There are some classics that are, indeed, must reads. And by classics, I do not mean greeks or romans, though many of them deserve our attention as well. In this case, I mean works that shape and shaped our understanding of what it is to be human, raise essential questions, offer important understandings of both specifics and of broader matters.
Black Metropolis is a classic. Of course, this assertion is not surprising to many.
Black Metropolis is a must read for Chicago-ans. Again, not surprising.
Black Metropolis both helps us understand the world and ourselves. This last bit, if those around me these days are a measure, is somewhat more challenging. Why does it help a white, female, only-recently-returned-to-Chicago college president understand herself? Why is it important to Shimerians -- indeed to all Americans and Shimerians and more, today?
First: As I will always argue, making sense of our world requires us to refuse to be ahistorical. We are shaped by the context within which we live and that means doing what we can to know our history. To know Chicago, for example, is not merely to know where to get a good gluten free donut today (I do) or even to notice the differences and continuities between today's Chicago and the Chicago one first experienced (I do notice such things -- where did that S curve go? where is my old friend hte seminary coop bookstore in the basement?). Knowing Chicago means more though -- and to be responsible for learning more. For me, that included reading this great classic work.
Second: Of course, because Shimer is in Bronzeville, Black Metropolis is particularly important. It provides a mix of ethnographic and quantitative data approaches to understanding how limiting the residential accessibility of the city occurred, was experienced, and continues to shape today's experience of race and class.
Third: This book does require some self reflection. Perhaps all important books do. By asking readers to look directly at the realities -- both the wonders and the horrors -- of racism, of black culture, of church and press and work, and institution building -- the book made me ask myself what I am doing and why, how I benefit from my many encounters with the legacy of the black metropolis -- every day. And, it makes me ask myself how I did not know -- nor was I required -- to know much of this in any educational venture I pursued. A number of years ago, I worked on a Black History month presentation -- and of course, all the "new history" I learned was a significant part of the education of my colleague with whom I worked -- for he was raised to know his history -- african american history -- and I was not.
The latter perhaps, is the most crucial reason for me to read the book. Some of you wil have read it, and many of you will bring very different histories to the reading than I. But I can assure you, I will be re-reading Black Metropolis for some time.
For those who want, here is another way to learn!