Neglected Book

Gosnell, Harold, Negro Politicians (1935).

Black politics in Chicago have been studied exhaustively, by historians and political scientists such as Ira Katznelson, Christopher Reed, Diane Pinderhughes, Paul Kleppner, James Q. Wilson, and others. Noting that some kind of organized, visible black presence developed earlier and more forcefully there than anywhere else (e.g. sending Oscar DePriest to Congress in 1928, breaking a color line held since 1901, when George White of North Carolina left), scholars have debated vigorously the degree to which African Americans actually held power, first in the machine of Republican Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson circa 1910-1930, and then in the new Democratic machine built by Mayor Anton Cermak and his successors. The scholarship on black Chicago politics, especially in the first half of the century, reflects different estimations of the degree of independence, leverage, “clout,” and autonomy black politicians actually held. Some see them as essentially clients of the white machines, in which a bloc vote was traded for meager crumbs of patronage; others note a degree of independence and considerable agency, but stress that when quantified, the black section of the various machines was able to secure considerably fewer rewards for its constituency than white groups (Polish, Irish, Italian etc.). In this context, I think a considerably neglected book is the ur-study of this phenomenon (the earliest form of visible Black Power in the North): Harold Gosnell’s Negro Politicians (University of Chicago, 1935; reissued 1967). Gosnell was a white University of Chicago social scientist, who spent several years in meticulous field observation, assisted by Horace Cayton among others. Written before the majority of black voters swung over to FDR in 1936 (though much less firmly to the Democrats as a party, as any close reading of electoral returns through 1960 will show), it retains a freshness and urgency that is compelling, as he interviews many of the original Republican cadre of the ‘Teens and Twenties who fought it out in the black wards to get their own. Equally valuable are the eyewitness accounts of how black people reacted to Thompson, almost certainly the first major white politician in America since Reconstruction to flaunt his personal appeal to African Americans. Given how important that particular type of relationship has been in recent history, when Clinton’s rapport and systematic attention to Black America (in terms of appointments, discourse, and symbolic solidarity) undergirded both his ascension to, and retention of, the presidency, Gosnell’s book is valuable for getting at the long trajectory of 20th century African American politics. I confess to liking it for other reasons as well—however scorned as irrelevant, at best the final playing out of larger social-historical and structural forces, I think it’s time to again pay close attention to party politics, to the discourses of patronage, representation, respect, and turf. I think that cultural historians, and scholars trained in cultural studies, will find an extraordinarily rich milieu to investigate in this most unlikely place, where contestation, negotiation and a constant “war of position” are the norm.

Recommended by Van Gosse, History Department, Franklin and Marshall College

Van Gosse is the author of Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (1993) and numerous articles. He helps edit the Radical History Review, and is working on a book called Black Power in White America: Reconstructing African American Politics in the 20th Century.