The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism. By Anne Meis Knupfer. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005). 256pp. Cloth, ISBN 0-252-03047-8. $40.00; Paper, ISBN 0-252-07293-6. $20.00.

Reviewed by Bill V. Mullen, Director of American Studies, Purdue University


   Anne Knupfer’s The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism is a model of historical scholarship on African American social movements, and an outstanding addition to literature on the Chicago Renaissance.

   Knupfer’s book undertakes several key tasks. First, it proposes that the Chicago Renaissance, more than a moment of high cultural production, was a grassroots, community-based movement from below in which major changes in social policy and cultural work were driven, literally, by ordinary citizens. Second, it persuasively demonstrates that African American women’s self-activity was the driving force of most grassroots change on the Southside. Knupfer’s book is a beautiful recovery project, naming names (literally, in an extraordinary 13 page Appendix) of more than 150 heretofore ‘anonymous’ African American women whose social work and organizing constitutes what James Scott might call an ‘infrapolitics’ or hidden transcript of social change.

  Knupfer makes and carries these arguments the only way one can: by exhaustive interviewing, archival work, readings of newspapers and magazines and institutional records. Her second Appendix, titled “Chicago Black Southside Community Organizations and Addresses, 1930-1960,” includes the names of dozens of churches, social institutions, entertainment clubs and lounges, newspapers and presses, and women’s clubs where Black women engaged in public activism.

   At the center of her research is the role played by women’s clubs and organizations on the Southside, more than 75 of which are listed in her Appendix. These clubs, from the Ida B. Wells Club, named for the great anti-lynching reformer, to the AKA Sorority, the pioneering national sorority of African American women, became constellation points for a broad range of activities including sponsoring workshops on Black history, protesting overcrowded schools, fighting for better housing conditions, protesting redlining and racism in media, and most importantly, offering new migrants to the city, and its burgeoning middle and upper classes, a meeting ground for re-making the city in the image of African Americans.

   Knupfer organizes these activities, and her book, around three key forms of Black community activism: pan-African intellectuality, the expressive arts, and social protest. The first of these three was inspired by efforts by national Black leaders like Carter Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois to make Black achievement domestically and internationally an organizing tool for consciousness and identify formation. Knupfer demonstrates in her excellent chapter on “School as Sites of Activism” how African American women pioneered curricular change in Chicago public schools to promote pan-Africanist intellectual principles. While her definition of pan-Africanism could be refined and sharpened, her argument that the beginnings of African American Studies curricular reforms of the 1960s lay in early public school reform efforts is irrefutable.

   The second branch of activism, expressive arts, is modeled in Knupfer’s book by writers, painters and teachers in Chapter 3, “Community Sponsorship of Literature and the Arts.” Here a key institution in Knupfer’s study is the South Side Community Arts Center, the WPA-funded art center established on Chicago’s South Side in 1938.   Knupfer shows how artist and organizer Margaret Goss Burroughs, Charlene Rollins and others imagined the Art Center as a site for teaching, social education, leftist political expression, and nourishment for young artists.  Famous and lesser-known Chicago writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Fern Gayden made the art center a haven for the development of important literary products of the Renaissance like Brooks’s first book of poems, Street in Bronzeville, or Negro Story Magazine, of which Gayden was co-editor. Knupfer goes beyond existing scholarship on the cultural arm of the Renaissance by showing how women were likely more involved in cultural production than men on the South Side, despite the tendency of cultural history to canonize male efforts.

   Indeed in two related chapters on Parkway Community House and the Chicago YWCAs, Knupfer shows how the very reformist identities of these organizations were always linked to the promise of her third domain of inquiry, “social activism.” The term came to carry as many associations as the institutional names to which it was attached.  In the case of the YWCAs, for example, Knupfer shows how the South Parkway YWCA (or SPY) was forced to adapt its politics to public housing needs after relocating to the Ida B. Wells Homes’ community center.  In the case of Parkway Community House, under the direction of prominent sociologist Horace Cayton, Black women organized afterschool programs and political forums and improvised programs without regard for a stable or coherent agenda.

   The wide range of Women’s Clubs exemplified the groundswell need for nearly every upwardly mobile African American woman (and some from the working class) to define herself in relationship to larger social aims. Knupfer does a superb job of classifying, analyzing and detailing the political and social activities of these groups, while linking them to larger issues of class formation, gender politics and changing discourses of race. Her account is the best local history yet produced of African American women’s clubs, whose place in the development of twentieth-century American urban life is still not fully appreciated or understood.

   Knupfer’s book is also well-illustrated with archival photographs of key figures from the Chicago Renaissance and maps of South Side neighborhoods. The book is definitive in its aims and reach.  It is likely to be the standard on the subject for some time, and remain a paradigm for scholars looking to excavate the place of African American women’s activism.

    Bill Mullen is Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics 1935-1946 (University of Illinois Press) and numerous other publications.

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