Place in the African American Intellectual Tradition

*This post is part of our online forum titled “What is African American Intellectual History?

Apartment building in Chicago, 1941 (Russell Lee: Library of Congress)

In thinking about the contours of African American intellectual history, I have returned again and again to Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1953 novel Maud Martha. In it, Brooks sketches the life of Maud Martha in a series of short vignettes, which comprise both the singular events—the death of her grandmother and the birth of her daughter—as well as the more quotidian moments: the “quickening of steps” as children walk to school, the “cream-shot saffron” of the sky, and the minutiae of neighbors’ daily activities. When Maud Martha exclaims at the end of the novel—“What, what, am I to do with all of this life?”—it is hard not to burst alongside her, so precise is her prose. But while Maud Martha might elicit a sense of a shared experience across racial or national divides, it remains—unequivocally and unmistakably—a novel about African American life on the South Side of Chicago. Whether in its references to shows at the Club DeLisa on South State Street, or the Regal Theater on 47th Street and South Park, or the blind guitarist and the ephemera of working-class life on 34th Street, or the hesitant desire to slip into the white world of the World Playhouse theater in the loop, the racial geography of Chicago is inscribed throughout the novel. Early on, Maud Martha notes that when you are “[e]ast of Cottage Grove, there were fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces,” underscoring the ways that even a young child was forced to discern the racial boundaries and borders of her community. The novel is an artifact of the human condition, yet one that brings our attention repeatedly to the creation and cultivation of Black spaces, as well as the structures that contain them.

This novel—and its detailed rendering of a Black world—prompts me to ask whether we can tell the history of African American intellectual production without careful attention to the places and spaces in which it was conceived. This question is, of course, germane to all forms of intellectual history, which remains in conversation with social and cultural history in order to simultaneously account for the material history of ideas and the ideological foundations of social movements. However, the need to think critically about the spaces of knowledge production seems to be particularly relevant—and urgent—when querying the history of Black thought, which is always created within (and against) the spatial and structural constraints of anti-Black racism. Black intellectual history is then a means of creating narratives of Black life that simultaneously capture the structural dimensions—and the real and metaphorical borders that are imposed on African Americans—as well as the fullness of Black creative expression.

I have observed the spatial dimensions of intellectual history in my own research, which traces the production of African American music and culture across national borders, but I have been particularly drawn to this question as an instructor. Teaching at a historically and still predominantly white small liberal arts college in a rural area, I have found that while some portion of my students have experience living and working in Black communities, the majority do not, and therefore they encounter African American history with a combination of trepidation, curiosity, and ignorance. Given this, I wanted to create courses that invited students to discover the richness of African American communities without recreating the same exhibitionary and empirical modes of encounter that have long defined the relationship between white people and Black communities. I wanted to show them a world that did not position white people as a perpetual point of reference. I wanted to create a learning environment in which they might begin to understand—but realize they could never fully grasp—the complexity of African American life.

With these goals in mind, I created a course, “Black Metropolis,” that rooted the study of twentieth-century African American history in Chicago. We begin with the Columbian Exposition and the extraordinary range of figures who converged in the “White City,” and then move to the Great Migration, drawing on work by Davarian Baldwin, Wallace Best, Marcia Chatelain, and Jacqueline Stewart to make sense of the ways in which the African American community was formed in Bronzeville. Moving to the postwar era, students read excerpts of Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis (1945) to reconstruct class divisions and color lines, before turning to the ways in which urban renewal policies and public housing transformed the South Side. By the time the students come to Harold Washington’s mayoral tenure in the 1980s, they have become well acquainted with the geography of the South Side, its main thoroughfares and borders, as well as the many ethical and empirical challenges that emerge when attempting to create a narrative about African American communities.

This material and methodology in turn prepares students for the capstone assignment, in which they work in groups to create digital Storymap narratives of African American life in Chicago, using census data, city directories, newspapers, sociological studies, films, poetry, novels, artwork, photographs, sound recordings, yearbooks, and oral histories. Building on these sources, they work collectively to locate African American intellectual history in Chicago and practice what Davarian Baldwin has described as “insurgent mapping” practices, inspired by his argument that “ideas are embodied and explained” in the spaces and marketplaces that supported them. Over the past few years, students have recounted the history of children’s literature in local libraries, the history of class in the Old Settlers Club, sex and sexuality through newspaper accounts of mid-century night clubs, gospel music as it was reproduced and diffused on Black radio programs, and the history of racial thinking as it was recorded in census records. In some cases, they discovered well-known figures or institutions—like William L. Dawson, Elder Lucy Smith, Charlemae Rollins, and Brooks herself—but in others, their discoveries were more mundane, revealing the numerous ways in which African American thought was produced at the level of the everyday.

While this particular course was focused on Chicago—arguably the most studied city in African American history—I have likewise made physical space central to my course, “Paris Noir,” which locates the history of Black internationalism in the French metropole. We encounter this history through a rich collection of artistic and literary work—the poetry of Léopold Senghor and Leon Damas; the artwork of Loïs Mailou Jones, Palmer Hayden, and Barbara Chase-Riboud; the music of Sidney Bechet and Dexter Gordon; Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialismand Melvin Van Peebles’s first feature-length film La Permission—but then turn to the spaces in which this art was conceived and produced. Building on the remarkable range of scholarship, including work by Tyler Stovall, Brent Hayes Edwards, Petrine Archer-Straw, Tracey Sharpley-Whiting, Tricia Keaton, and Felix Germain, the students map out the cafés, clubs, and salons in which Black identity was debated and deliberated. Through this work, they not only become familiar with the built environment but are also better able to imagine the kind of place Paris was for Black people to inhabit. By tracking the distance between the Nardal sisters’ salon in the suburb of Clamart to the clubs of Montmartre, for example, they can better understand the specific racial geography of a city that actively disclaimed race as a structuring dimension of its environment. They moreover can account for the intellectual labor that was necessary to sustain Black internationalism, whose links and connections were necessarily forged in real places and spaces.

In both courses, I was struck by the assumptions I had made about my students’ own familiarity with the cities we were studying. Some of these spatial revelations were simpler—the relative smallness of Paris or the presence of Lake Michigan—but others were more profound. It is one thing to describe the ways in which segregation might define someone’s life and work; it is another to encounter a census page or redlining map that makes evident exactly how real these racial boundaries were. Woven into our conversations, and their assignments, these spatial parameters transformed how students approached the production of ideas, which now appeared in situ. By paying attention to space, they had discovered deeper layers of Black thought and a deeper appreciation for the ways in which it flourished despite the attempts to constrain its production.

This historical perspective again evokes Maud Martha, who likes “a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese iris, or meadow lilies,” but is moved most by the dandelion: “[y]ellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard.” As Brooks writes, Maud Martha is moved by “their everydayness,” for “in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.” Finding beauty in everyday life in Chicago, Brooks helped to build a Black intellectual tradition in her backyard. Likewise, by looking closely at the spaces in which African Americans lived and worked, we too might see new forms of beauty and brilliance.

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