"Why Don't You Get Acquainted with Your Race?": "The Bookshelf", The Forgotten Readers of Chicago, and The Making of Black Middlebrow Culture in the 1920s
"The Bookshelf", a popular book-review column and self-styled "literary club" in the Chicago Defender, is a window on black literary politics and cultural identities of the 1920s. I explore its responses to readers' literary agendas and the parallels between its "literary club" feature and the contemporaneous Book-of-the-Month Club, and I investigate its place in the cultural skirmishes as America carved out a middlebrow terrain. The Bookshelf was the by-product of debates over African American assimilation and education, and I set it alongside the book-review columns in the politically radical Harlem Renaissance periodicals, the white press, and the other black weekly newspapers. I examine the cultural agenda of the column's producers, the column's role as an agent of acculturation, the likely effect of the Great Migration and the Chicago race riots on The Bookshelf, and the realm of discourse about the black reading public's "snobbishness". The Bookshelf's middlebrow reading community represents an alternative black cultural identity that has been largely ignored by historians and literary critics, and my paper opens up a new aspect on the African American literary scene of the 1920s, usually only associated with Harlem and the high-brow.
Keywords: Harlem Renaissance, Black press, African American literature, Middlebrow
Ms Zoe Trodd
Graduate Fellow, History of American Civilization, Harvard University