Born By the River: Richard Wright, Barack Obama and “Chi-Raq”
by Keenan Norris
Illustrated by Katia Grifols

“We are the ones who had no comforting amnesia of childhood, and for whom the trauma of passing from the country to the city of destruction brought no anesthesia of unconsciousness, but left our nerves peeled and quivering…”
— Ralph Ellison (Rampersad 164)

My forthcoming book uses the experience of my family as migrants from the South to Chicago in the late 1940s, their subsequent time there, and my return to it years later as a lens through which to understand the city’s twentieth-century history and to interrogate two of Chicago’s better known black transplants, Richard Wright and Barack Obama. And it looks, lastly and most importantly, at Chicago today: its crisis, its raw, open beauty, and its future.

While the story of my dad, who was raised in Chicago in the Fifties and Sixties, and of his parents, who brought him there, is a Great Migration story taking place in the wake of WWII, with many of the characteristic hallmarks of that experience, my interest in Richard Wright is even more particular and just as personal. Wright’s books were offerings from my father to me, talismans by which he tried to signal to me who he was, the people and place that had made him, the things that he had seen, and what he was haunted by. In Wright’s stories, I was to see his story, and here in these pages I have tried, in some sense, to see the Chicago he wanted me to see: a world where literature and reality, the life of an artist, and the life of a ghetto child form one continuous experience. The migratory experience for blacks in that time period was one of risk and deprivation and hope for new beginnings, all of which I have tried to express by taking on the voice and experience of my father.


In a 1960 interview, Richard Wright reflected that coming to Chicago was the most “difficult and traumatic” experience of his life. Wright’s biographer Hazel Rowley uses the word “shock” to describe Wright’s first reaction to the streets of Chicago. In 1927, the year Wright arrived, the city was rife with the criminal syndicates who had arisen with Prohibition and who now battled in the streets for control over the illegal trade of alcohol. Vice of all types flourished on the South Side: “reefer pads, card sharks, gangsters and crapshooters. The so-called mulatto queen of the underworld running poker games. Policy kings running the numbers racket” (Wilkerson 269). Even the ghettoized, deprived South Side was still very much a part of the big city. It was, and still is, if you’re a country boy, a bit much.

Chicago’s downtown seemed at once a racially mixed, uniquely diverse maelstrom of hope and opportunity, yet residentially the city was in fact racially gridded and cordoned by complicated, shadowy real estate schemes that amounted to a system of de facto segregation. Chicago must have seemed an absolutely bewildering mix of hope and fear, opportunity and stark, desperate risk. Rowley notes that Wright’s experience was “typical,” and compares it with the equally tumultuous early days of Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and the sociologist Horace Cayton, Jr., in Chicago; Cayton, a black man with a white wife, native to relatively tolerant Seattle, was as shocked as was the Southerner Wright to find in Chicago some of the most virulent racism the nation had to offer (Rowley 54). Cayton’s interracial marriage was stigmatized as if he and his wife Bonnie were below the Mason-Dixon, “[a]ccomodation, social interaction, employment—everything posed a problem” (190). Cayton, the pioneering co-author of Black Metropolis, would become the first expert on Chicago south of downtown, overstanding the issues, recording the consequences of Northern racism and segregation, exposing with academic rigor the acts of terrorism and restrictive covenants that forcibly created the overcrowded, under-resourced Black Belt (Duneir 29). Chicago overwhelms everyone one way or another, though: by the time Wright re-emerged in town in 1940 as a renowned writer (deeming the Chi a literary backwater and killer of artists, he had moved to New York in 1937 while completing his famous novel Native Son), Cayton had bowed to social forces, divorcing Bonnie and moving on to a more socially acceptable marriage with a light-skinned black woman named Irma.

Upon first coming to town, the Mississippi-raised Wright, Rowley writes, ironically “left behind the racist brutality of the South, but the humiliations of the North were almost harder to bear, because they were more capricious” (Rowley 57). Capricious is one word for it. Another name for it is James Crow, the segregation of whites preferring that blacks be not-too-close as opposed to Jim Crow’s preference that blacks rise economically, socially, and politically not-too-high. Even in Wright’s era, blacks in Chicago and other Northern and West Coast cities were achieving things that would’ve been but dreams down South. Jesse Owens, born in Alabama, brought to Ohio by ambitious parents, broke four world records in an hour at a 1935 college track meet and the next year dominated the Olympic Games. Jackie Robinson, raised in Pasadena, was a track star at UCLA and, later, in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, an icon of Major League Baseball. Charles Drew, native to the nation’s gateway city, Washington, D.C., received his medical education at McGill in Toronto and later pioneered blood plasma storage and preservation in New York and London. Oscar De Priest made a fortune in business in Chicago while also entrenching himself in the city’s machine politics, serving on the City Council and later as Black Chicago’s first congressman (1929-1935). The world-famous University of Chicago sociology department minted many of the twentieth century’s leading black intellectuals, including Cayton, who earned his doctorate there. Wright himself became a famous writer in the North. Gwendolyn Brooks, a Kansan by birth, won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, a book of poems set in Bronzeville. And Ralph Ellison, hell up in Harlem, wrote Invisible Man.

But everywhere north, James Crow real estate policies, preferential hiring practices, union segregation—and on and on and on—enforced the color line more completely on the material level of housing and jobs than anywhere south of our dreams.

