A Student-Run Public History Blog from Chicago
The 2010, WTTW-Channel 11 (otherwise known as Chicago PBS) documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis endeavors to present over two centuries of African-American history in Chicago, from the settling of the Afro-French trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable at the mouth of the Chicago River around 1790, to the presidential victory speech of Barack Obama in November, 2008, at Grant Park. Needless to say, this is an ambitious task. At a length of exactly two hours and sixteen minutes, the documentary succeeds in packaging black-Chicago history for its public audience, but it also falls prey to problems associated with deciding when to adhere to dominant narratives and when to create a new narrative by introducing stories that are local and unexpected.
A certain degree of loyalty to the national narrative is important. For example, it is always enlightening to remember that figures with a major national impact, such as Ida B. Wells, Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Langston Hughes, and perhaps Robert Sengstacke Abbott (founder of the oft-cited black newspaper, The Chicago Defender), were once based here in the city. Likewise, a certain degree of local character is extremely important. In this respect, the documentary succeeds in profiling several black institutions—namely, the Provident Hospital, an institution for the practice of black medical professionals, and the Quinn Chapel A.M.E, described as the longest-standing African-American congregation in the city. Speaking generally, this tension between national narrative and local character is not unique to DuSable to Obama. Rather, it is a struggle that is somewhat inherent to all historical interpretations, especially those regarding histories of minority groups.
In thinking about the objectives of DuSable to Obama, I am reminded of an incident that occurred when the legal scholar Michelle Alexander published her controversial work on the prison industrial complex, The New Jim Crow, in the year 2010. After publication, a Seattle University sociology student, Joseph D. Osel, openly criticized the text as whitewashing African-American history. Among other things, Osel was most upset that Alexander wrote her book without mentioning such prominent black figures as Malcolm X, George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, and others. For Osel, African-American history was canonical. It was something that existed as an established constellation of names, proceeding through time. In this sense, to omit these names was to demonstrate an ignorance of the discipline, while simultaneously committing a blasphemy against it. I introduce this scenario only to suggest some of the tensions associated with producing a black history of Chicago. Not only are there dominant national and metropolitan narratives with which to contend, but there is also a dominant African-American narrative. All of these traditions are vying for attention in the documentary.
Professional historians will do well to remember that DuSable to Obama is a tool for public education, packaged in a medium that is inherently limited by its narrative format. The linear nature of the film, progressing through history from the frontier settlement of DuSable to the climactic election of Obama, will likely carry some problematic assumptions for historians. Among these assumptions is the implication that footage will be divided evenly across the entire history of Chicago. Of course, this is not the case. Within the first twenty-five minutes of the film, we are already up to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, having traveled the first century in less than one-fifth of the length of the movie.
Another assumption is the idea that African-Americans throughout the history of Chicago were engaged in a unified struggle for progress, one with landmarks that can be picked out and presented in clear succession. While a protracted, race-based narrative of progress is not necessarily untrue, it will often be problematic as a frame for interpreting the past, as it precludes the participation of individuals who were African-American, but who did not necessarily contribute to this narrative in a way that is immediately obvious.
Within this African-American narrative, there is perhaps no figure more incumbent than the reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and, at times, the documentary can feel like a build toward his inevitable arrival. Speaking more generally, the last forty years of Chicago history are portrayed with an enormous emphasis on individual political figures. Some critics—though likely not Osel—will rightly interpret this as “Great Man” history in an African-American context. In moving from the black mayor Harold Washington, to the black senator Carol Moseley Braun, to the black president Barack Obama, there is hardly any room for figures who were not politicians. Some canonical figures that are mentioned in the film, such as the Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks, remain imprisoned by the limitations of the dominant narrative. In the film—as she is in the national consciousness—Parks is an old, tired woman who paved the way for Dr. King by refusing to stand on a bus. Only the dominant, African-American narrative is sufficient to explain why this passing mention of Parks is even necessary in a documentary about Chicago.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the documentary, from the perspective of a professional historian, is how often it tends toward an attitude of contributionism. While there are some very unexpected and interesting stories addressed during the film—such as that of John C. Robinson, the Chicago-resident turned one-man Ethiopian Air Force in 1935—the film often feels like a greatest hits of Chicago history, reminding the audience that African-Americans were present at all of the canonical moments in the metropolitan narrative: the operation of the Underground Railroad, the Chicago Fire, the Columbian Exposition, both of the Great Wars, and, finally, the Civil Rights Movement.
Although this tendency towards contributionism may frustrate professional historians, it remains an extremely important message for present-day Chicagoans. In 2002, the journalist Erik Larson published his bestselling nonfiction novel, Devil in the White City, without mentioning any aspects of black history in relation to the 1893 fair. So, as long as mainstream writers continue to ignore the participation of black individuals at pivotal moments of America history—and continue to vindicate the enduring title of Ida B. Well’s pamphlet “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition”—then there will remain reasons to produce media that reminds the public of this fact.
I want to conclude these reflections by encouraging some further discussion about Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. It seems to me that only in a starkly racialized world does it matter whether DuSable was the founder of Chicago, as the documentary puts forth, or just the first European settler who lived in the geographic region that would become Chicago years later. Perhaps this is only a minor distinction, but Fort Dearborn was not built until three years after DuSable left the Chicago River for St. Charles, Missouri. This makes me wonder, what are the implications of calling someone the founder of a place that did not technically exist until after he or she left? More importantly, what does it matter who founded Chicago? What is really at stake?
The WTTW-Channel 11 documentary, DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis, can be streamed online in its entirety at http://video.wttw.com/video/1522918184/.