The Chicago Renaissance Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Chicago Renaissance

Following the migration of many African Americans to the Midwest in the early-1900s to the 1960s, Chicago became the center of a flourishing black arts, literature, and music movement that is now referred to as the Chicago Renaissance.

The term Chicago Renaissance was coined by sociologist Richard Bone and others at the University of Chicago School of Sociology during the 1980s. It refers to a massive cultural and artistic movement in African-American life in Chicago during the early 1920s until sometime in the 1950s. According to Bone and his followers, the Chicago Renaissance paralleled the Harlem Renaissance that took place a few years earlier in New York, both in significance and proportion. However, later critics have remarked on several differences between the two movements. For example, Lisa Woolley has noted that while the Harlem Renaissance was marked by a sense of optimism, in which writers and artists drew upon a shared past for inspiration, the Chicago Renaissance was comprised of authors from a different generation. Their experiences with racism and social inequality, as well as the economic hardships many suffered during the Great Depression, imbued the writing of this time with a great sense of personal deprivation and disappointment. The conditions for the creation of an environment that fostered such a confluence of black arts and literature in Chicago during this time was due to the migration beginning at the end of the nineteenth century of large numbers of African Americans to the Midwest. Often referred to as the Great Migration, this transference of people was partly the result of advancing technology, which eliminated many of the jobs traditionally held by blacks in the South, and partly a result of the racism that blacks continued to encounter in the South. Because of this, during the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, more than six million black Americans left the South for the northern states, many of them settling in Chicago and surrounding areas. Although the journey was one that promised freedom and financial independence, the reality of urban life, with its accompanying social and economic hardships, proved to be a bitter disappointment to many of the migrants—this sense of despondence and failure is reflected in many literary works of this time.

Many writers of the Chicago Renaissance viewed the Great Migration as a mirror of the original migration from Africa, with the city becoming a place of unpleasant reality. One of the most prominent and influential writers of the Chicago Renaissance was Richard Wright, who moved to Chicago in the 1930s and embarked upon a writing career, hoping for success in the city. His works, such as Native Son (1940), reflected a new vocabulary of realism and sociological detail that had not been seen in black writing in the past. As with many of his contemporaries, including poet Frank Marshall Davis, Wright's work is permeated with the very real struggles of black Americans living in urban cities, including images of violence. In this regard, the writing of the Chicago Renaissance was highly political, and very consciously reflected the concerns of a stark urban experience. Interestingly, the Chicago School or urban sociologists, led by Robert Park, viewed the black experience in the northern cities of America not as a failure, but as an unfortunate, but rational result of the mix created by the environment.

In addition to Wright, other major writers of the Chicago Renaissance included Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, and Theodore Ward, among others. While many of these writers shared similar concerns about the migration experience in general, and the position of black Americans in particular, they expressed these themes in highly individual ways in their works. The confluence of writing in Chicago at this time also resulted in the development of an important cultural tradition, and it is now acknowledged that the stress placed by these authors on the significance of their culture and race were very influential forces in the development of American vernacular language and music. The launching of periodicals such as Poetry by Harriet Monroe, the various literary clubs that many of these authors belonged to, and the interaction they had with their white counterparts, created the opportunity for many forums of cultural and interracial interaction. Additional opportunities to intermingle were provided by foundations such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which sponsored both white and black artists, providing yet another stage for interaction between artists from both races. This, contends Robert Bone, contributed to a general development of African-American culture because it allowed many black writers to overcome their cultural isolation, while also providing them with a means of financial support. Regardless of this unique interaction, literature produced by black writers during the Chicago Renaissance continued to be highly political, reflecting their social concerns.