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From news to history: Robert Abbott and Carl Sandburg read the 1919 Chicago riot.

The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.

Determining a relationship between news and its subsequent privileging as history seems urgent in the context of the spring 1992 riot in Los Angeles. Familiar headlines declare "VANDALS ROAM CITY" and a news story, generic in its observations, unfolds: "Social order broke down today across a broad area of the nation's second-largest city as vandals and looters roamed the streets, carloads of young men attacked pedestrians and uncounted fires burned out of control" (New York Times 1 May 1992: 1). Once again a president expresses shock, fear, and bewilderment, and he forms a commission to investigate the causes of socially directed violence. The lack of an ongoing public dialogue concerning riots stems from what Cornel West sees in the case of the Los Angeles riot: "The narrow framework of the dominant liberal and conservative views of race in America, with its worn-out vocabulary, leaves us intellectually debilitated, morally disempowered and personally depressed" (24).The tension between privilege and disempowerment pervades the polarized discourse evoked by public violence. As Dr. Kenneth Clark reflected in late 1968 on the history of all such riot commissions for the Kerner Commission:

I read that report ... of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission - it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland - with the same moving picture shown over and over again, with the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction. (Report 483)

Read individually these reports bear traces of exhaustive scholarship, active citizenship, and remorse. Unfortunately, as Clark suggests, when read in succession, they inadvertently expose how decisively African Americans have been left to sink in twentieth-century urban America.

To escape the "same moving picture" syndrome, I will examine not the official story (The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago [1922]) but two partisan accounts of Clark's earliest example: the 1919 Chicago riot. Like most eruptions of social violence, the 1919 riot was occasioned by a random, cruel event. By the spring of 1919 the postwar labor, class, and race tensions in Chicago were at an all-time high. Black laborers were in high demand, but tensions at the neighborhood level exacerbated a long-held animosity between the Irish and the black workers. Continental expectations of social and economic opportunity carried home by African American veterans brought pressures to bear in the workplace and in the neighborhood. Soldiers who had fought for freedom in Europe were certain to fight for their liberties at home. It was a "critical year," as Arthur Waskow explains, when Americans had to rethink their "attitudes toward the public and private use of violence in dealing with intense social conflicts" (1).

Nationally, the spring had brought racial violence. Riots from Arkansas to Washington, DC, erupted from years of discontent. Journalists had warned Chicago that the un-addressed addressed issues of unemployment and poor housing would surely lead to violence. In fact, Carl Sandburg's "riot report," actually a series of articles commissioned by the Chicago Daily News (a paper often cited by the Chicago Defender's Robert Abbott as the only evenhanded daily in Chicago), was written just before the riot, and warned of social unrest. On Sunday, July 27, riot came to Chicago. All morning, groups of whites and blacks had been vying for the territory between the 26th and 29th Street beaches. Unofficially segregated, the turf broke along racial lines. A group of black teenagers, who had trans-gressed into imagined white swimming territory, were stoned by a lone white man; one, Eugene Williams, drowned. Officer Daniel Callahan ignored the pleas of black bystanders to arrest the man they thought had caused the drowning, arresting instead a black for harrassing a white man. Someone fired shots; the riot was on. In a week, twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites were dead.(1)

Robert S. Abbott's columns in the Chicago Defender during the riot era and Carl Sandburg's pamphlet The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919 reflect differing versions of the same defining cultural moment. Their journalistic accounts seed memories and fuel histories, and provide insights into the interactions between competing rhetorical strategies and assumptions about the community from and for which each author speaks. They catch traces of those communal voices lost in the commission language of "neutral" authority.

These two sources, while ostensibly responding to the city's race crisis, also had alternate agendas. Both engaged in dialogue with sociologically definable constituencies too complex to speak with a single voice. The militantly political Defender assumed the authority to speak for, as well as to, the African American community. The liberal Daily News, by commissioning Sandburg, attempted to speak for the assured political and cultural leadership of a white post-immigrant community.

This essay concerns both the ways in which cultural bias and commitment shape the coercive rhetoric of competing stories, and the assumptions (not the historical accuracies or inaccuracies) their authors make about audience and community values. The efforts of the Defender to embody and define race aspirations, and of Sandburg to reflect assumptions of earlier, more fully assimilated immigrants, suggest how distinct were the discourses of cultural and political hegemony produced by Chicago's diverse and competing communities. If "a riot is the language of the unheard," as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, then attempts by others to translate that language into more socially benign forms say a great deal about what those others think of the unheard.(2)

Abbott's Defender, the most successful (though not the only) race paper in Chicago, courted and won a national identity.(3) In doing so, it assumed a voice of hegemonic authority that obscured the competing economic and class values of Chicago's African American community but provided a clearly defined body of cultural and political values that were share or supported at least in part by many competing factions. Sandburg's "investigative" series outgrew its original context in the Daily News and achieved historical permanence in pamphlet form. The linguistic structures of these accounts attempt to encode mutually distrustful views (heteroglossia) by appropriating the voices of large segments of the public. I will consider the rhetorical stances of each in an attempt to demonstrate that partisanship exposes itself despite stated intentions - sometimes in a counterproductive way - as the centrifugal force of marginal discourse intrudes.

