No one I contacted on the dwindling staff of the Chicago Defender, a newspaper founded in 1905 to serve the city’s African American community, remembers “Lights and Shadows”—a popular poetry column the paper published back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Firsthand, or even secondhand, knowledge of the feature probably faded from the institutional memory of the paper more than a decade ago, when the last of the “Lights and Shadows” poets would’ve passed away.
Ninety years back—during the column’s heyday—the Defender’s offices were located near the intersection of South Indiana and East 35th in Bronzeville, then the heart of Chicago’s African American community and the second biggest African American neighborhood outside of Harlem. The three-story, blond brick building still stands, now a historic landmark. Its first floor is boarded up, and it sits adjacent to a litter-strewn lot, a stretch of new condos, and across the street from a Subway sandwich shop. The building doesn’t look like much now, but back then it was the home of an essential national publication with a circulation of more than 200,000—not just in Chicago, but in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.
Often distributed by Pullman porters along their railway routes, the Defender linked networks of black communities across the country and united them in common conversation and cause. From its inception, the paper had a clear political agenda. A list of nine goals constituted its guiding principles and formed the bedrock of its official platform. These were conceived by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who founded the paper at his landlady’s kitchen table, and included: bringing about the end of race prejudice, opening all trade-unions to blacks as well as whites, gaining representation in the president’s Cabinet, passing legislation to abolish lynching, and winning full voting rights for all American citizens.
In the 1920s and ‘30s—the decades during which “Lights and Shadows” was most active—the Defender’s political mission saturated the writing in the paper, from its investigative reporting to its book reviews to the poetry it published. Back then, there were few literary outlets for aspiring black poets. White newspapers and literary journals were largely indifferent, if not hostile, to African American writers, and though the rare black poet slipped into the pages of the Chicago-based Poetry magazine, there was little chance for these writers to find wide audiences at the time.
To remedy this, an alternative network of grassroots literary publications grew to fill a need, but many of these were based in Harlem, where writers were beginning to publish pamphlets, journals, and little magazines in an attempt to circumvent the white literary establishment to reach readers. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and others launched a Harlem-based journal called Fire!!, The National Urban League founded Opportunity, and W.E.B. Du Bois established The Crisis, the NAACP’s journal, which published articles, literary reviews, essays, and poems.
In Chicago the offerings were slimmer, but scholar Bill Mullen—who has studied the 1930s and ‘40s cultural scene in Bronzeville—points to a few glimmers of homegrown literary activity. For instance, Fern Gayden and Alice Browning launched Negro Story, a magazine dedicated to short fiction by and about African Americans, in a Bronzeville basement in 1944. The magazine had a tiny budget (a $200 loan from Browning’s husband, the vice president of public relations for the Defender) and an improvised distribution scheme (Browning was nearly arrested for selling copies without a permit at a baseball game), but its first issue included stories by Richard Wright, Nick Aaron Ford, and Gwendolyn Brooks—all young writers looking to get their work out into the world.
The Defender also stepped in to fill this literary void.
“As a newspaper, it reported current events on a daily basis,” said Mullen, “but it also served an enormous cultural function. It saw itself as creating a sense of taste, and a sense of belonging, in the black community on the South Side at the time. . . . The Defender thought of itself as a vanguard institution. Whatever Bronzeville sounded like, the Defender sounded like.”
Peering through the archives of the Defender from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the paper often looks like a wild formal experiment—full of genre-bending endeavors you’d rarely see in a contemporary newspaper. The political urgencies of the time—when Jim Crow still reigned in the South and lynchings still happened with appalling regularity— called for certain transgressive measures, Mullen explains. The Defender abandoned all kinds of established categories, blending literature and journalism, fact and fiction, prose and poetry, all in an attempt to engage the community and spread its message.
Mullen points to an example from February 14, 1942, when a poem called “Remembering Sikeston” by Benjamin Franklin Bardner ran on the front page of the paper, memorializing the victims of a lynching in a Missouri town weeks earlier and riffing on a racist Southern rhyme:
Eenie! Meenie! Minie Mo!
White man? Black man? We don’t know,
Any nigger, though will do,
This is Dixie— carry thru!
Hang the black brute to a tree
Openly so all may see;
When he’s dead, then cut him down,
Drag his form through nigger-town.
