Saturday, May 02, 2009

“The Color Line Has Reached the North.”

One of the strongest thematic undercurrents in Richard Wright’s Native Son is the concept of “proscribed space”[1]. From the squalid, rat infested, kitchenette in which the Thomas family dwells to the death row cell in which Bigger Thomas spends his final days, Wright repeats his themes of enclosure and constraint (both internal and external). The result is an unrelenting sense of claustrophobia that neither Bigger nor the reader can escape. In White Diaspora, Catherine Jurca explores the concept of space in Native Son and links Mary Dalton’s death directly, “to Bigger’s overcrowding and desire to lay claim to more space.”[2] To the average modern reader, Wright is simply using rhetorical techniques to convey the oppression and limitations Bigger contends with on a daily basis as a black urban youth. Wright’s contemporaries would have been familiar with these harsh realities of the living conditions, neighborhoods, and racial demarcation lines in Depression-era, post Great Migration urban areas, whether by experiencing it directly or second-hand, through family members. While literary interpretations are neither incorrect nor invalid, they do remove the novel from its settings’ historical contexts; the Great Migration of African-Americans from Southern states to Northern urban areas (Native Son is set in Chicago), de jure and de facto restrictions on African-American life, and racial tensions in the North. By recognizing these contexts the modern reader can better understand the scope of Native Son, rather than simply dismissing Wright’s work as a racially charged “tale of woe”.
The African-American Northern diaspora began before the Great Migrations of 1916-1970. “The first African American settlement in Chicago emerged around Lake and Kinzie streets in the 1830s and 1840s.”[3] By 1860 the African-American population had risen to one thousand. During, and following, Reconstruction (1865-1877) the influx of African-Americans increased from “approximately four thousand in 1870 to fifteen thousand in 1910.”[4] Just a few decades before Wright published Native Son; African-American populations skyrocketed in Northern cities. In Chicago alone, their demographic rose by an estimated fifty thousand in the space of four years (1916-1920).
The promises of new lives, job opportunities, and other “Push/Pull” issues that sent African-Americans migrating from the South were sold by Robert S. Abbott (who could be known, jokingly, as the black empresario of Chicago) in his newspaper Chicago Defender. Many of these articles were not entirely accurate in their depiction of the city. The simple amenities available to many African-Americans in Chicago were often severely lacking. Though segregation of schools and public accommodations in Chicago had been outlawed (in 1874 and 1885 respectively), de facto segregation was still entrenched. Newly arriving blacks faced competition for space and labor with other immigrants. Eastern and Southern Europeans had dominated most of the unskilled and bottom rung labor pool for decades. It was not until the sudden drop in European immigration during the First World War that the labor market significantly opened for African-Americans. Before that time, African-Americans were, “Allegedly incapable of regular, disciplined work, they were virtually excluded except as temporary strikebreakers, notably in the meatpacking industry in 1904.”[5]
By 1910, seventy-eight percent of African-Americans in Chicago lived on the South Side. By 1930 that percentage had increased to __. (Cite Black Metropolis)5. The development of Chicago’s Black Belt hinged on three major factors: the African-American population boom, the resultant housing shortage, and ingrained predjudice. What began as an enclave between Lake and Kinzie streets quickly grew along, “a narrow corridor extending from 22nd to 31st Streets along State Street, Chicago's South Side African American community expanded over the century until it stretched from 39th to 95th streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway [constructed 1953-1954] to Lake Michigan.”[6] The Black Belt was effectively cordoned off from the great majority of the city by ethnic neighborhoods (made up of Irish, Italians, Jews, and other Europeans) and, “in combination with zones of nonresidential use, almost wholly surrounded the African American residential districts of the period, cutting off corridors of extension.”[7] Several questionable real estate practices further limited African-American options for housing and property ownership.
“The Great Migration…combined with the exclusion of blacks from most neighborhoods to generate a persistent gap between the supply and demand of housing available for blacks. African Americans seeking housing became the main agents of neighborhood succession.”[8] Neighborhood succession “refers to a process by which one previously dominant ethnic, racial, religious, or socioeconomic group abandons a residential area. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Chicago, this process often involved the departure of descendants of Yankees or early European immigrants.”[9] Simply put, as previous tenants (including middle-class African-Americans) moved out of neighborhoods in and adjacent to the Black Belt, poor African-Americans moved in. Those who remained in the neighborhood fell victim to or perpetuated real-estate blockbusting (sometimes referred to as “panic peddling” ). Agents “sought to profit from white fears by encouraging black residents to settle on previously all-white blocks.”[10] The blockbuster (both black and white blockbusters existed) would play off the prejudices of white residents to sell their homes in order to avoid the supposedly impending drop in property value due to blacks moving into the neighborhood. After that, the vacated properties would be snatched up and rented to poor African-Americans at a grievously inflated price after being subdivided into kitchenettes (like the one the Thomas family finds themselves in).
