J.R. Johnson

Black Metropolis: Chicago’s South Side

(1 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 13, 1 April 1946, p. 2-M.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Black Metropolis
by St Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton
Harcourt, Brace & Co., $5.00.)

This book is over eight hundred pages long. It is the result of a research project carried out in Chicago by the WPA for four years. One of the authors is Horace Cayton, who collaborated with George Mitchell in writing the story of the Negroes in the CIO, Black Workers and the New Unions. The other author is St. Clair Drake, a graduate in anthropology of the University of Chicago.

The Black Metropolis is the South Side of Chicago. The authors aim at giving a scientific presentation based on extensive research of how Negroes live in one of the greatest concentrations of urban Negroes in the U.S. The book is no ordinary sociological study. To many Americans unacquainted with the Negro question it will read in places as strangely as if the writers were describing another continent, another age, another nation.

Yet it is to the credit and the sound knowledge of the writers that though themselves Negroes and aware of the special situation of Negroes (in fact it is this which drove them to write the book), they triumphantly demonstrate how specifically American is the Negro problem, both in its origins and in its reflections in Negro life and Negro character. Thus the fundamental value of the book is as a study of a Negro metropolis in which are specially exemplified the general values of American civilization today.

How the Negroes Live and Feel

Sobriety is the watchword of the writers. Confident of the cumulative weight of their material they prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. They begin with a general study of the city of Chicago, including its historical origin. With an emphasis characteristic of them they take care to note its “free and easy approach to living”; its philosophy of “anything goes so long as it doesn’t affect me directly”; the quick resistance to pressures characteristic of Chicago as a whole.

They work along similar lines with the Chicago Negroes. They are determined to show not only how Negroes live but how Negroes feel. For this reason they deal extensively (perhaps too extensively) with experiences in intermarriage. They treat in detail, the general social experiences and opinions of whites and Negroes who attempt to cross the color line. From there, however, they move more strictly into the objective conditions and social relations of life in black Chicago. Chapters 9 to 13 on the Negro as worker, in the factories and the unions, is a masterpiece of factual organization indispensable for any student of the labor movement today.

There, among other things, the Negro will learn not only that the white employer and the white worker have to be educated to accept Negro workers. He will learn also of how some Negro workers are often so demoralized by discrimination and segregation that they too have to be educated to the possibilities of struggling for their rights. The picture of tremendous progress of the last decade from actual participation in the labor process to militant solidarity of white and black on the picket line is made all the more striking by the authors’ refusal to use propagandistic language or emotional overtones of any kind.

But perhaps most fascinating to the student of the labor movement is the fact that the authors treat all aspects of Negro life. With an imperfectly hidden satisfaction, they puncture the myth of Negro business. While Negro enterprises constitute about half of the businesses in Negro neighborhoods, they receive less than one-tenth of all the money spent by Negroes within these areas.

The Role of the Numbers Racket

There passes before us the strange world where the policy racketeers constitute the richest and most socially powerful of the Negro community. This is not only because of the wealth which they control but because of the thousands of jobs that have been built up around the numbers racket. They give to the policy game an economic status as well as a social and emotional significance. This may seem specifically Negro (Cayton and Drake present it as such) and so it is. But it does not take too much imagination to see these rascals are the counterpart within the narrow Negro community of the financial magnates, bankers and other large-scale scoundrels, who manipulate the wealth of the nation in their own piratical interests.

Equally strange and equally fascinating is the account of the special role played in the Negro community by the preacher and the professional “race-men.” The discerning reader will see in them merely the reflection in Black Metropolis of the gang of politicians, newspaper owners and other public relations racketeers who infect municipal, state and federal government under the guise of governing the great masses of the American people in the interests of human progress.

Richard Wright contributes an astonishing introduction. Using the Negro question as a symbol, he makes it the basis of a blast against capitalist civilization as a whole. Shaky here and there in its strictly political arguments, in its passion against the crimes of capitalist society as a whole and its insight into the social needs and aspirations, not only of Negroes, but of whites, it is a revolutionary manifesto to be read and treasured by all students of the contemporary chaos.

Last updated on 19 January 2019