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HOW TO SELL (NOT SELL OUT), BLACK CULTURE, TO OTHER COMMUNITIES, ENTERPRISES & SOCIETY'S
Selling the Race offers a fascinating story of the making of black culture in the United States at the middle of the twentieth century. The basic message, convincingly delivered, is that African Americans have long been agents in the production of their culture (one that has influenced, and been influenced by, trends toward modernity in American life generally) and not just casualties. Less convincing, but less important, is the argument that Chicago has been "at the center of the postwar historical narrative" (p. 16).
Relying on secondary sources, personal letters, and related archival research, this book examines five particular developments; the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago, popular music, the Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett's critical role in its formation, Johnson Publishing and particularly Ebony magazine, and the Emmett Till lynching focusing on the role of Till's mother in making the nation confront this horrific murder.
Green hardly denies the victimization of African Americans throughout U.S. history. The impact of slavery, Jim Crow, the deindustrialization of virtually all American cities, and the discrimination that often accompanied such structural changes are never far beneath the surface. But he calls for a more comprehensive and nuanced portrayal of black life than has been told in the well-documented history of racial oppression. His book is a significant contribution to that effort.
At the same time, Green points out the contingent nature of black life in Chicago and the nation generally. A critical analytical dimension of this book is the framing of black culture within the context of broader developments in American society. He points to the entrepreneurship of people like Claude Barnett, Robert Johnson, and many others at a time when new businesses were being established and growing nationwide particularly in the postwar years.
The growth of black music was clearly facilitated by the emergence of the record industry, radio stations, and their disc jockeys (including many who were part of the payola scandals) and the sale of jukeboxes in bars and restaurants. The Cold War influenced the shaping and selling of black culture as the content of Ebony and other outlets was often constrained by fears of blacklisting, and opportunities for entertainers like Paul Robeson were similarly limited by the paranoia of the time. An ongoing contextual force influencing black culture, of course, has been the overt bigotry, structural inequalities, and the persistence of prejudice and discrimination. White attitudes changed for the better during the latter half of the twentieth century. But racial inequality has remained a central fact of life though fundamental causes and consequences have evolved.
Green presents "African Americans as modernity's agents, rather than its casualties" (p. 17). But their status as casualties also framed the daily lives of the entertainers, business leaders, and other elites of the black community that he describes as well as the larger accomplishments they were able to achieve. And it most certainly circumscribed the opportunities facing the far greater number of working and poor families. Whites were agents as well. As Beryl Satter reported, in her 2009 book Family Properties, during these years in Chicago the problem was not that residents of the city's black neighborhoods had no assets but rather that their wealth was stripped from them by predatory real estate agents, lenders, and their partners.
These white-dominated institutional actors red lined these neighborhoods denying them conventional mortgage loans (with the active complicity of the federal government) and then sold homes to unsuspecting residents by contract that were often reclaimed when families missed a single payment, losing any down payment and equity they had accumulated. Many whites were also exploited by blockbusting tactics that relied on racial fears to turn white neighborhoods into black neighborhoods seemingly overnight.
BLACK PEOPLE DIVESTING IN THE AMERICAN ECONOMY