Lit

Book Review: Fighting Racism with a Teacup, Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance, edited by Richard A. Courage and Christopher Robert Reed

Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance:
New Negro Writers, Artists and Intellectuals 1893–1930

Edited by Richard A. Courage and Christopher Robert Reed
University of Illinois Press, 296 pages, $28

In November 1904, Fannie Barrier Williams—activist, iconoclast, orator and writer—led an attack on racism with a teacup.

She and other members of Chicago’s interracial Frederick Douglass Center held a reception at which the women, black and white, drank tea together and set off an explosion of indignation across the nation. As Williams herself reported later with thick sarcasm:

“The press East, West, North and South, took up, repeated, and passed along the ‘horrible’ story of ‘The Black and White Tea,’ ‘White Women and Negresses,’ in the broad light of day in ‘a private residence, on a well-paved street,’ in view of innocent children going to school, and…sat together and planned together as to how they might together help to relieve social wretchedness in a big city…Just think of it!”

All but forgotten today, Williams was one of the two greatest African-American female leaders at the start of the 20th century, writes social historian Mary Jo Deegan in one of the 11 chapters in Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance. The other was another Chicagoan, much better known, Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance has many pleasures for readers interested in African-American history, art history, Chicago history and, indeed, US history, and one is the opportunity to learn about important but little-known figures from a century and more ago, such as Williams, who wrestled with intertwined questions about race, art and American society.

Consider that, at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, African-Americans were still at the beginning of efforts to carve out their identity and status in a white-controlled world. A new generation, not born in slavery, was rising to address such questions, and it was a time of many tensions.

For instance, who spoke for black artists? The answer to that, for the white world, came to mean those African-American writers, painters and other artists centered in New York and grouped as the Harlem Renaissance. In recent years, however, there has been a scholarly effort to examine a similar but distinct cultural blossoming in Chicago, and one result was a collection of essays, published in 2012 by the University of Illinois Press, The Black Chicago Renaissance, edited by Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey Jr.

As its title indicates, Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance is a prequel of sorts, a collection of learned essays looking at the lives and activities of Chicagoans whose work set the stage for those who came later, including Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. No attempt is made by the editors to present an over-arching account of this era.

It remains for some future enterprising writer to take the many complex strands of these two books and other sources and weave them together into a coherent, multi-faceted examination of African-American art and culture in Chicago in the century after the Civil War.

Even so, the outlines and some highlights of that story are readily apparent in Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance, such as questions over the purpose of African-American art.

Many black leaders believed the job of the African-American artist was to portray the race in the best light possible (i.e., art as propaganda). While some embraced this idea, others, such as Archibald J. Motley Jr., rebelled, writing an essay in the Chicago Defender against it. As historian Bonnie Claudia Harrison notes in her chapter on the artist:

“Motley boldly declared that black artists should be free to explore the full range of subject matter and types of painting rather than be confined to a specifically race-based aesthetic. Motley imagined the emergence of a creative artist who could explore any subject without restrictions, rather than adhering to aesthetic boundaries consistent with a political agenda, a conundrum facing almost every working artist of color.”

Motley was one of the most famous black artists of the 20th century, and the vast majority of the hundreds of his paintings dealt with African-American subject matter. Nonetheless, he was often criticized for what some saw as perpetuating stereotypes by portraying the rambunctious street life and the vibrant entertainment scene in the Black Belt.

A Louisiana Creole, Motley had a white French grandfather and was the son of a black man and a mulatto woman. He grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of Englewood, several miles from the heart of the Black Belt, and married his German-American high school sweetheart. As a Chicagoan and an artist, he was an outsider and an insider in observing black life.

Other chapters in Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance examine such subjects as the role of portraiture as a marker of black success, the development of a generation of dancers and a small but influential group of intellectuals known as Letters. Artists and cultural leaders highlighted include the visiting Frederick Douglass as well as poet James David Corrothers, sculptor Richmond Barthe, photographer King Daniel Ganaway, and Fenton Johnson, a poet who created Champion magazine, an ultimately failed endeavor that, nonetheless, was the forerunner of such huge successes as Jet and Ebony.

Fenton Johnson, described by scholars Richard A. Courage and James C. Hall as “a particularly sensitive soul,” had high hopes but faded away into obscurity and a poignant despair, which he expressed in his poem “Tired,” which begins: “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.”

While that might be read as a declaration of independence from the white culture, other lines reflect deep disillusion: “Throw the children in the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

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