Book Review: Adam Green, Selling the race: culture, community and black Chicago, 1940-1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. vi + 217. 29 illus. ISBN 0226306410 Hbk. £22.50/$35)

‘There in that self conscious city, we caught whispers of the meaning life could have’ (p. 1). Richard Wright’s poetic phrasing introduces Adam Green’s insightful study of the cultural renaissance that defined this moment in Chicago’s history. Green makes the whispers to which Wright refers audible by detailing the endeavours, both successful and ill-fated, that black Chicagoans undertook to construct and rewrite the meaning of their lives and destinies in the modern metropolis. Green’s work psychologises and anthropomorphises the city, and imbues the space with a persona – and, more specifically, a personality that regards itself in relation to other personas and spaces. The most likely candidate for such comparisons is that other black urban enclave – Harlem, but Green’s study makes clear the deficiencies and oversights of such a comparison. In emphasising the local, the vernacular and the quotidian, Green illuminates the specific sites and manifestations of black culture and its relation to modernity that emerged as a result of the convergence of black migrants and the urban environment.

Green’s snapshot of black life and culture in Chicago during the postwar period provides an important link in recent scholarly efforts to rewrite American history and culture to incorporate the voices, lives and experiences of traditionally marginalised populations. Like such historians as Ronald Takaki, Robert G. Lee, Lisa Lowe, Green identifies the cultural sphere as an important political battleground – as a site of contestation, community building and acquiescence. Green’s contribution to this project lies primarily in his revelation of the tenuous and fraught relations between African Americans and mainstream American culture and the power structures that permeate it, and consequently influence cultural forms and their dissemination. His discussion of Claude Barnett and the ambitious effort to present the ‘first real Negro World’s Fair’ details the fragile negotiations between federal and state agencies and the forms of support they offered and the ambitions and intent of those who mounted and collaborated in the exhibit’s final result. Likewise, Green does not shy away from quantifying the tensions that emerge within the African American community, particularly with relation to their identification with American culture and national identity, an issue that emerged at the foreground of political and social discourse after the Second World War. Indeed, one of Green’s central points is to identify the ways in which African Americans’ political affiliations shifted as different constituencies capitulated to or defied constricting philosophies or strategies of liberation and/or race progress.

Modernity is a term that Green foregrounds as a means to convey the stakes of his project. At the centre of his conception of modernity he locates an intertwinement of freedom and control that structures the experiences of all historical subjects, and, in relation to his analysis, the lives of African Americans. The most salient example of this animating tension is borne out in Green’s chapter on ‘Making the music’. At the time the geographical concentration of African Americans was increasing rather than diminishing as many had hoped, but his discussion of black music highlights the fertile ground such circumstances could engender. He does so without celebrating or minimising the isolation and deprivation of African American neighbourhoods. At the same time Green challenges characterisations such as that of James Baldwin who referred to the urban black population as ‘the millions in captivity’. Green’s work unravels the complex convergence of liberatory impulses and structural constraints that resulted in both important successes and frustrated hopes. Chicago’s black population’s responsibility for the generative content of the music had to contend with white control of the record industry and the remuneration for the musicians’ labor as well as the dissemination of their creative output. Green’s analysis also illuminates the interdependence of working-class culture and vernacular forms such as the blues in modern articulations of black culture. In addition, he reveals how the centrality of the act of migration to the black population altered conceptions and practices of community and race. As with his exploration of the image of Emmett Till’s brutalized body in the final chapter, his discussion of black music gestures toward the importance of alternate forms of community and representation that, in bypassing literacy for example, could circulate more widely throughout the African American community, and, as Green reveals, perform a crucial role in the constitution of a national black identity and agenda.

The era of which Green writes was one of transformation: beginning with the Second World War and terminating in a moment of relative quiet and selective prosperity; the beginnings of deindustrialisation, suburbanisation, urban renewal and the public housing boom; the Brown v. Board of Education decision; the modernisation of nationalist sentiment; the advent of image-dominated popular culture; and so forth. Green does an excellent job of incorporating all of these historical currents into a compelling and inclusive narrative that is unified by his placement of African Americans at the fulcrum of these movements. By focusing on specific characters within this broader narrative Green communicates forcefully the problems and possibilities posed by an era of tremendous social and political change and potent forces of resistance to those changes. This technique reflects Green’s broader effort to situate African Americans at the centre rather than at the margins of modernity, and, likewise, as agents in its manifestation rather than victims. In doing so Green articulates the ways in which the complexities, trials, and tribulations of modern notions of identity, both self and communal, have been alternately preserved and rewritten through the creative acts of Chicago’s black population.

© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS