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Read the World: 10 Novels by writers from Chicago

Chicago has a strong black literary tradition. Most notably, the writers of the Chicago Black Renaissance made a rich and powerful contribution to the literary canon. Their work tackled important issues of race and identity interpreting and contributing to the changes taking place amidst the racial tensions and booming economy of the post-war period. The movement gave us writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansbury and Richard Wright. The twentieth century has given us even more black literary talent from Chicago with writers such as Margo Jefferson and Dolen Perkins-Valdez.


1. Maude Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

It is true that the bones of a city are best discovered through the ordinary life of a person. Maude Martha is a coming of age novella told in a fragmented poetic style. It is the sole fiction work of major poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The novella takes us through a series of the protagonist’s turn point events, from loss to love. In a city teeming with the undertones of classism and racism even today, we discover the life of Maude Martha and in turn the painful vibrancy of Chicago. In the end we learn about the city that encapsulates all the tension and turmoil of the main character and the people in her life.   

2. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, is a cornerstone play of American theatre set in South Side Chicago. We follow the story of a black family as they unwittingly become the face of racial perseverance.  Living in South Side Chicago, an inheritance changes the flow of their fortunes with the promise of a new home. It soon becomes clear that things are a little bit more complicated, when it is revealed that the home is in an all-white neighborhood and the neighbors are none to happy about the potential new arrivals.  In a time and city with uncomfortable parallels to contemporary days.  This story quite literally wrestles with the American dream and all the bitter sweetness of its promise.

3. Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley delves into the question of what it means to be a product of your environment. In this 1946 novel we follow the life of a certain Nick Romano, a young man whose life spirals out of control. Decisions and geography play equal part in the tragedies that unfold. The novel paints the hard and fast reality of the streets of Chicago as it hardens and breaks characters into submission.  The novel’s central spectacle is the death of a police officer at the hands of our protagonist. In a city where poverty, ethnic identity, and more spill over with tension, the plot beats with painful anticipation.

4. How I got Ovah by Carolyn Rodgers

How I got Ovah by Carolyn Rodgers is an important book of poems by a leading voice from the Black Arts Movement. The book sits as her most famous oeuvre, and the poems it holds are a far cry from the fury of her youth. Rather these poems all tinged with the auto biographical are a different homage to the communities that shaped this Chicago native. A turn inwards, Carolyn Rodgers examines her faith, and the evolution of self through the passage of time.  Ultimately the book which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1976 is a peace offering to who she has become and a timely reflection for the reader.

5. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth by Richard Wright                          

Black Boy by Richard Wright is a memoir that in the 1970’s was banned in certain schools in America for what some believed would incite racial unrest. The memoir is a profound account of social inequity and life for black bodies in the United States. Richard Wright speaks to his experiences living in the south in the middle of crushing racism and internalized oppression.  Over the course of the memoir we travel through the bible belt south to eventually the streets of Chicago where Richard Wright establishes his writing career.  The memoir was originally only published as Black Boy, with the chapters on Richard Wright’s youth in Mississippi. It wasn’t till 1977  that his chapters on Chicago were added in and published together as American Hunger. In 1991 all 20 chapters were published together under the name of Black Boy by the Library of America.  Through the memoir we really see the place of Chicago in the black imagination, particularly thinking of its place in relation to the southern blacks who flocked to its center.

6. I Left My Back Door Open: A Novel by April Sinclair

I Left My Back Door Open by April Sinclair is a fun and entertaining novel that follows the life of Chicago deejay Daphne Dupree(Dee Dee).  In a refreshing tone the novel tackles love, heartbreak, trauma, and more.  Chicago is the backdrop to the main character Dee Dee as she wrestles with personal and professional demons.  Ultimately Dee Dee must find the strength to overcome these obstacles, and to do for herself what she has so often done for others.  As a black woman shouldering her own pain and the pain of others, she must find permission to love herself and let love in.


7. Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

In the novel Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, we are transported into  post-civil war America. But unlike many novels of this time period, we move away from the south to Chicago. The novel takes a fascinating look at what is happening in the Midwest as a union and confederate America struggles towards reunification.  The patchwork identities shaped by the civil war, leave us seeing the collision of new identities. Free and freed find themselves negotiating new and evolving selves.  Ultimately the novel beautifully centers on the process of healing from individual and national traumas.  

8. Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Negroland by Margo Jefferson is a memoir that settles into the power of vulnerability. Moving against the trope of the “strong black woman,” the memoir unveils the tender vulnerabilities of self in its reflections. Born in Chicago in 1947, Margo is born into the black elite.  Part of a minority experience, she mutually exists in a space of privilege and lack of privilege.  The memoir highlights the tensions that exist between two uncomfortable halves’ in Chicago, the elite black and the working class black.

9. Electric Arches by Eve Ewing

Electric Arches by Eve Ewing is the embodiment of the #BlackGirlMagic movement.  Using a blend of mediums from the visual to the lyrical, the book examines the black girl experience.  A flat Chicago landscape is superimposed with surreal dimensions where familiar figures are giving magical circumstances. The book manages to read as a coming of age in magic realism by using the recalled memories of the author.  In the end the reader is left with a sense of wonder and hope about the  place the writer calls home. The one and only Chicago.

10. The Warmth of Other Suns- The epic story of America’s great migration by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is an epic non-fiction work that explores the stories of The Great Migration.  The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African Americans between 1910-1970 out of the rural southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West. Chicago would become one of the epicenters of this movement, with approximately 500,000 African Americans moving to the windy city. In stunning prose, The Warmth of Other Suns explores this movement over decades, thorough data and personal anecdotes.  One such anecdote is the story of Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping in Mississippi for Chicago.  The story of black Chicago is not one that can be told without the story of The Great Migration.


Is your fave missing from the list? Let us know in the comments below.


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    Read the World: 10 Novels by writers from Chicago