The Legacy of Bronzeville
Manning, Christopher, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Seen by many southern blacks a "promised land," Chicago was a focal point of the Great Migration of the early and mid-twentieth century. By the 1950s their community, also known as "Bronzeville" and the "Black Metropolis," was the nation's second largest black community and had become a center of black cultural production, politics, and entrepreneurship. Their agreement on black Chicago's Generality notwithstanding, intellectuals still struggle to situate Bronzeville's historical importance. Harlem's role in the 1920s renaissance has cast a shadow over black Chicago, and many scholars have wondered how to judge Bronzeville's accomplishments given the city's notorious racial history. Recently several scholars have taken up this question and despite their cogent analyses; Chicago's racial legacy remains ambiguous.
Long-time activist and scholar Timmuel D. Black has lived much of this history. His latest book, Bridges of Memory Vol. 2, tells the stories of sixteen second-generation black migrants who grew up in the city's similarly racially segregated neighborhoods (p. xi). Although, he acknowledges that black Chicagoans' quest for equality has been tarnished by "pervasive racial discrimination," his attention to the black community of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s has a primarily positive feel, which Black often contrasts to the negative circumstances faced by lower-class African Americans in Chicago today.
Repeatedly, Black and his interviewees convey Bronzeville's strong cooperative spirit. Jewel Stradford Lafont speaks of how she could walk down almost any block in her community and would greet by name just about everybody she passed. Clark Burrus remembers that his mother used to make enough food at dinner for "anyone who might happen to come by and knock on the door" (p. 160). Black's interviewees also emphasize the vitality of the predominantly black schools and the ambitions of its students, including Meharry Medical College president Arthur Hiñes; Judge William Cousins, and jazz musician Nat King Cole.
Cole's musical development pointed to the vibrant music scene spanning Bridges of Memory. Tenor saxophonist, Bill Adkins, is one of many interviewees who introduce the reader to the great music educator and bandleader, Walter Dyett, who trained a score of top musicians, including Gene Ammons and Benny Green. Beyond training though, Dyett's connections allowed many of his students to play in the South Side's prominent jazz clubs as backups to visiting musicians. Dyett's and others' stories reveal the complex array of local and national networks that came together to form the nation's most important jazz center.
Black's great familiarity with Chicago and his friendships with the interviewees facilitated his recovery of these networks. This affinity perhaps gives a sense of why Black chose the unusual pattern of including his questions and comments in the interview narrative. A revealing format, it allows the reader to see that Black occasionally seeks and pushes for positive portrayals of Bronzeville, despite comments that point to less than perfect community solidarity or onerous racial segregation (See for examples pp. 34, 50, 110, 264). This deficit is offset though, by the fact that the reader is given access to an authentic conversation between Black and his interviewees, which offer a compelling contrast to the artificial soliloquies of most orally-based texts.
While Black's interviewees give life to Bronzeville's music and entertainment, Bavarian Baldwin's Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life maps African-American cultural production in the area that lies between the folk and isolated "intellectual geniuses." Baldwin notes that the Harlem Renaissance's artistic and intellectual products contributed just one part to the development of the 1920s so-called New Negro. Rather, Baldwin writes, the evolution of the New Negro was a "much larger socio-cultural transformation marked by race, class, and cultural contestations between white observers, black cultural producers, critics, activists, reformers, and-centrally-black migrant consumer patrons," which played out with particular clarity in Chicago (p. 5). These contestations reveal the agency of the folk as more than mere objects for artists and writers.
After an introduction that briskly, but at times haphazardly, situates Chicago's centrality as a migrant destination and as a site for contested definitions of black behavior, Baldwin's juxtaposition of the folk and black intellectuals quickly transforms to the central tension of the book between Chicago's Old and New Settlers (p. 9). The first chapter, "Mapping the Black Metropolis," establishes the groups' conflicting visions for black modernity. Both groups believed in economic and cultural autonomy, but they clashed over how to accomplish these goals. Old Settlers, those who had arrived in Chicago in smaller numbers near the turn of the twentieth century, sought to confirm black equality through the establishment of so-called respectable institutions. New Settlers, those who arrived in the first Great Migration between 1917 and 1927, placed more emphasis on leisure activities. Their arguments played out in the editorial pages of Chicago's many black newspapers, but ultimately leisure activities funded by money from the policy, a lucrative illegal lottery, became black Metropolis's "cultural and economic foundation" (p. 45).
Yet, the debate between the two groups continued. In Chapter 2, for example, Baldwin follows the development of a distinctive black beauty culture that drew upon new and old settler sentiments to challenge white disparagement of black femininity (p.18). Baldwin argues that Madame CJ. Walker, who had a significant presence in Chicago, understood the migrants' desire for new products as well as the old settlers' push for racial uplift. Using the latest technology, Walker developed a cosmetic line designed to accentuate, rather than undermine black beauty. She also used her story as a southern migrant as a model for her saleswomen. This approach brought her great success, and established a modern black aesthetic sensibility.
