The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2013)
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 After the project was canceled in 1942, most of the writings went unpublished for more than half a century–until now.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.
To read about the recovery of The Negro in Illinois read this story by Dawn Turner Trice in the Chicago Tribune. You can watch a book discussion I was a part of at the Woodson Branch Library in Chicago with Adam Green, Darlene Cark Hine, and Christopher Reed on C-SPAN’s Book TV here. You can listen to an interview I conducted with WGLT, the public radio station at Illinois State University, online here. You can also read a new review at Chicago Book Review here.
A section of The Negro in Illinois can be read at Google Books.
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 (2007)
“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 (2011)
“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 (2008)
“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 (2011)
“This work should be on the shelf of all who are interested in the study of African American literature, politics, economics, and culture. Dolinar’s The Negro in Illinois is unquestionably indispensable.”
—Gary Holcomb, author of Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (2007)