In 1905, Robert Abbott recognized that, if black Chicagoans were to have a voice, they must have a paper that would, on a weekly basis, assert through conscious definition, the place of thee "Race" in the United States. Refusing to appropriate the terms Negro or Colored - inherited from, and used derogatorily by, whites - he worked to forge a positive "Race" identity in the pages of the Defender. By 1919 the national as well as local circulation of Abbott's paper made the Defender a social force. As Frederick Detweiler noted in 1922, "The paper seeks to live up to its title of Defender. Colored people from all over the country turn to it when in trouble" (65).

Because of the fear that innocent rural migrants would be manipulated by industrialists, the Defender, like the newly formed Chicago Urban League, committed time and money to "Americanization" efforts, trying to enable new arrivals to fit into Chicago. Abbott redirected the energized rhetoric of war, making the Defender's headlines concerning the Great Migration into proclamations of hope and near-military zeal: "Millions to Leave South" ... "Northern Invasion Will Start in the Spring Bound for Promised Land" (6 Jan. 1917). Invasion here represents aggressive enthusiasm, a flow of energy, and an uplift of hope rather than a threat, but the threatening connotations linger. Many white Northern papers also resorted to the term invasion, but with trepidation and barely concealed hostility.

Rather than being intimidated by such hostility, however, Abbott seized upon its blunt racism in language that recalled the fervor of the abolitionist. After years of recording the plight of African Americans in the South, Abbott used the agency of the Defender to once again "free the slaves." In answer to those attempting to dissuade blacks from coming to the "freezing" North, Abbott editorialized:

IF YOU CAN FREEZE TO DEATH in the north and be free, why FREEZE to death in the south and be a slave, where your mother, sister and daughter are raped ... where your father, brother and son are ... hung to a pole [and] riddled with bullets? (27 Feb. 1917)

Clearly Abbott saw himself as the leader of a hegira against forces clearly beyond the circulation of the Defender.

In response to Irish rule of the precincts and the ballot boxes, Abbott editorialized on the issue of neighborhood gangs, in particular the Irish "athletic clubs" surrounding the black neighborhoods. By the summer of 1919, in the pages of the Defender, police became synonymous with Irish. Articles as well as columns denounced the Irish as "cheap ruffians" (see, for example, 23 Feb. 1919). Cheap became Abbott's code for not only those who were recent immigrants without means, but those who simply acted that way. But unlike the black community, where the more established business class often estranged itself from the migrants, the Irish communities, at least in Abbott's eyes, fused into a common political, ward identity. The Defender began to pair accounts of white assaults on race members in Chicago alongside reports of lynchings in the deep South. Readers learned to decode headlines like "White Policemen Cause So. Side Riot" (26 Apr. 1919) to mean "Irish Lynch Race Member." The familial association between the many Irish "athletic clubs" and the police enraged Abbott. As he noted, members were "sons and relatives of a number of policemen of the Stock Yards station and, as a result, their depredations seldom occasion[ed] an arrest" (12 July 1919). Such street gangs had come to seem untouchable to Abbott because they were part of the armed leadership of the city itself. And this immunity intensified the sense of colonization and disfranchisement. Abbott seized every opportunity to invert the expected syntax of white press headlines (e.g., "RAGAN'S [sic] COLTS START RIOT") to counter the impression of African Americans as the agents of socially directed violence.

Alienated from the official power structure and segregated from a larger urban identity, it was as if black Chicago were being held captive and silent by a foreign power. This expands the context within which Abbott's somewhat extravagant editorial practices might be judged. Those offended by his flamboyant disregard for facts (characteristic of many of the dailies as well) must weigh that violation of journalistic ethical practice against his intent to give voice and political clout to a race that otherwise was without agency.

However lurid and sensational the front page became, Abbott reserved a measured temperament for his editorials. A meditation on the larger implications of the race problem preoccupied his columns throughout the spring culminating in "Reducing Friction" (3 May 1919). The occasion for the piece was the continued bombing of South Side residences, but the larger concern was the seemingly undying hatred between the races. Swept away by metaphor, he literalizes as he attempts to make the crisis seem immediate and palpable to citizens and journalists alike:

Friction generates or evolves heat, no less in human bodies than in cold, lifeless metal. The clashing of two racial groups, it matters not what the cause may be, brings the heat of passion to each and if carried far enough fans the burning brain of a sane, normal man into a white fever heat and makes of him, for the time being at least, a star graduate of his satanic majesty's school. It is not an uncommon thing to pick up a daily newspaper and read a highly colored account of a race riot. And what is a race riot?

