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John McCluskey
African American and African Diaspora Studies

Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012

IU professor's new book reveals a 'Black Chicago Renaissance'

Aug. 22, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- While much has been written about the influence of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s, few scholars have taken note of similar periods of African-American creativity elsewhere.

A new book co-edited by an Indiana University professor presents a vibrant movement that took place in Chicago from the 1930s into the 1950s, likely mirroring in some ways how African-Americans in other cities were exploring new ways of expressing themselves musically, artistically and through the written word and social sciences.

"We recognized that a lot of energy was coming out of other cities," said John McCluskey, professor emeritus of African American and African Diaspora studies in IU's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Black Chicago experienced a cultural renaissance that rivaled and, some argue, exceeded the cultural outpouring in Harlem. The Black Chicago Renaissance, however, has yet to receive its full due. This volume addresses that neglect," his co-editor, Northwestern University professor Darlene Clark Hine, wrote in the introduction to "The Black Chicago Renaissance" (University of Illinois Press).

McCluskey, Hine and about 10 other scholars initially decided to look more closely at what happened in Chicago because of the activities of writers Richard Wright, who spent a decade in Chicago before later writing "Native Son," and Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poetry won a Pulitzer Prize.

John McCluskey

John McCluskey

Print-Quality Photo

"Even before the Harlem Renaissance was ending, there was a kind of bubbling along the way that things were happening in other parts of the country," said McCluskey, author of the novels "Look What They Done to My Song" and "Mr. America's Last Season Blues."

"We started probing Chicago and discovered that there was a lot of energy there that had gone unexamined," he added. "In some ways, it was not a countermovement, but an extension of the Harlem Renaissance into the Midwest."

The book so far has been well-received by scholars and not surprisingly in the "City of the Big Shoulders."

"The book is doing a couple of things. It is not only filling in gaps of information, but it also tries to challenge people to look at this whole notion of 'renaissance' in a different light," said McCluskey, also co-editor of "Black Men Speaking," a collection of voices, stories and poems, as well as several anthologies, and co-founder of the IU Press book series "Blacks in the Diaspora." "We're fairly confident that it will create a stir and enhance the conversation nationally about urban renaissances."

Unlike Harlem, Chicago was an urban industrial center that had attracted a great migration of African-Americans from the South, who came for employment. While the Harlem Renaissance was supported largely through individual white patronage, the movement in Chicago was more aligned with the working class.

"The scene was more gritty and blues-tinged than what came out of New York," he said.

Among the topics discussed in the book is the role of The Chicago Defender, a paper where Wright briefly worked and that published Brooks' poetry. McCluskey wrote a chapter about Wright, whom he says left an "imprint" on other Chicago authors through his participation in the Southside Writers Group, as well as writers in the other places he lived.

"I have always found him to be a fascinating character, almost like a bee that takes pollen from one place to another and helps flowers to blossom in those places," he said.

McCluskey said the differences between the Chicago and Harlem renaissances also are clearly seen through the work of many visual artists, who are discussed in the book by the late scholar and former dean of the School of Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University Murry DePillars, to whom it is dedicated. Nearly 25 pages of artwork from the Chicago Renaissance are presented and discussed in the book.

Other subjects discussed in the book are the historic Tivoli and Regal theaters, African-American music and the American Negro Exposition of 1940.

"We touch on a number of things, and we fully realize that there's still a lot more to be done, not just on Chicago, but also on the other cities during that period and even now," he said. "We are pleased to play a role in expanding and deepening the conversation on cultural movements, politics, and urban migration during the last century."