Reading the Renaissance: Black Women’s Literary Reception and Taste in Chicago, 1932-1953

My current book project offers a reception history of the Black Chicago Renaissance that centers Black women’s role in the production and reception of literary taste at mid century. This project takes as its focus the forgotten women of the city’s South Side neighborhood, Bronzeville, who read, discussed, reviewed, received, edited, published, publicized, and collected the literature of the Renaissance. From various backgrounds and professions, these women exerted an enormous influence on the norms and standards of Black literature produced after Harlem. While, as many scholars argue, Richard Wright served as a guide for young Back writers, I show that it was the ordinary women on the ground—such as Vivian G. Harsh, Ora G. Morrow, Alice Browning, Olive Diggs, and Fern Gayden—who worked to promote Black literature and literary values throughout the community over the course of nearly thirty years. In book clubs, public forums, reviews, literary magazines, and other public venues, Black women debated the role of literature as racial uplift, set literary standards, and acted as community gatekeepers for cultural production.

Reading the Renaissance relies heavily on archival research, placing ephemera—such as letters, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, advertisements, meeting minutes, memos, and other evidence of local reading practices—in conversation with a series of canonical and non-canonical Renaissance texts. In doing so, the book joins recent scholarship in constructing a usable history of the South Side, contending that its contribution to national life and letters is far richer than previously acknowledged. In this way, my project participates in a broader cultural movement of asserting that the literary history of Black women—and of Black Chicago—matters.