Because the column touches on the hyperbolic treatment of racial incidents by the white dailies - "Perhaps a few school children, white and Black, have some petty differences" - it serves as a critical marker regarding Abbott's insight into the deliberative tensions between the white and black press. By its very nature, the black press was a weekly supplement and spiritual corrective to the ommissions and distortions handed the race on a daily basis.

Front page dissections of neighborhood gangs culminated in a terse, pre-riot editorial. In "Ruffianism in the Parks" (12 July 1919), Abbott forges a crucial link between the socializing effect of journalism and behavior. He associates the outbreak of residential bombing with "an exhibition of ruffianism in our public parks" (the pronominally integrationist emphasis on public spaces is characteristic of Abbott's style). In order to expose the utter lack of civility and citizenship in the white community, the editorial feigns sympathy with these young hoodlums, many of them yet in their teens, [who] get their inspiration from what they read in the yellow press. It is there that they receive suggestions for their lawless acts. Added to this is the influence of bad home surroundings, and the ill-advised counsel of their elders. They listen to the comments of their parents and then start out to put into execution the evil judgments of the family circle. Inverting the accustomed white rhetoric, Abbott concludes that " it is inconceivable that young men of any education and respectable home training could be guilty of such acts as are laid at the door of these young savages." His target is more than the tough on the street. It is the unchristian, "savage" family circle that perpetuates such hateful behavior in and out of city hall.

Confronted with the news of a genuine uprising the Defender shuttled between pulp sensationalism (not unlike the white dailies) and editorial austerity as it struggled to cover the riot. On 2 August 1919, the front page read:




Defender Reporter Faces Death to

Get Facts of Mob Violence; Hospitals

Are Filled with Maimed Men

and Women



4,000 Troops in Armory Ready to

Patrol City; Scores Are Killed



The Defender staff, conscious of its four-day lag with the white dailies, sought the cinematic immediacy of charged imagery - "sweeps," "ghastly," "maimed" - as well as the legitimizing objectivity of international censorship - "French Give Opinion of Riot." Box scores of "slain" and "injured" gave a vaguely athletic cast to the grisly event.

The accompanying stark, summary editorial "Reaping the Whirl-wind" asserts Abbott's race pride in the midst of upheaval. Proclaiming the riots in Washington, DC, and Chicago to be "a disgrace to American civilization," he returns to an indictment that had been the refrain of the Defender:

It is not chargeable ... to the general unrest now sweeping the world. Nor are we witnessing anything new in these disgraceful exhibitions of lawlessness. America is known the world over as the land of the lyncher and of the mobocrat. For years she has been sowing the wind and now she is reaping the whirlwind.

For Abbott the riot signaled a larger, spiritual crisis in the ongoing assumptions governing race relations and the attendant obligations of the race press. Historians who claim, as William Tuttle has, that the Defender "erroneously informed its inflamed readers" mistake both the local intent and governing mission of the paper (49). Blending the sensational and sometimes fabricated "news" story with the censoring pulpit rhetoric of his editorials, Abbott hoped to create an alternative chorus for his readers. If we move beyond the "erroneous" nature of its "news" to a reading grounded in an appreciation of its rhetorical and "performative" use of language, we hear what Dominick LaCapra calls a "dialogic understanding of discourse and of 'truth' itself in contrast to a monological idea of a unified authorial voice providing an ideally exhaustive and definitive (total) account of a fully mastered object of knowledge" (15). The history of African American slavery and abuse compels Abbott to see the riot in an over-determined cultural matrix. The riot-as-lynching in his usage, becomes a trope, a literary empowering of historical material. This trope in turn became a common motif in the Defender's campaign against all race-based crimes. Race murder and lynching were so repugnant, such an indictment of white America, that the facts of the instance no longer mattered as much as the emotional power generated by lynching as a dramatic motif.

Subsequent editorials throughout the fall would situate the riot in the larger historical and national context. Abbott, convinced that news was but the beginning of how we remember, sought to keep the historical record favorable, or at least neutral, to African Americans. As he intones in "Mr. Hoyne's Mistaken View" (6 Sep. 1919):

State's Attorney Hoyne it seems is of the impression that Colored gamblers started the race riots in Chicago. Mr. Hoyne is mistaken. He fails absolutely to grasp the underlying causes of the race clashes in this community. When he charges our people with having brought on the disgraceful happenings centering about the first week of August, he flies in the face of the real facts.

"Real facts" authenticabe history and validate community. Abbott knew that this riot was a formative event in race history, but that through historical purification it would lose its essence. Subsequent summer editorials would ask Chicagoans to commemorate what happened to Eugene Williams. As "The Joys of Summer" (9 July 1921) challenged:

Less than a dozen of our group were to be seen on the beaches Friday, when the whites were out by the thousands. And why? Surely the 29th Street episode some two years ago has not frightened them away. If so they are out of place in a Northern city. Chicago especially has no room for quitters or spineless individuals.

