Abstract

Early twentieth-century Black literature on the city from the likes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen pondered questions of what it meant to be Black and urbane and also how to reformulate Black identity from a new position removed from the violent history of the South. While hints of criticism toward northern segregation appeared in those early works, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) offered the first intensive prognostication and condemnation of the ad hoc, discriminatory, and de facto system of segregation appearing in cities like Chicago in response to the Great Migration and used Wright’s informal study of sociology with the Chicago school to animate its project. Native Son, for all of its flaws, first considered how narrative can help explain and unspool the “neutral and egalitarian” guise behind the truly discriminatory urban planning-related practices and policies—from real estate to neighborhood covenants to zoning—that grew up with the start of the twentieth century and that continue to impact American cities through today.

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