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Fall 2023 - class Option #3

A Place Called Home: Great Migrations, Folk Life, and The Chicago Renaissance

“By the time the Great Migration was over,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in the epilogue to her sprawling “epic story” The Warmth of Other Suns, “few Americans had not been touched by it.” From World War I through the end of the Vietnam War, African Americans kept coming out of the American South, to the North and West, mostly to cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Tulsa, Cleveland, Detroit, Wichita, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Like many other migrants and immigrants, they were often obstructed, misrepresented, and rebuked on the beginnings and ends (not to mention in the middles) of their trips. Yet they kept coming, and their movement, as well as its aftermath, culturally redefined the United States, along with the migrants themselves.

This seminar will be an intensive, interdisciplinary study of literature, music, film, and visual art produced during and about the first and second waves of the Great Migration, from roughly 1917 until 1970.  We will explore the Chicago Renaissance as a cultural flowering of the Migration’s first wave, and consider the philosophical and cultural critiques offered by the African American intelligentsia of the period. In addition, we will examine the migration of Black Folklife—faith practices, music, foodways, and vernacular iterations—and chart its impacts across and beyond the US. Finally, the class will explore what some sociologists and urban studies scholars have called a “reverse migration,” citing a statistical exodus of African Americans out of the Great Migration’s destination cities in numbers that now rival or exceed the movement itself. We will also focus on themes of home, community, and physical place and space, ideas that we imagine will be especially resonant for first-year students.

Sample course texts

  • Clarke Hine, Darlene. Black Chicago Renaissance
  • Griffin, Farrah Jasmine. Who Set You Flowin'
  • Angelou, Maya. Down in The Delta (film, 1998)
  • Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
  • Perry, Tyler. Madea’s Family Reunion (film, 2006)
  • Larsen, Nella. Passing
  • Reed, Christopher. Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance
  • Stewart, Jacqueline. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity
  • Toomer, Jean. Cane
  • King, George. Goin’ to Chicago: Personal Stories of the Great African American Migration (film, 1994).
  • Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns
  • Burnett, Charles. To Sleep With Anger (film, 1990)
  • Williams, Spencer. The Blood of Jesus (film, 1941)
  • Petty, Audrey. High-Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing
  • Lee, Spike. Crooklyn (film, 1994)
  • Stahl, John. Imitation of Life (film, 1934)
  • Scarborough, William et al, Between the Great Migration and Growing Exodus: The Future of Black Chicago?

Possible excursions and course enhancements

Chicago will provide an important site, connection, and laboratory for the course; we anticipate availing students of local institutions and archives including the Black Metropolis Research Consortium <>, the South Side Community Art Center <>, and the Rebuild Foundation<>.

Other course enhancements might include guest speakers  and students may also work with journalists and oral historians via the Invisible Institute <> and South Side Weekly <> to access and create oral histories of Chicago’s Black migration.


Miriam J. Petty is Associate Professor in Radio/TV/Film. She writes and teaches about race, stardom, performance, reception, adaptation, and genre and is especially interested in the history of African American representation in Hollywood film. Her first book, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood (University of California Press, 2016) seeks a historical recalibration of early Hollywood film stardom, via its meditation on Black actors of the era. Could Black performers, who appeared in marginal, stereotyped roles be “movie stars?” If so, what did their stardom look like, how did it function, and to whom did it speak? The study also pays copious attention to the viewing practices of Black moviegoers, and to the politics and possibilities of Black spectatorship during this pivotal moment in early 20th century cinema history. Stealing the Show won the 2017 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Best First Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Krasna-Krausz Foundation’s 2017 Best Moving Image Book Award. Petty is currently at work on a book manuscript examining contemporary media mogul Tyler Perry’s productions and his African American audiences' nostalgic investments in such cultural forms as folktales, music, literature, and religious practice.

Tracy Vaughn-Manley is Assistant Professor of African American Studies. Her current research examines the specific ways in which the distinctive aspects that define the Black Aesthetic quilting tradition—the assertion of individual and collective agency; the narrative aspects; and the social and historical significance of quilts—make them and the process of quilting a convenient trope for many Black women writers, specifically novelists Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terri McMillian; poets Nikki Giovanni and Lucille Clifton: and playwright Lynn Nottage. These authors consider the connections between quilts, gender, race, culture and identity as well as the intersections between literature, history, and material culture to explore the interiority of Black life—specifically the lives of Black American women. By employing the quilt and the tradition of quilt-making as metaphors for history, community, and legacy, these authors are situating the production and preservation of American folk culture squarely in the hands of Black women.