Women of the Black Chicago Renaissance: Literary Reception and Taste in Bronzeville, 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.

Women of the Black Chicago 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.

Women of the Black Chicago Renaissance looks ahead to my next project: a comprehensive history of Black women’s reading practices in the United States from Phillis Wheatley to Michelle Obama. Growing out of an entry on “Black Women Readers” that I was invited to write for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia (and which is forthcoming in 2020), the essay has now expanded into the foundation of a monograph project that analyzes how Black women readers have innovated various literacies—oral, textual, visual, and digital—to validate lived experiences, bond with one another, and lobby for personal as well as collective liberation. The project details the deeply personal and political strategies of reading at the heart of such endeavors as the Black women’s club movement, literary societies, the Black press, literary magazines, anthologies and recovery projects of the 1970s and 1980s, and, more recently, online and digital spaces. At the same time that I offer this cultural history, I also trace the emergence of Black women readers as a significant reading demographic, courted by publishers who recognized them as a profitable consumer base at the end of the twentieth century. To this end I show how Black women from various backgrounds have used reading as a strategy for survival and resilience.