From Riots to Renaissance: The Black Renaissance

...the intrinsic standard of beauty does not rest in the white race.

Chicago Whip newspaper

The cultural flowering of Harlem between 1917 and 1935 has been internationally recognized for its impact on American arts and culture. In Chicago, a powerful but lesser-known creative force emerged on the South Side during the 1930s and continued through the 1950s. Chicago's Black Renaissance produced visual artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals who explored new definitions of the black aesthetic, experimented with style, and delivered compelling portrayals of black life brimming with complexity.

The Black Renaissance was formed by seismic social and cultural changes that engulfed Chicago's black community, beginning with the Great Migration when tens of thousands of Southern blacks flooded into the city. Life for migrants on the segregated South Side could be harsh. Overcrowding, joblessness, and poverty were a fact of life. Later, the Great Depression also battered black Chicago. However, out of these two events came new ideas and community institutions. Racial pride and a new black consciousness emerged and political thought shifted toward activism.

Social and cultural institutions provided strong support for the community's artistic efforts. Lectures, readings, and discussion groups were frequently offered. Theater troupes explored works by black playwrights. Art was put on public display. Jazz, blues, and new gospel music inspired artists' work. Collaborative undertakings, such as The South Side Writers Group, founded by Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, provided collegial support and critical feedback to a core group of Renaissance writers.

Newspapers and magazines, such as the Chicago Defender, Chicago Sunday Bee, Negro Story Magazine, and Negro Digest, also played an important role in the cultivation and spread of literature during the Renaissance. These publications showcased work by established authors, provided jobs for writers as journalists, and encouraged emerging writers by printing their work.

During the Depression, and early years of World War II, artists received critical financial support from such federal agencies as the Works Progress Association (WPA). Federal funding and projects were critical to the development of the Renaissance writers; they gave writers and other artists platforms from which they could express themselves and the opportunity to develop as professionals.

The dynamic creativity of the Black Renaissance placed Chicago at the center of urban African-American art, blues and jazz, dance, theater, literature, and sociological study during a changing time in American history.