The development of Restrictive Covenants further limited the space available to African-Americans in Chicago. From 1916 until the Supreme Court Case Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US 1 (1948) proved, “that restrictive covenants were unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable.”[11], racially restrictive covenants were instituted to keep Chicago segregated. The Chicago Real Estate Board wrote, “legally binding covenants attached to parcels of land varying in size from city block to large subdivision prohibited African Americans from using, occupying, buying, leasing, or receiving property in those areas.”[12] This meant that poor African-Americans were often unable to directly escape the Black Belt. They were also prohibited from directly owning their own property. Restrictive Covenants became more prevalent after the Riot of 1919 which lasted from July 19 to August 1. A black teenager, Eugene Williams, was murdered by white beachgoers at the segregated 29th St beach when he accidently crossed an imaginary color line. John T. McCutcheon, editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, drew black and white bathers facing off across a rope, the caption read, “The color line has reached the North.”[13] After the four days of rioting, the Chicago City Coucil attempted to ratify an ordinance which contained the following:
[T]hat a commission composed of members of both races be formed for the purpose of investigating the causes of recent riots and to ascertain if it is possible to equitably fix a zone or zones which shall be created for the purpose of limiting within its borders the residences to only colored or white persons.[14]
While the ordinance did not pass in 1919 it would strengthen the racial divisions (both emotionally and geographically) in Chicago. The proposed “fixed zones”and Restrictive Covenants would become Federally approved and expanded during the Great Depression.
Wright worked in Chicago during the Great Depression and the resultant New Deal, a period in which several Federal changes occurred. Though he does not blatantly mention these developments in Native Son (there are references to the Public Works Admin (PWA) and Federal relief) these Federal programs impacted the entire African-American community of Chicago. The development and enforcement of; the Home Owners Loan Act (HOLA) 1933, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) 1933, the Federal Housing Act (FHA) 1934, and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) 1937 all play subtle yet major roles in Native Son. These policies would have long-lasting catastrophic effects (the planning, construction, and devolution of projects such as Cabrini-Green will be addressed in a future paper) during the Depression and in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Federal policy of the Neighborhood Composition Rule (NCR) was developed by Harold L. Ickes, Sec. of the Interior (1933-1946) and Director of PWA. This meant “that no public housing project was permitted to alter the racial character of its surrounding neighborhood.”[15] One major clause of the NCR was “There had to be one employed breadwinner and the tenants had to behave according to the rules.”[16] In order to continue receiving Federal relief Bigger must take the job proffered by the Daltons and be the breadwinner for his family. “Yes, he could take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve. It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action.”[17] This lack of options is an excellent example of Wright’s theme of internal constraint.
Another Federal creation, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), had dire consequences for the Black Belt. The Home Owners Loan Act (1933) created the HOLC in order to combat the number of homes going into foreclosure. In order to “prioritize” loans to home and business owners in areas of potential growth and “categorize lending and insurance risks”[18] the HOLC consulted a number “realtors, lenders, and housing experts”[19] and surveyed two hundred and eighty nine cities across the United States. The HOLC then created Residential Security Maps with “four classifications: First (A), Second (B), Third (C) and Fourth (D) that corresponded to color grades: A-Green, B-Blue, C-Yellow, and D-Red.” [20] The expanding suburbs of Chicago and other areas of proposed growth were deemed to have positive growth potential. These areas were marked green and mortgage relief poured into them. Blue areas were safe bets, encouraging lending. Yellow was considered a risky investment. Finally, Red zones were considered to be blighted, older neighborhoods and were ignored. Many of the Red zones fell within the Black Belt and other poor areas in Chicago. These areas became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Banks and insurers soon adopted the HOLC's maps and practices to guide lending and underwriting decisions”[21] thus poor neighborhoods received no funding. If no funding would be available for improvements, “redlined” areas could not become elevated to Green, Blue, or Yellow. The neighborhoods would fall further and further into neglect, disrepair, as would the residents.
In Native Son, Bigger Thomas and his family live at 3721 Indiana Avenue, near the center of the Black Belt, in a tenement owned by Mr. Dalton via the South Side Real Estate Company.[22] the Daltons live at 4605 Drexel Blvd[23] in Hyde Park - Kenwood, a neighborhood that was part of exclusive property close Lake Michigan. A distance of less than two miles separates the families.[24] Both Wright and his protagonist Bigger arrived in Chicago while in their teens. Wright moved from Jackson, Tennessee in 1927 to the Black Belt with an aunt, at the age of nineteen. In 1929, he and his family (another Aunt moved in that year) moved into a four room apartment “at 4831 Vincennes Avenue”[25]. This home was less than a mile from where Wright places the Daltons. These distances are shockingly close but when one reads Native Son the space between the neighborhoods is, and continous to be today, a vast gulf in all socio-economic respects.

Works Cited:
[1] Native Son. Wright, Richard. Pg
[2] White Diaspora. Jurca, Catherine. Pg 108
[15] Making the Second Ghetto Alan Richard Hirsch pg 179
[17] Natve Son. Wright, Richard. Pg 12
[19] pg 214 -221
[22]Native Son pg 48
[23] Native Son pg 32
[25] Native Son pg 467

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