Owing to the demographic shifts that resulted from the 1919 race riot, Chicago was, by the late 1920s, “the most residentially segregated city in the nation,” with fully “90 percent of Chicago’s black population [living] in the seven-mile black metropolis on the South Side” (53). In the wake of the conflagrations in Chicago and East St. Louis, escapees of Jim Crow, of southern droughts, and of floods and boll weevils arrived in a Chicago that was likely “tenser than before the riots” where “the color line would only stiffen” (Jackson 26; Wilkerson 275). Between the wars, Wright and other black migrants filled the isthmus on the South Side dubbed Bronzeville, among other monikers. Restrictive covenants were critical to this racial convergence. Rowley writes that in 1927 the Chicago Real Estate Board instituted a “Model Restrictive Covenant” that, in accord with the mainstream bigotry of the times, “protect[ed] white areas from black residents” (Rowley 53).

Restrictive covenants worked in multiple ways to segregate blacks out of mainstream Chicago and to hamper health and human opportunities within the ghettos that the riots and the restrictive covenants had formed.

The Civic Unity Committee, in a 1946 publication, defined racial restrictive covenants, or redlining, as: “agreements entered into by a group of property owners, subdivision developers, or real estate operators in a given neighborhood, binding them not to sell, lease, rent or otherwise convoy their property to specified groups because of race, creed or color for a definite period unless all agree to the transaction” (Grant Pankey). In practice, these covenants simply were “the means of realizing white aspirations for racial purity in their neighborhoods” (Duneir 31).

Even the University of Chicago itself participated in the planned segregation by financially backing restrictive covenants written to stop the spread of blacks into Hyde Park (47-49). Frustratingly, despite Cayton’s activism and the equally stalwart anti-covenant protests of fellow University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth, the researchers by their very employment were maintaining an institution that abetted America’s urban apartheid.

According to historical novelist David Bradley, “Redlining came from the assumption that mixed neighborhoods were unstable, a social science concept… that produced the cityscape that we know” (Norris 55-56).

If scholars created racist policy, simple terrorism less subtly surveilled the color line: in a speech given at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Woodlawn, Horace Cayton “described numerous incidents of bombings and of fires set at the entrances of homes the blacks had recently moved into” (Duneir 29). By the 1940s the most segregated black populations were located in Chicago, “where 86 percent of the city’s blacks lived in majority-black neighborhoods” (33).

Racial cordoning subjected blacks to the economic truism that governs captive markets. Desperate for housing in the overcrowded slums, blacks were crammed into a “kitchenette” apartment design invented just for them. “Realtors would buy the apartment houses for a song, then break them up into one or two bedroom ‘kitchenettes’ with a gas burner or charcoal stove in each,” writes Rowley (Rowley 53). Black renters often paid double what white-flown former tenants had rented the previously more spacious apartments for. These sorts of price-gouging strategies were put solid numbers to long before my family’s arrival or even Wright’s, as documented in a 1924 Urban League study of Harlem, America’s second largest black ghetto during the first half of the century (after Chicago’s South Side): “colored renters paid from forty- to sixty-percent higher rents than white tenants for the same class of apartment” (Wilkerson 277). The crowding that this over-charging caused resulted in skyrocketing disease rates in the Black Belt of every Northern city: in Harlem during the Depression, Tuberculosis made a comeback, slicing through the tenements and government housing (New York: City of Tomorrow, Episode 6). A similar determinism etched the South Side, where “[d]isease—scarlet fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid… was seven times higher than anywhere else in the city” (Rowley 53-54).

In “What’s the Matter with Chicago?” the union leader and IWW1 founding member Eugene V. Debs writes that because the beast of profit-making alone had inspired the creation of Chicago “without the remotest concern for the health and comfort of human beings who were to live there,” it was, like all great commercial centers, “unfit for human habitation” (Debs 1). Maybe Richard Wright felt the same, especially after the teeming masses that were his family arrived. After traveling alone to Memphis and then to the North, his mother, his brother, his aunt, and his grandmother followed him from one cold-water flat to the next in need of his meager but unstinting support.

Of course I was unaware of the population-level cause and effect of our crowding when my parents joined the Migration to Chicago. I was two years old when we arrived in the big city. I know from my mother that it was a harsh entry, that initially we were the ones you read about coming from the country, up from the South with no knowledge of the North and what it would entail. Maybe my father was more worldly than most, owing to his tenure in the military, which accustomed him to busy nighttime streets, storefronts, nightclubs, and walk-ups that melted one into the next like one flowing, penetrable form. Still, we came to the city and slept on kitchenette floors and four and five to a bed. We were without work and winter clothes and went on relief. I’m glad that all I remember from my first year or two in Chicago is this hazy image that for all I know I made up to fill in for my emptiness, innocence, and ignorance: in my mind, we were at the outdoor ice rink downtown. I did not have any sisters yet, so it was just my parents and me. I remember them hoisting me up and lowering me gently to the ice. I remember touching the ice, how hard and fascinatingly, unchangingly cold it was, not like snow, which melted in my hands like people disappearing around Kinzie Avenue’s2 corners, into its alleyways, suddenly out of my sight. Not like ice in a glass that melted in my throat or of its own slow transformation. No, this ice was changeless and forever; it was more impenetrable than was anything I had felt, the surest, safest thing that I had ever known. I was two or three years old. I had travelled a long ways and had survived terrors worse than anything in my nightmares. I trusted the ice.

Works Cited
Debs, Eugene V. “What’s the Matter with Chicago?” Chicago Socialist. October 25, 1902.
Duneir, Mitchell. Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. Farrah, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Grant Pankey, Katharine I. “Restrictive Covenants in Seattle: A Case Study in Race Relations,”  1947, CUC Collection, Box 17, Folder 19.
Jackson, John L. Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America. The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
New York: A Documentary Film: Episode 6, New York: City of Tomorrow. Directed by Ric Burns. Performances by David Ogden Stiers, David Levering Lewis, Mike Wallace, Craig Steven Wilder and Robert Caro, PBS, 2001.
Norris, Keenan, editor. Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Rampersad, Arnold. Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Vintage, 2007.
Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. Henry Holt and Co., 2001.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Random House, 2010.