Making Modernism

Three pages of typescript from "They Seek a City" by Jack Conroy and Arna Bontemps; Advertisement for "They Seek a City"

Striking as a collective narrative, They Seek a City (1945) explores stories of African Americans as a triumphant and often troubled history of migration. Growing out of the New Deal Federal Writers Project’s voluminous collective research for the “Negro in Illinois,” the book tapped into what Jack Conroy describes in his letter to his literary agent Maxim Lieber as “a wealth of sources no other writer or even combine of writers has found accessible before or will find again for a long time.”

Long before our era of “big data,” the “Negro in Illinois” was able to collectively mine a range of popular sources to give a broad representation of African American experience—recording, unearthing, and celebrating this history not only through portraits of “great people,” as the 1945 ad for the book highlights, but also through newspaper accounts, folk tales, personal interviews, music, strikes, race riots, and much more.

The Federal Writer's Project was an important nexus for the Black Chicago Renaissance and also important for the collaboration between Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy. Where Bontemps was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Conroy was a leading figure in the radical proletarian literature of the early 1930s. Their race and class-framed cultural and communal projects interestingly came together in They Seek a City.

The book was well received at the time, with glowing reviews from Carl Sandburg and also Langston Hughes, who praised the portrayal of “the human problems of black migration to great cities. . .in prose rich and warm in color.”  The continued relevance of the book over the following decades of building Civil Rights activism led to an expanded version of the book as Anyplace but Here in 1968.

Michael Rozendal, University of San Francisco

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