12 Million Black Voices and FSA Chicago

Chapter One

Part 1: Creating 12 Million Black Voices

In Chicago’s Bronzeville, the 1940s was an unsettled time. As the United States emerged from the Great Depression and entered the Second World War, African Americans wondered whether this “crisis period in the history of Western Civilization” might bring a “flowering” in black communities or merely more of the same, wrote sociologists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake.[i] Bronzeville’s sense of life “in flux,” its certainty of impending change both threatening and empowering, were widely shared.  Black Americans increasingly saw their liberation struggle in a global perspective, a view enabled by the cosmopolitanism of urban life, by military experience abroad, and by the implacable advance of global anti-colonial movements that coalesced in  pan-Africanism. Among domestic levers of change were the New Deal’s liberal consensus and its social welfare measures, including not only the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Civilian Conservation Corps, but also arts projects that supported and made visible a newly socially-conscious generation of black artists and writers.[ii]  Most significant, however, was the Great Migration, the decades-long move from country to city that peaked during the war years, swelling and even doubling Northern cities’ black populations by 1945. Life in Northern ghettos was often wretched – it was “our prison, our death sentence without a trial,” wrote Richard Wright – but it was also the portal to a new and irrevocable black “worldliness,” a modernity that would prove to be global, autonomous, and activist.[iii]

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