Researcher, teacher, and editor/writer for the Public i, Brian Dolinar, has just made two major contributions to the world of knowledge. Both of them are books about the contributions of African Americans to the intellectual, cultural and political life of the United States.
First, something about the background our Public i colleague’s background. Brian is a Kansan who too his B.A. in American Studies, with a minor in Women’s Studies, at Wichita State University in 1995. He then went on to earn an M.A. in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in 1997, and then in 2005 a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, with an Africana Studies Certificate, from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. He has taught courses on race, ethnicity, and gender-related topics at Bowling Green State, California State Polytechnic, California State University in LA, and the U of I. He has authored quite a number of articles and essays in scholarly publications aside from his numerous articles on race-related issues, especially dealing with the criminal justice system, in the Public i.
The first book that Brian has come out with is entitled, The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation, is published by the University Press of Mississippi. In this work, Brian shows how the political Left had a major impact on Langston Hughes, Chester Himes, and Ollie Harrington. The book reexamines past works on these three intellectuals and finds that they insufficiently appreciated the impact that such groups as the Communist Party, the National Negro Congress, and the CIO had on these writers. The Communist Party was one of the most forceful proponents of equal rights for African Americans in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It thus had an attraction for African Americans, especially for African American intellectuals who reflected and commented on the life conditions of African Americans during a period of profound economic deprivation, educational segregation, exclusion from voting, exclusion from the military, exclusion from all of the AFL craft unions and most well-paying jobs, false criminal accusations and prosecutions, chain gangs, and lynchings. The Communist Party not only denounced these conditions but actively intervened through demonstrations, legal defense, electoral activity, its newspaper, and its labor union activity.
Some African American intellectuals and artists outright joined the party. Some were just sympathizers and participants in organizations that were influenced by the party, as was the case of Hughes, Himes, and Harrington. In either case, with the rise of the second 20th century red scare (the first being during the First World War and the Russian Revolutionary period) otherwise known as McCarthyism, those African Americans who came into the orbit of the Communist Party or other organizations where it had influence became particularly vulnerable targets of repression. Some fled the country, especially for France or the USSR. While the Black Cultural Front focuses on the above three writers, it is also a formidable history of a repressive period in American history that is little known for its political horror to many of today’s citizens. At the same time, this repression stimulated an incredibly rich intellectual and artistic output by African American writers who not only understood the economic underpinnings of the racial and political repression, but reflected them publicly in their literary works and at their own peril. Brian does a magnificent job examining a portion of this literature in its historical context. He also reflects on how this literature influenced later African American writers like Walter Mosley.
Brian’s second major book contribution, forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press in the spring of 2013, is doubly fascinating because it involved considerable detective work on Brian’s part. This is a book in which Brian serves as the assembler and editor of The Negro in Illinois. The Negro in Illinois was a comprehensive history of African Americans in Illinois that was funded by the Works Progress Administration created by the New Deal. The WPA, which funded the construction of the U of I’s Illini Union, also created employment for many artists and intellectuals. One of these was the Illinois Writers’ Project, of which the Negro in Illinois was one component.
After the WPA’s projects were shut down in 1942, the essays that had been written for the Negro in Illinois were not left in one place and some were not well organized. Most were in three different libraries in Chicago. Others were in Springfield, and still others in the Library at Syracuse University. It took a lot of detective and leg work to assemble all 29 of these essays into a single published volume for the first time. While I have not read all of them, those I have read present a fascinating picture of African American life in the city of Chicago, some going back to its incorporation in 1837. Brian has done a superb job of assembling, editing, and introducing us to how African Americans saw their lives in our state in the past two centuries. This very distinctive work is a treasure for which we should all be grateful.
Thank you Brian for both of these superb pieces of work. We are now even prouder than we were before, which was very proud, to have you as a colleague on the Public i.
On Saturday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m., Brian Dolinar will give a book talk for The Black Cultural Front at the Urbana Free Library.