Lost Manuscript of the Black Chicago Renaissance “The Negro in Illinois” is Out Now!

Negro in IllinoisThe Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers (University of Illinois Press)

Edited by Brian Dolinar

An extraordinary document of the African American experience

A major document of African American participation in the struggles of the Depression, The Negro in Illinois, was produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers’ Project, one of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs. The Federal Writers’ Project helped to sustain “New Negro” artists during the 1930s and gave them a newfound social consciousness that is reflected in their writing.

Headed by Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps and white proletarian writer Jack Conroy, The Negro in Illinois employed major black writers living in Chicago during the 1930s, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Fenton Johnson, Frank Yerby, and Richard Durham. The authors chronicled the African American experience in Illinois from the beginnings of slavery to Lincoln’s emancipation and the Great Migration, with individual chapters discussing various aspects of public and domestic life, recreation, politics, religion, literature, and performing arts. After the project was canceled in 1942, most of the writings went unpublished for more than half a century–until now.

Working closely with archivist Michael Flug to select and organize the book, editor Brian Dolinar compiled The Negro in Illinois from papers at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson Library in Chicago. Dolinar provides an informative introduction and epilogue which explain the origins of the project and place it in the context of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Making available an invaluable perspective on African American life, this volume represents a publication of immense historical and literary importance.

A section of The Negro in Illinois can be read at Google Books.

Early Praise for The Negro in Illinois

“For decades, scholars and enthusiasts of the Black Midwest have lamented the abortive end to the WPA’s The Negro in Illinois project, the most ambitious New Deal study of African American life and history.  Now this treasure can enjoy the wide readership it always deserved.  Working with the Harsh Research Collection and other archives across the country, editor Brian Dolinar has located all twenty-nine chapters of the original survey, written by the cream of the Chicago Renaissance generation, and supplemented their work with illuminating and helpful annotation.   The result is equal parts epic, elegy and captivating ledger of the contributions and circumstances of African Americans in Illinois, from frontier and slavery days to the emergence of the Black Metropolis.  This volume is testament to the extraordinary capacities of African Americans in Chicago and Illinois, and to how their story encapsulates that of a nation.”

Adam Green, author of Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955

“Brian Dolinar’s efforts are impressive along two scholarly fronts. He has presented a first-class introduction to the monumental New Deal Era’s writing project to preserve black Chicago’s history and culture that was embodied in the research and writings of Arna Bontemps, Jack Conroy, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and others. Then, he has untiringly resurrected all 29 chapters of the historic Illinois Writers’ Project labeled The Negro in Illinois, providing posterity with long sought-after meanings of things past in the vaunted Black Metropolis of the early twentieth century.”

Christopher Robert Reed, author of The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1920-1929

“An exciting act of scholarly recovery. The Negro in Illinois papers, at long last available, are an invaluable guide to the role of American writers in crafting one of the first composite narratives of African American life. This dynamic volume shows us history from below in the making and being made.”

Bill V. Mullen, coeditor of Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans

“This landmark study provides a unique window onto the work of the Illinois unit of the Federal Writers’ Project. A commendable work of historical recovery.”

Richard Courage, coauthor of The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950

“Dark Days”: Lost Novel of the Black Chicago Renaissance Released

(From left to right) Christopher Reed, Mrs. Jones, Dewey Roscoe Jones II, Richard Courage

(From left to right) Christopher Reed, Mrs. Jones, Dewey Roscoe Jones II, Richard Courage

On June 15, a panel was organized by the Black Chicago History Forum to launch the publication of Dewey Jones’ novel Dark Days: A Tale of Love Along the Color Line. Jones was a journalist and longtime book reviewer for the Chicago Defender. Written in 1935, the novel was self-published by Dewey Roscoe Jones II, who spoke about his father’s life. Literary scholar Richard Courage put Dewey Jones and his novel in the context of other works of African American literature from the 1920s and 1930s. This event marked the publication of one of the lost novels of the Black Chicago Renaissance. I bought a copy, had it signed, and it’s on my summer reading list.

Dark Days 004

June 15: Panel About Chicago Defender Journalist Dewey Jones

Passing along news of this panel on Dewey Jones featuring colleague Richard Courage, co-author with Robert Bone of The Muse in Bronzeville.

DeweyJonesPortrait

The Black Chicago History Forum Presents a panel discussion on the pioneering editorial and literary work (1923-1935) of Dewey Roscoe Jones, Sr. at the historic Chicago Defender

Panelists who will discuss his writings and novel, Dark Days, include Dewey Jones II, Professor Richard Courage, and Heather Robinson of the South Side Community Arts Center.

Where: Quinn Chapel AME Church,
[Chicago’s First African American Congregation]
2401 South Wabash Avenue
First Floor Assembly Hall

When: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at  2:00 p.m.

The Black Cultural Front

The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation describes how the social and political movements that grew out of the Depression facilitated the left turn of several African American artists and writers. The Communist-led John Reed Clubs brought together black and white writers in writing collectives. The Congress of Industrial Organizations’ effort to recruit black workers inspired growing interest in the labor movement. One of the most concerted efforts was made by the National Negro Congress, a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations, which held cultural panels at its national conferences, fought segregation in the arts, promoted cultural education, and involved writers and artists in staging mass rallies during World War II.

This book examines the formation of a black cultural front by looking at the works of poet Langston Hughes, novelist Chester Himes, and cartoonist Ollie Harrington. While none of these writers were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, they all participated in the Left during their careers. Interestingly, they all turned to creating popular culture in order to reach the black masses who were captivated by movies, radio, newspapers, and detective novels. There are chapters on Hughes’s “Simple” stories, Himes’s detective fiction, and Harrington’s “Bootsie” cartoons.

Collectively, the experience of these three figures contributes to the story of a “long” movement for African American freedom that flourished during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Yet this book also stresses the impact that McCarthyism had on dismantling the Black Left and how it affected each individual involved. Each was radicalized at a different moment and for different reasons. Each suffered for their past allegiances, whether fleeing to the haven of the “Black Bank” in Paris, or staying home and facing the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yet the lasting influence of the Depression in their work was evident for the rest of their lives.

Praise for The Black Cultural Front:
“Brian Dolinar’s The Black Cultural Front is essential reading for students and scholars of the African American Left. Deeply researched and eye-opening, Dolinar brings up challenging questions about the politics of popular culture to provide a rare, ingenious, and powerfully argued reconceptualization of the literary and artistic achievements of three major black radicals.”

―Alan Wald, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan

“While The Black Cultural Front focuses on the above three writers, it is also a formidable history of a repressive period in American history that is little known for its political horror to many of today’s citizens.  At the same time, this repression stimulated an incredibly rich intellectual and artistic output by African American writers who not only understood the economic underpinnings of the racial and political repression, but reflected them publicly in their literary works and at their own peril.  Brian does a magnificent job examining a portion of this literature in its historical context.”

―Belden Fields, co-editor of The Public i