Let’s Do It Again

On July 4, 1940, the Diamond Jubilee Exposition of Negro Progress: 75 Years of Negro Achievement convened its two-month run at the Chicago Coliseum. The Exposition featured Black contributions to all aspects of American life from 1865 to 1940. Historian Lawrence P. Jackson described it as “measuring the distance between the whips and shackles of the cotton field and the jive-talking Cab Calloway blaring from a jukebox on a street filled with skyscrapers.” (Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2011, pg. 93) The exposition took place from July 4 to September 2 and exhibited the contributions of Blacks in religion, press, music, sports, stage, literature, art, science and industry.

According to its stated theme the “Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world on the contributions of the Negro civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”

“American Negro Exposition Catalogue Cover”:Courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Americana Collection Covert Art by Robert Pious

dunhamDespite the tremendous obstacles Blacks confronted everyday, these brave men and women still took pride in who they were and in their accomplishments. And they also viewed life with a positive outlook for their future. In doing so, they mastered their crafts. In 1940, baseball great Satchell Page was throwing pitches that made Dizzy Dean look like a rookie, and Josh Gibson hit home runs at such a tremendous distance, his clouts made Babe Ruth’s home runs appear to be singles. In the world of entertainment, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong dominated the music world. And in literature, author Richard Wright’s Native Son was released as a best seller in 1940.  There was also the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the paintings of Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas and the outstanding choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham, and the list could go on for pages.

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There was another message implicit in the Exposition, that told the world of a Black culture capable of standing on its own outside the parameters of the so-called American culture. In 1938 the Swedish scholar, Gunnar Myrdal began research into the relationship between American democracy and the treatment of Blacks in the United States. One of his findings concluded that the Negro culture was the product of a social pathology. It had no value in and of itself and it could only become meaningful if it was brought under the auspices of the larger dominant culture. The Black Exposition was a direct rejection of the Myrdal thesis. The Exposition was a precursor to Ralph Ellison’s response to Myrdal in 1944 when he wrote, “Much of Negro culture may be negative, but there is also much of great value and richness.

It has been 75 years since that celebration in Chicago, and now may be the time for another assessment of Myrdal’s assertion of the pathological nature of the Black culture, and Ellison’s rejection of it. Just like the Chicago Exposition was a proud display of our accomplishments from emancipation until 1940, we need another such event to express our endurance as a people. We readily acknowledge that segments of the culture are negative but, as Ellison pointed out, there is a richness and beauty unmatched by any people in the world. We need to put that on display once again. Along with a Million-Man March that lasted only one day, we need a summer long event much like what happened in Chicago between July 4 and September 2, 1940. Just think of all the glorious accomplishments that would be on display, for the entire world to view. So what do you all say, “Let’s Do It Again!”