Abbott, a journalist of outrage as well as social construction, believed that control over the news was but the beginning of the invention of African American history. The "Race Question" would never be solved by "quitters or spineless individuals," but only by those capable of authenticating their existence in the news of the day.

By the spring of 1919 the Chicago daily News had feared a crisis in Chicago race relations and assigned its leading liberal reporter to "investigate the situation three weeks before the riots began" (Sandburg, Chicago 4). Published by Harcourt, Brace and Howe later in the year under the somewhat misleading title The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919, Carl Sandburg's articles were at the time heralded nationally as a central investigation into what went wrong in the Black Belt. They may be considered now as a literary news-fiction that in fact anticipated the riot. Introduced by a passionately indignant Walter Lippmann, who saw the "race problem ... as a by-product of our planless, disordered, bedraggled, drifting democracy," the articles link the "Negro problem" to economic status, especially housing and employment (Chicago iii). Informed by the attempted street-savvy familiar to readers of Sandburg's poetry, the articles are illuminating journalistic exercises in the established racial liberalism of in-equality, grounded rhetorically in social bombast and structurally upon imagistic tableaux vivants.(4)

Relying upon the journalist's strategy of letting folks talk for themselves (not unlike Studs Terkel today), Sandburg proffers a cast of principals who are willing to contextualize the history and the news of the riot. Though recognized at the time, apparently by a majority of black and white journalists, as "true and friendly," the series today exposes the ways rhetoric corrupts history (Detweiler 152). Within months, Sandburg's serial account formed the national public opinion as it was preconceived into a concerned, liberal document, bearing the imprimatur of Walter Lippmann. Ranging freely from an overview of the migration's impact on Chicago to the particular concerns of housing, employment, and larger issues of opportunity, the series effects a double-voiced dialogue with its national white liberal audience as well as Chicago's black weeklies, especially the Defender. Direct interview techniques are used by Sandburg to unseat the irrational or unlearned pleas from his subjects. The controlling intelligence throughout the articles is Sandburg's.

For the pamphlet reprint from the Chicago Daily News, Sandburg appended an introduction, "The Chicago Race Riots," in an offhanded, dis-interested voice which provides a startling contrast to the Lippmann introduction. Obviously influenced by the residual forces of social Darwinism, the poet-journalist projects these chaotic news events into a world apart from the one he inhabits. He finds in this world primitive social forces at work, ruled by "the most ancient ordeals of the jungle" (Chicago 1), though he calls into question the underlying social factors by describing the origin of the riots in the anecdotal language of historical randomness:

The so-called race riots in Chicago during the last week of July, 1919, started on a Sunday at a bathing beach. A colored boy swam across an imaginary segregation line. White boys threw rocks at him and knocked him off a raft. He was drowned.(1)

Like Abbott's earlier "Reducing Friction" editorial the introduction, with its offhanded phrase so-called, subverts the severity and significance of an event. And yet, by recasting the stoning of Eugene Williams into simply an act of "white boys," he writes not to avert riot but rather to deny its community - significance and its attendant historical significance. In spite of its national packaging, the pamphlet is stripped of its larger human import by making the inciting incident into just another childish prank.

But because the conflict involves black migrants from the South and Irish immigrants scrambling for turf and authority - factions removed from the journalist's immediate circle - Sandburg, as he draws his introduction to a close, presents a binary opposition of socially distant factions:

So on the one hand we have blind lawless government failing to function through policemen ignorant of Lincoln, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a theory sanctioned and baptized in a storm of red blood. And on the other hand we have a gaunt involuntary poverty from which issues the hoodlum. (2)

Not unlike Abbott in his condemnation of "ruffians," Sandburg and most of his readers saw the crisis at hand as a primitive competition between poorly socialized and educated groups. He does not fully examine either the singular event that triggered the riots or his competing assumptions about the root causes - one assumption being that the ignorance of a particular competing social group caused the unrest, the other that poverty generated a lawless atmosphere.

Readers of the Chicago Daily News as well as their national counterparts may have felt secure, like Walter Lippmann, in their conscience-stricken liberal sympathy with the "race problem." Sandburg directs his dialogue-laden prose at those with a vested interest in the status quo, those directly threatened by the instability and aggression of the new factions. Although he discusses the emerging brotherhood of the unions as the best hope of imposing order on African American migrants and Irish immigrants, his social Darwinism precludes subordination of competing interests, and the crisis situation, dominated by a "blind lawless government," indicates that the projected brotherhood would be fragile and temporary at best. In "Unions and the Color Line," he uses a black union man, secretary of Local 651 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workman of North America, to subtextually unseat the validity of his own testimony:

"If you ask me what I think about race prejudice, and whether it's getting better," he said, "I'll tell you one place in this town where I feel safest is over at the yards, with my union button on....

