Assistant Professor of History Betsy Schlabach’s first book, Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape, was named to the Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2014 in nonfiction.
The book details the artistic and literary movement that took place in the south side of Chicago during the time between the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.
“The book argues that Chicago is the next renaissance to Harlem,” Schlabach explains. “It speaks to a lot of different audiences about the rich heritage of great migration artistry. Rarely did a group of people that lived in a place, write about that place so convincingly as the artists in Chicago did during this time.”
The project began as Schlabach’s dissertation in 2005.
“The idea became more of an intellectual pursuit after reading Richard Wright, who migrated to the area from Mississippi,” she explains. Wright wrote fiction and non-fiction, including Black Boy and Native Son. “His work is so real, so vibrant, and representative of the Renaissance, and he is the towering figure of this renaissance movement.”
Other influential writers, musicians and artists from the area include Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Margaret Burroughs and Archibald Motley.
“The South Side during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was rigidly segregated, and thus it was saturated with people,” she says. “It was vibrant, but with inadequate housing it was also dilapidated and decayed. These artists took poetry classes together and read each other’s manuscripts. They possessed the ability to see beyond the problems and found beauty and joy.”
Schlabach says she was surprised at her inclusion on the list and learned of it from a friend.
“I am very honored, especially as this recognition comes from Chicago and the writers of Chicago,” says Schlabach, who was originally drawn to the project because she lived briefly in Pilsen, a neighborhood adjacent to Bronzeville. “I have always been drawn to the city. Most of my family is from the Chicago area, and I have spent a lot of time in and around Chicago. But really this project is about the African American writers who lived there. I want their voices and stories to speak the loudest.”
To research the book, which includes first-person accounts and a chapter on the informal gambling game called policy which eventually became the Illinois State Lottery, Schlabach spent a lot of time at the Chicago History Museum archives, the Vivian Harsh Collection, and the University of Chicago.
“It was really cool just to hang out and do research,” she says. “The experience increased my interest in African American literature and invigorated my teaching in exciting ways.”