After Chapters 2 and 3 outline developments in film, Chapter 5 "explores the aesthetic, institutional, and commercial agendas" enmeshed in the development of modern gospel (p. 18). As he does elsewhere in the book, Baldwin spends too much time presenting material that was previously discussed in detail by other authors. In this case covering territory similar to that reviewed by Wallace Best in Passionately Human, No Less Divine. Baldwin diverges from Best, however, with a compelling assertion that the convergence of blues and sacred music was not just developed by brilliant artists; rather it represented the demands of blacks as consumers for the inclusion of migrant culture into sacred music.
Where Baldwin examines multiple sites of black cultural production, Clovis Semmes's The Regal Theater and Black Culture traces the long-term development of Chicago's Regal Theater. Semmes contends that the Regal Theater's evolution exposes critical points in the evolution of black theater, film, comedy, and music. It is, therefore, critical to understanding the evolution of "twentieth century African American popular and entertainment culture" (p. 1). Though Baldwin and Black acknowledge racial oppression in Bronzeville, both relegate it to the sidelines as an ominous yet largely marginal character in a play of black creativity. Semmes, however, articulates the interactive relationship between the collectivity of forces that promoted the growth of black culture and those structures of inequality that circumscribed black life.
Built near the end of the grand theater era by the Balaban and Katz Theater Corporation, the Regal dominated its competition in the 1930s because of various factors that would also pose problems for its long-term sustainability. Raramount's purchase of Balaban and Katz put the Regal in the possession of the world's largest theater company and ensured the Regal access to the nation's top talent. The mafia's dominance of local entertainment unions kept the theater's operating costs low, while its control of local nightclubs created employment opportunities for black entertainers outside of the theater. Finally, the combination of racial segregation in downtown theaters and the Regal's location at what would become the center of the city's circumscribed black neighborhood gave the Regal a virtual monopoly in the city's black community.
These factors brought top performers to the Regal and promoted the evolution of an authentic black entertainment culture that appealed to the Regal's homogenous black authences. Initially, writes Semmes, the Regal combined black American cultural forms with a European aesthetic. By the 1930s though, the theater's first black manager, Ken Blewett, responded to black consumer demand for vaudevillian variety shows.
Nevertheless, claims Semmes, the characteristics that allowed for the Regal's commercial success also threatened its longevity. While the Regal benefited from its access to Balaban-Katz Paramount's talent, it had to abide by the company's tendency to divert black artists from the Regal to white theaters. When Balaban and Katz built the Regal, it was at the fringe of the black community, but this posed little problem since blacks steadily moved south. Yet, as middle and upper class blacks continued their southward trek, they left the Regal in an area with fewer stable middle-class families.
Despite these challenges, the Regal succeeded through the 1940s, but a shift in white priorities and the inability of the Regal to react within the limits of segregation rendered it vulnerable. In Chapter 4, Semmes argues that white commercial segregation began to disintegrate as early as the 1950s and white businesses began shifting advertising dollars away from the Regal to formats such as print media, radio, and television. When the mafia took control of the policy, they removed critical funds from the Regal and other black businesses. Through an excellent exposition of the artist-radio-theater nexus, Semmes notes that Chicago deejay Al Benson helped keep the Regal afloat by using his connections in radio to bring talent to the theater. Nevertheless, the Regal's profits declined until Paramount decided to sell the theater to a black businessman in 1963, but this move could not halt the theater's demise.
With so much work pointing to Chicago as a cite of black cultural production, it is hardly surprising Adam Green's Setting the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955 would see Bronzeville as the center of African-American cultural production, responsible for shaping a modern conception of black national identity that resonates into the present (p. 1). Moreover, Green seeks to overturn several preconceptions regarding black Americans, particularly black Americans in Chicago. He disputes, for example, the tragic sociology-based narratives, such as Arnold Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto or Allan Spear's Black Chicago, that see black Chicagoans' story as a failed encounter with modernity and places greater emphasis on the contingent nature of blacks' development in Chicago and on their agency in defining modern blackness.
In Chapter One, "Imagining the Future," Green challenges the essentialist notion of a timeless black national consciousness by showing how the American Negro Exposition (ANE) failed to deal with specific difficult aspects of an implied black national identity. Organized in 1940 by Ferdinand Barnett, the ANE sought to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of slavery through an exposition of black arts. With artists from around the nation eager to participate and unprecedented financial support from the federal government, the organization of the ANE indicated that the hub of black cultural production had moved from New York to Chicago. Yet, black attendance was lackluster, and the event has been dropped from the historical record. Green contends that this letdown stemmed in large part from the organizers' inability to reconcile incipient notions of black nationalism with American patriotism, and a failure to reconcile racial oppression with American patriotism. , the goal of the ANE, to allow blacks to create a modern identity, remained compelling (p. 41).