"We had a union ball a while ago in the Coliseum annex, and 2,000 people were there. The whites danced with their partners and the colored folks with theirs.... Whenever you hear any of that race riot stuff, you can be sure it is not going to start around here. Here they are learning that it pays for white and colored men to call each other brother." (45-46)

Central to Sandburg's presentation of union brotherhood is the strong current of "knowing one's place" in the evolutionary cycle. This social Darwinist view largely negates the socialist faith in integration expressed by this union man. Even the black middle class, in Sandburg's eyes, is useful primarily as a socializing force to contain unruly ambitions. In a curious way, then, neither class nor race is as important in Sandburg's scheme as a comfortably hierarchical status quo.

However well-intentioned the individual articles, most are prejudiced by their very organization. Perhaps believing that the marginal is what is newsworthy about the series, Sandburg begins most discussions with an anecdote of backward, ignorant folks crowding into the ever-accommodating Chicago.(5) With prose as vivid and garish as turn-of-the-century "darky" art, "The Background" strives to provide an honest capsule review of the migration, but capsule under the weight of its own deafness:

There is apparently an active home buying home owning movement, with many circumstances indicating that the colored people coming in with the new influx are making preparations to stay, their viewpoint being that of the boll weevil in that famous negro song, "This'll Be My Home." (8)(6)

The use of the insect metaphor admits at least two ways of reading Sandburg's liberalism. When he equates the migrants with the boll weevil, he either intends his readers to chuckle over the sly suggestion of "infestation" (the weevil infestation being one of the primary causes of the migration in the first place) or he hopes that they will admire his home-spun presentation of the "folk." The sinister undercurrent in his phraseology becomes evident when we consider the effect the weevil migrants had upon their new (cotton) homes. He exploits another popular stereo-type as well: that of the country hick (the cotton-picker) come to the Big City. Reliance upon such comfortable and familiar portraits insured Sandburg's readers distance and superiority, allowing them conceptual space for pity and understanding.

Sandburg, aware of the Defender's encouragement of the migration as well as Abbott's relentless anti-lynching campaign, repeatedly subsumes lynching under economic deprivation. Directly contradicting testimony by Willis N. Huggins, an Alabama migrant who taught manual training at Wendell Phillips High School (Chicago 10-11), he insists that it is economic equality that gets the emphasis in the speeches, and the writings of the colored people themselves. They hate Jim Crow cars and lynchings and all acts of race discrimination, in part, because back of these is the big fact that, even in the north, in many skilled occupations, as well as in many unskilled, it is useless for any colored man or woman to ask [for] a job. (22)

By equating lynching with other forms of racial discrimination, Sandburg deprives the word and the historical event of their horror and violence. Unwilling to accept the basic tenet of the Defender that, as metaphor or fact, lynching was the central race news in America, he disparages, as too gullible, both the readers and writers of black newspapers. He pities "the illiterate colored people" who "believed" the following lynching story:

In Vicksburg, in the third week of June, the story goes, "a colored man of an assault on a white woman was placed in a hole that came to his shoulders Earth was tamped around his neck, only his head being left above ground. A steel cage five feet square then was put over the head of the victim and a bulldog was put inside the cage. Around the dog's head was tied a paper bag filled with red pepper to inflame his nostrils and eyes. The dog immediately lunged at the victim's head. Further details are too gruesome to print." (53)

Particularly striking about this instructive fable is Sandburg's class-conscious reticence to print the indecorous or perhaps inappropriately ridiculous final details. In this subtle censure of the kind of journalism practiced at the Defender, he disengages himself from the very community he professes to know and assess. Dismissive and patronizing he reflects on the dubious standards of journalism practiced by the black press: "Whatever may be the truth about this amazing story, it is pub-lished in the newspapers of the colored people ..." (53). The characterization of black journalism as "amazing" is developed in succeeding articles on "Negro Crime Tales" and "Colored Gamblers," which consciously utilize the rhetorical strategies of popular fiction to impress upon the reader the outlandish self-dramatization and comic-opera events that characterize a world too utterly apart for Sandburg to feel any but the most remote imaginative participation.

Even so well-documented a crime as home bombings (widely discussed in the dailies and the weeklies) is subjected to Sandburg's domesticating pen. The article on "Real Estate" begins:

Eight bombs or dynamite containers have been exploded within the last five months on the doorsteps of buildings in the south division of the city, all of these buildings being situated in streets adjacent to the residence district popularly called the "black belt," where the population is about 80 per cent colored.... The police began their work with two theories in mind: one that the explosions were the result of race feeling, the other that there was a clash between two real estate interests. As a result of their work, the police now believe that the second theory is the more likely to be correct. (13)

