In 1997, Darlene Clark Hine came across an essay in which Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps argued that Black Chicago had its own, little-known renaissance that began in the 1930s and rivaled the famous one that occurred in 1920s New York.
“I read this and said, ‘What in the world?’” said Hine, a professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University. “Bontemps was saying that Chicago had a major Black arts movement without finger bowls and highfalutin intellectuals. Most of Chicago’s artists were hardworking, working-class people creating the people’s art.”
Bontemps’ essay was the inspiration for “The Black Chicago Renaissance,” a recently released anthology published by University of Illinois Press and co-edited by Hine and Indiana University professor John McCluskey Jr.
The book offers highly readable essays from scholars who tell stories about the artists — including some Harlem Renaissance ex-pats who came to Chicago — and the conditions that contributed to a major arts movement in the city that lasted for more than two decades.
McCluskey, a professor emeritus of African-American and African Diaspora studies, said even before the book was published there was significant pushback regarding whether a Chicago Renaissance really existed.
“New York was important, but no city has a monopoly on art,” he said. “Even the Pullman porters were going from city to city dropping off culture. We do a disservice when we forget (the black arts movements) in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and later, Atlanta.”
But a renaissance is a big deal. A rebirth. A reinvention. Did that happen in Chicago?
Hine said it did, with some major differences between Harlem and Chicago.
Unlike the Harlem Renaissance, from about 1919 to the mid-1930s, the Chicago movement didn’t have as its face such well-known intellectuals as W.E.B. Du Bois. Chicago artists didn’t have relatively large numbers of wealthy White patrons who helped to support their art. In addition, Chicago, unlike New York, wasn’t the publishing mecca of the country, so artists and their work weren’t as readily introduced to a national audience.
But Chicago was a mecca in other ways.
It had an influx of new residents from the South who mixed their culture with that of those already here. For example, Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, was blending the raucous music of the Southern Pentecostal Church with the showmanship of the city’s blues district.
Chicago had thriving Black businesses and enough residents who worked in the steel mills, factories and meat-packing industry to support the arts.
The city also had a group of young artists who wove together art, politics and the struggle for civil rights. Charles White, who painted murals in churches and libraries around the city, said, “I had only my brushes to fight with.”
McCluskey said White and painter Archibald Motley were to Chicago what Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence were to New York.
There were other major figures here: Margaret Burroughs, an artist and teacher who would later co-found the DuSable Museum of African American History; dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham; acclaimed poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who was married to White.
“People have been so consumed by the ghetto model of Chicago’s South Side and wondering ‘How could people forced to live under restrictive housing covenants be creating art when there was so much suffering and pain?’” Hine said. “But art flourished.”
She said many artists, such as Margaret Walker, author of the novel “Jubilee,” were supported by the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. Others won fellowships funded by Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears, Roebuck & Co..
As the Harlem Renaissance was winding down in New York, several artists considered seminal to that movement, such as Bontemps and Langston Hughes, left the East Coast and spent time in Chicago.
Hughes, a poet and playwright, was a columnist for the Chicago Defender. Bontemps, a librarian and poet, attended the University of Chicago before taking a job at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
Author Richard Wright, who wrote the best-seller “Native Son,” was 19 when he came to Chicago in 1927. He lived here for a decade before moving to Harlem.
“Chicago was the blues capital of the world, and Wright started out writing bad blues songs,” McCluskey said. “He wrote a song about (boxer) Joe Louis that Paul Robeson sang. He was accompanied by Count Basie’s band.”
McCluskey said that when Wright arrived in Chicago, he was desperately poor and so underweight that he had to gorge himself on bananas and buttermilk to make the 125-pound minimum weight required to work at the post office.
“Coming out of Mississippi, you would think race was so important, but in Chicago, (Wright) began to see social class as important as race,” McCluskey said. Wright later would align himself with the Communist Party.
Hine said it’s difficult to say when the Chicago Renaissance ended. Some of the energy began to wind down in the 1950s with the murder of Chicago teen Emmett Till in the South and the beginning of the civil rights movement. The Chicago arts movement surged again in the 1960s with artists such as Haki Madhubuti at the helm.
“The Black renaissance was a definitive, declaration of Black humanity and art,” she said. “It said, ‘We are citizens and we have rights. We demand to be respected for our culture and contributions.’”
By; Dawn Turner Trice