Reflections on DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis

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.

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