Swiftly Sandburg dismisses the fear and anger expressed in the black weeklies as simply "the propaganda of the colored people." Pairing responses to the bombing crisis, he pits L. M. Smith of the Kenwood Improvement Association, who fears that African Americans "injure our investments ... hurt "our values ... and taint "our neighborhoods, against Charles S. Duke, a Harvard-educated city engineer who sees real estate dealers in the "business of commercializing racial antagonisms" (Chicago 14). Ceding authority and authenticity to the police, Sandburg cavalierly rejects Abbott's thesis as he concludes:

In the series of bombings there is little or nothing to indicate a motive to destroy life. In one case a child was killed. The police have evidence that in the flat next door an Italian girl was to be married and jealous suitors had sent threats of violence. The theory is that the dynamiters put the bomb on the wrong doorstep. (16)

It is curious to note how Sandburg's anecdotal insertion of "a child was killed" is offset by the paragraph's competing, subversive concerns: that there is no motive to destroy life and that swarthy Mediterranean types might destroy life. While Sandburg purports to allow the citizens of Black Metropolis to speak for themselves, he nonetheless projects voices more characteristic of DuBose Heyward and Eugene O'Neill than of a serious journalist. The denizens located through his explorations seem to have migrated from Catfish Row, where even the sharpest black characters are sly, not intelligent. Into this chorus, Sandburg mixes the centripetal, unitary voices of reason, including the perspective of an anonymous packing official, an interview with Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck), and anappeal by Joel Spingarn to "the intelligent whites of America" to see the "race question as "national and federal" (69).

The pamphlet represents a retrospective anticipation of violence and an historical, anecdotal acknowledgment of the riot as fact, with no effort to reconcile these distinct perspectives. As Sandburg recalled, "Publication of the articles had proceeded two weeks and were approaching the point where a program of constructive recommendations would have been proper when the riots broke, and as usual, nearly everybody was more interested in the war than how it got loose" (4). His obvious frustration in not quite reaching the point where "a program of constructive recommendations would have been proper" suggests his perspective on race and social policy (Chicago 4). Because he shared the tone of liberal good fellowship of his newspaper, he endorsed many of its generalizations and distortions. Though not so blatantly racist as its competitors, the Daily News still resorted to racial exaggerations and outright stereo-types. One of its most popular features was the cartoon "Meditations of a Hambone," which exploited hateful stereotypes and Remus mock-wisdom.

However impure or complex its motives, the Daily News nonetheless sponsored one of the more exhaustive examinations of the "Race Problem." The paper's willingness to underwrite Sandburg's series, as well as its relatively even-handed coverage of the riot itself, won praise from the Charles Johnson-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations. Yet even editor Victor F. Lawson would have to be told by a black former American Expeditionary Force officer, Stanley Norvell, that "Negroes [in Chicago] have become highly suspicious of white men, even such white men as they deem their friends ordinarily" (qtd. in Tuttle 226). The articles reveal a blend of liberal concern and cultural misunderstanding characteristic of those comfortable with the status quo. When seen in the light of Sandburg's private correspondence, the cultural bias and intolerance become manifest. Writing on 8 July 1919 to his father-in-law, Edward Steichen, the journalist exposes his bigotry: "I have spent ten days in the Black Belt and am starting a series of articles in the Chicago Daily News on why Abyssinians [sic], Bushmen and Zulus are here" (Letters 167). A sympathetic reader might rationalize Sandburg's lapse as merely intergenerational "good ol'boy" banter. But when read in conjunction with the articles themselves, this comment seems to reinforce the contempt suggested, for example, by the boll weevil metaphor and the belief in the infinite gullibility of black newspaper readers.

Even Lippmann compromises his introductory plea to provide "complete access to all the machinery of our common civilization" by his assertion that," since permanent degradation is unthinkable, and amalgamation undesirable, both for blacks and whites, the ideal would seem to lie in what might be called race parallelism." Lippmann clearly does not detect the racism embedded in the very concept of "race parallelism." He confidently expands on this utopian vision: "Parallel lines may be equally long and equally straight; they do not join except in infinity, which is further away than anyone need worry about just now" (Chicago iv). Such a vision of "separate-but-equal" provides a means of fiberalizing the present without risk. This amendment to Lippmann's original plea for "complete access" puts into perspective the social doctrine of well-educated liberals of the era.

But however condescending Sandburg's or Lippmann's prose may seem, they were positively enlightened in comparison with the authors of competing accounts in Chicago's mainstream white dailies. Consider this mid-riot report in the Tribune (30 July 1919):







"Uncle Tom's Cabin" in a modern setting - that was the central police station yesterday. Like fugitive slaves of the antebellum south, colored citizens huddled in the squad room and awaited their turn to be taken home under escort.

All day long they streamed into the station. Some came of their own accord ....

Not far away stood a middle-aged colored man whose costume was topped by an old black derby. "No, suh, Ah'm not takin' no chances," he said. "If Ah was bullet-proof, like one of them there dugouts, it'd be different. Somethin' tells me Ah better stick right here with the parlice."