The difficulties associated with a black national identity, however, were not alleviated by black intellectuals, but rather by black cultural entrepreneurs, who developed a system of nation-wide music distribution that combined multiple elements of African-American culture into a disciplined capitalist enterprise. New forms of black music spread across the country, for instance, due to pioneering Chicago deejays Jack L. Cooper and Al Benson, who extended the idea of black national interest and promoted consumerism in African American culture through their popular radio programs.
Equally as important to the dissemination of a black national identity was Johnson Publishing Company, "indisputably the longest-running" producer in the black culture industry. A symbol of the black middle-class, Johnson Publishing Company's Ebony magazine has endured the most of black intellectuals' critique of the black bourgeoisie as inaurhentic and delusional. Green asks, though, for a new vision of Ebony as the ultimate proponent of the idea that commoditizing black culture could have a transformative effect on black imagination and expression. Ebony's focus, for example, on the everyday lives of black celebrities moved blacks away from an emphasis on idiosyncratic leaders to a modern sense of commonality between black people. In this and other practices, Green argues, Ebony ushered African-Americans into an acceptance of American liberalism.
In Chapter 5, Green writes that the effects of Johnson Publishing Company and Chicago's various national lines of cultural production became apparent in black Americans reaction to Emmitt Till's murder by white supremacists. Mamie Till Bradle/s decision to publicly mourn her son's execution was broadcast through Chicago's well-established mechanisms of cultural production, creating what Green calls "the first modern instance of simultaneity: an occasion in which northern city and southern delta seemed the same place" (p. 182). Contrary to past scholarly assessments, Green contends that Till's murder did not spark political action, but it did put the black experience of violent oppression into a modern, national context.
While acknowledging the progress made in eradicating racial violence and de jure segregation, Raúl Street's book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis argues that structural inequality still maintains white supremacy. An activist and scholar, Street contends that even though most whites repudiate white supremacy, they nonetheless benefit from three centuries of "uncompensated white accumulations from earlier periods when white policy actors and citizens were all too openly and explicitly racist" (p. vii). For Street the existence of a black middle class does not support a color blind, class-based assessment of black Americans' negative circumstances, since groups of privileged blacks have always existed and have long been appropriated by conservatives as counter- symbols for the black poor's alleged "character deficiencies."
Street builds the book on his rebuttals of this and other arguments that have been posited as explanations for the state of black America. After a forceful, though distracting analysis of the media's misreporting on race in the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Chapter One sets out the four arguments Street refutes throughout the text: 1) claims of deficiencies in the character of black Americans; 2) the assertion that welfare undermined black Americans' work ethic; 3) the claim that class is now the dominant influence on black life; 4) the contention that blacks' negative circumstances stem from a backlash against Black Power and the 1960s urban riots. Street then explains why he chose to focus on Chicago-a section that probably should have come far earlier in the text.
After Chapter 2 critiques the tendency of neoliberals to ignore obvious racism evidenced in the disparate statistics regarding black and white life chances, Part ?, "History: The Not So Good Old Ghetto" dissects the four arguments listed above. In Chapter 3, Street writes that the class over race thesis implies that the pre-civil rights ghetto provided blacks with a more stable community. He quotes Timmuel Black, for instance, as calling the old ghetto a "wonderful contained world." Street considers this a myth, however, and lists an array of negative manifestations of racism in the old era.
Although one could quibble with Street's unwillingness to consider the pride that southern black migrants felt in shaping their community in the relative freedom of the urban north, it is difficult to dispute his grim outline of structural inequality in Chicago today. The chapters in Part IÏ recount many of the poor life chances blacks face today, with particular emphasis on how most black Chicagoans have been restrained from taking advantage of any of the opportunities globalization may have to offer. Admirably, Street finishes the book with a straightforward seven-point plan for ending structural inequality, which includes reducing Illinois' dependence on property taxes to fund schools and a proposal to breakup concentrated poverty with inclusionary zoning practices.
At first glance, Street's harsh assessment of the past and current state of black Chicago casts a sober light on the narratives of cultural production and community solidarity discussed earlier. Yet, these analyses are not incongruous. The generations of blacks who forged their own destinies by fleeing southern oppression for a better life in the urban north were quickly confronted by an equally violent and perhaps more insidious form of racism that has helped to define Chicago as America's most segregated city. If the measure of a people is their ability to overcome adversity, the significance of Black Metropolis's accomplishments should come as little surprise indeed.
Christopher Manning is associate professor of history at Loyola University-Chicago and book review editor for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Christopher Manning is an associate professor of histoiy at Loyola University Chicago. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2003 with a specialization in 20th Century American history with particular interest in African-American Political and Civil Rights Activism, Black Chicago, Chicago Politics and Civil Rights Activism, and Ethnicity in Chicago. Dr. Manning is the current Book Review Editor for the Journal, and has a forthcoming book on William Dawson.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Legacy of Bronzeville. Contributors: Manning, Christopher - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Volume: 102. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 101+. © Illinois State Historical Society Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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