author of a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman produced on Broadway.

This is heritage conservation, preserving sites that embody watershed moments in our history. Hansberry’s house is part of a literary tour but it is also the site of a Supreme Court battle that struck down racial covenants on property. Wright’s home was an important stop on a journey that took him from radical politics to expatriate status while trying to survive the Depression in Chicago. Brooks’ work documented the separate society in America’s most segregated city and the Hall library collected and disseminated the massive cultural production of African America.

Back in 1992 when I attended my first National Trust conference, I was working with Floyd Butler and the Young Urban Preservationists, and they were promoting restoration of the then-neglected buildings of the Black Metropolis Historic District. We liked to boast that unlike Harlem, many of the Black Metropolis Buildings in Chicago were built by and for blacks in the 1910s and 1920s, whereas many of the Harlem Renaissance Buildings were “inherited” from other groups. In 1992 I helped advocate for the city’s rehabilitation of the Chicago Bee Building, and by 2000 most of the derelict buildings of the Black Metropolis were restored, from the Eighth Regiment Armory where segregated soldiers mobilized for five wars to the Supreme Life Building, now the Black Metropolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, a site my graduate students visit each fall.

But the sites of Chicago’s South Side are a little like the sites of Chicago’s great architects – they get no respect at home. I live in Oak Park, where a majority of the Frank Lloyd Wright tourists hail from Japan, China and Europe. Similarly, when I hear stories of tourists at the old Grand Terrace Ballroom (now a hardware store on 35th Street) or Black Metropolis center, they seem mostly to be Danish or German or English. Americans are not always the first to embrace their heritage, just as it took a lot of mad dog Englishmen to collect postwar African-American R&B and re-deliver it to us in the 1960s as rock and roll. Why? Ask Gunnar Myrdal. When City Council voted on these landmarks yesterday, they added an extremely vital chapter not only to the history of Chicago but to a cultural expression – and a cultural conflict – at the heart of the American experience.

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