A policeman entered the room with a couple of colored men marching before him. "Sit down and we'll take you home just as soon as we can get a wagon," they were told. At long intervals a closed delivery auto from one of the downtown department stores would halt at the curb and the human merchandise would climb aboard. Some of the refugees wore bandages. (emphasis added)

Beyond the obvious transformation of citizen or migrant into "refugee" or "human merchandise," the article breeds contempt in other, more subtle, ways. The policeman, officer of the status quo, is in no way caricatured or visualized. Where the blacks are drawn as cringing, provincial, unlettered, and cowardly, the neutral voice of authority sounds merely the letter of the law. Dehumanized and dependent, these citizens have reverted, in the eyes of this journalist, to the condition of chattel slavery.

Sandburg would consider himself a liberal visionary throughout his life, believing these articles to be some of his best journalism. Writing in 1956 to a friend in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Sandburg cagily inserts a greeting:

Tell Charles S. Johnson I'd like a good long talk with him and that sometime I would like to meet his student body with one of my programs and that if anybody asks me what Brother Johnson and I are Alumni of it is The Chicago Race Riots and "the score" thereof. (Letters 508)

While never a participant or veteran of the riot, his fond remembrance of that time and place suggests a lifelong imprint on the people's poet. Available as a pamphlet, Sandburg's series had a national impact on the way a settled white readership began to view its relationship to urban race relations. The collaboration of Sandburg and Lippmann, the very axis of liberal equanimity and sensibility in postwar America, made this an essential document in assessing public opinion in a time of social unrest. While Sandburg's conscious attempt to move beyond personal prejudice to empower a language of accommodation and harmony has been eclipsed by the Chicago Commission's official report, it nonetheless provides a crucial voice in the dialogue between the black and white press, between news and history.

The discourse of riot fades quickly into the discourse of history. With the publication of The Negro in Chicago in 1922, the charged rhetoric of Abbott and Sandburg slips into an inventory of liberal notions and blameless history. While Sandburg's readers console themselves with their knowledge of right sentiments, Abbott's readers feel compelled to remember the news of the riot as they construct history. In late 1963, Ralph Ellison reiterates the significance of an active relationship to history:

Negro American consciousness is not a product (as so often seems true of so many American groups) of a will to historical forgetfulness. It is a product our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events, by our watchful waiting , and by our hopeful suspension of final judgment as to the meaning of our grievances. (124)

The 1919 riot was just such a sustaining and reinforcing event for Chicago's burgeoning black population, as well as for later readers of the riot like Kenneth Clark. The complacent, liberal landscape of Sandburg's world is captured in what Cornel West sees as the controlling liberal mentality of 1992: "The liberal motion that more government programs can solve the problem is simplistic - precisely because it focuses solely on the economic dimension ... [and] sees black people as a 'problem people'" (24). Mindful of the marginal discourse of the African American weeklies, Sandburg was, in rhetorical effect, a fighting partisan for the status quo that had served him, and others like him, as well. But though his intended audience was white, he wrote as if Abbott were listening. Confident that race news would become race history, Abbott engaged Sandburg's sentiments directly and frequently as he sought to wrest control over the historical record from the pervasive liberalism.

In hindsight the Chicago riot has become the "ideal type riot... [one of] clarity" (Waskow 10), one of "parity" (Grossman 259), for in almost athletic fashion, the migrants and immigrants struggled for self-identity and neighborhood control What has been lost in the numerous historical accounts is an awareness of the ways these communirities generated competing languages of selfhood and assurance even as they increased the tension between competing discourses. Repeatedly the centripetal force of authority - which would have claimed objective, historical status - yielded under pressure to marginal voices in ways that underscored the incompatibility of differing social and cultural dynamics. This powerful and varied response offers a rare opportunity to understand the way in which news outlets attempt to create, respond to, or reflect community needs and belief systems.

The implications for literature of such rhetorical awareness of community journalism are great. Writers and readers immersed in the conventions of the race press should enter into an enched relationship with many of the important African American literary works of the 1920s and 1930s. But if literary works are read differently in light of the rhetoric of the popular press, so the journalism seems to answer to a literary-critical approach. The Chicago riot, exhaustively analyzed by so many disciplines, must now be read as a powerful exercise in discourse. Until the race and immigrant press is valued as a source of community identity and purpose, and a crucial instance of the authority of language in community-building the working-class and minority literature growing up and out of the news will be incompletely read or misunderstood.


(1) For the "official" report of the riot, see Chicago Commission, The Negro in Chicago (1922); for a contemporaneous reading suggestive of the national import of the riot, see "Chicago Rebellion" as well as "A Report on the Chicago Riot" in the Messenger (Sep. 1919); for a detailed reading of the various accounts of the riot, see Tuttle 3-11. (2) The rhetoric of journalism, like most forms of public discourse, tends toward hegemony and authority. Bakhtin's distinction between the centripetal and centrifugal forces in language may help explain the tendency of public discourse to marginalize competing authorities and refuse the objectivity that would recognize alternative readings of history and the news. Bakhtin argues that the centripetal force in language attempts to "supplant," "incorporate," and "enslave" other languages (271). The resonance of these metaphors is deliberate. The attempt to gain hegemony at the expense of competing languages parallels the journalist's desire to monopolize public discourse on a given issue, to impose both one's reportage and one's point of view (editorialize) at the expense of competing reporters and editors. The other force in language, the centrifugal, refuses this hegemony, unravels linguistic unity, and resists enslavement. In poststructuralist theory this centrifugal force operates at the level of the signifier; in the rhetoric of journalism it is the pressure, as Wallace Stevens might have said, of perceived reality. Bakhtin argues that every utterance, written or oral, is crossed by both forces, and therefore participates in "unitary language" while at the same time bearing traces of a "heteroglossia" that is the very embodiment of the marginal. (3) In "Public Opinion in Race Relations," The Negro in Chicago (436-594) compares coverage of the riot in the Whip and Searchlight with that in the Defender. Sandburg notes: "The State street blocks south of 31st street are newspaper row, with the Defender, the Broad Axe, the Plaindealer, the Searchlight the Guide, the Advocate, the Whip, as weekly publications, and there are also illustrated monthly magazines such as the Half Century and the Favorite" (Chicago 51). (4) Richard Wright's Mr. Dalton and Langston Hughes's "Dinner Guest: Me" are fictional constructs of just such assured liberals. Belief in their own "superiority" frees them to care for those they perceive of as "dis-advantaged." Such liberals, Ralph Ellison claimed, "write as though Negro life only exists in the light of their belated regard." For a crucial interpretation of racial discourse in Sandburg's poetry (specifically "Mammy Hums," "Nigger," and "Singing Nigger"), see Nielson 34-37. (5) As Nielsen notes, "What was really bothering Sandburg was the, to him, unjustifiable increase in the black population of his city' (35). The stress upon "his city" is perfectly justifiable in the light of Sandburg's article. I would add that his concern was greater than the question of numbers; it circles always about the issue of class. In Sandburg's mind, the "wrong" sort of "folks" were going to Chicago. (6) See Sandburg, Songbag 8-11 for an annotated presentation of this "famous negro song" learned from John Lomax. Sandburg's introductory note concludes, "I have known this song for eight years ... and it never loses its strange overtones, with its smiling commentary on the bug that baffles the wit of man, with its whimsical point that while the boll weevil can make a home anywhere the negro, son of man, hath not [a place) to lay his head, and with its intimation, perhaps that in our mortal life neither the individual human creature, nor the big human family shall ever find a lasting home on the earth" (8). After eleven verses charting the course of the weevil's migration, the song concludes: "An' if anybody should ax you/Who it was dat make dis song, / Ju'tell 'em |twas a big buck niggah wid a paih o'/ blue duckin's on, / Ain' got no home, ain'got no home."

Works Cited

Bakhdn, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York. St. Martins, 1985. "Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The Negro in Chicago: A Study in Race Relations and a Race Riot in 1919. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1922. "Chicago Rebellion: Free Black Men Fight Free White Men." Messenger Sept. 1919:31-32. Chicago Defender July-Aug. 1919. Chicago Tribune July 1919. Detweiler, Frederick G. The Negro Press in the United States. 1922. College Park: McGrath P, 1968. Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and do Great Migration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Kerner Commission Report See U.S. Riot Commission Report. LaCapra, Dominick. "Rhetoric and History." History and Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 15-44. Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Reading Race: White American Poets and do Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988. "A Report on the Chicago Riot by an Eye-Witness." The Messenger 2 (Sept. 1919): 11-13. Sandburg, Carl. The American Songbag. Boston: Schirmer Music, 1922. ____. The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919. New York: Harcourt 1919. ____. The Letters of Carl Sandburg. Ed. Herbert Mitgang. New York: Harcourt, 1968. Tuttle, William M. Jr. Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. New York; Atheneum, 1970 U.S. Riot Commission Report. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: New York Times, 1968. Waskow, Arthur I. From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connections between Conflict and Violence. New York: Doubleday, 1966. West, Cornel. "Learning to Talk of Race." New York Times Magazine 2 Aug. 1992: 24+.

C. K. Doreski teaches writing and cultural studies at Daniel Webster College and is the author of Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language (Oxford UP, 1993). She has essays on African American poetry and its periodical context forthcoming in Contemporary Literature and Prospects, and she is currently at work on a book concerning the African American periodical press. For their constructive readings of successive drafts of this essay, Professor Doreski would like to thank Aldon Nielsen, Lawrence Rodgers, Eric Sundquist, Judith Lockyer, John Gruesser, Michael Robertson, and William Doreski.
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Author:Doreski, C.K.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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