“I mean, can you imagine the New York Times publishing a poem about lynching at this time?” Mullen asks me. “It’s almost surreal to think about.” But back in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Defender published verse—and sometimes defiantly political verse—with regularity. In the process, the paper vernacularized poetry, popularized it, made it relevant, and made it news.
Many writers and editors at the Defender helped to make this happen, but perhaps none more than Dewey R. Jones, the editor of “Lights and Shadows,” which gave scores of amateur poets their first (sometimes only) shot at publication, and offered a public forum for the country’s vibrant but largely marginalized community of black literati.
Jones was born in Asheville, North Carolina and raised in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the son of a professional chef, and a homemaker. He enlisted in the army as a young man and served in France during World War I before being wounded by shrapnel and discharged. Then, like thousands and thousands of other African Americans in the first half of the 20th century, Jones made his way northward, caught up in the flood of the Great Migration, seeking relief from the Jim Crow South and in pursuit of the greater opportunities promised in the North. He enrolled at the University of Michigan, studied journalism and literature, and then moved to Chicago, where he got a job with the Defender.
Chicago at the time was a boomtown, known for its skyscrapers, stockyards, steel, and railroads. Bronzeville was full of African American entrepreneurship, but its cultural scene was thin compared to what was unfolding in Harlem, the epicenter of the emerging black literary scene. From this Midwestern periphery, Jones began reporting on a wide range of topics and eventually reviewing books in a regular feature called “The Bookshelf.”
What became “Lights and Shadows” (subtitled “A Little Bit of Everything”) first appeared in 1921 under the name “This, That and T’ Other.” That gave way to “Have a Smile, Give a Smile,” which ran on the Defender’s op-ed page, next to opinion pieces, editorial cartoons, and home remedies from the newspaper’s resident physician.
Shortly before Jones arrived at the paper in 1923, the column changed names once more, becoming “Lights and Shadows.” He inherited it from its previous editor, a sportswriter named Frank A. Young, who had a hard time keeping the column going given his other duties at the Defender. Years later, Jones would joke that many of the poems published during Young’s tenure had been written by Young himself, under various pseudonyms. With Jones at the helm, the column eventually attracted 300 regular contributors and thousands of others who wrote in occasionally with news, letters, quips, serialized picaresques, and—most of all—poetry.
“Lights and Shadows” was a tight community. The contributors dubbed themselves “Lasers” and styled the group as a kind of poetry fraternity called Lambda Alpha Sigma. They designed pins, which regular contributors could order by mail, and spent a lot of column space discussing who might qualify as a “regular contributor” and appealing to Jones to let them into the club.
Jones bragged in a July 1927 Defender article, published on the sixth anniversary of “Lights and Shadows,” that the Lasers had accomplished much beyond the column itself. They’d completed master’s degrees and conducted orchestras, won poetry prizes and written novels, been anthologized and traveled abroad at a time when that was something exclusive and rare for African Americans. “The point of this whole thing,” Jones wrote, “is that ‘Lights and Shadows’ is celebrating. It feels that it has a right to crow and throw a few sunflowers at itself.”
The column printed a wide range of poems over the course of its history, including some of the earliest work of Gwendolyn Brooks—who would later become the doyenne of Chicago poetry and the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize.
But back in the mid-1930s, when she first became a Laser, Brooks was just a teenager and writing poems about her parents (“more than all gold are both to me”), angst (“The deepest sorrowing and pain / By dilatory time must be worn thin”), ambition (“There’s never enough of what I want, / Never enough of a sky”), and Jones himself (“O poet and philosopher, / And clear-tongued sage!”).
Over the course of four years and more than 50 poems, Brooks’s style evolved from stiltedly formal rhymes to more ambitious and vernacular free-verse that experimented with narrative perspective. In one of her last poems in “Lights and Shadows,” published on August 20, 1938, she wrote in the voice of an old apartment house:
So I’m condemned.
I, who was the finest of my time.
Mine was a beautiful color.
Can’t tell if it’s gray or brown now
My stairs creak.
And if you trod too firmly,
They sag in.
Look at those windows,
Once so clear and strong!
Glass all wasted now.
(The stones of little boys
Have visited them.)
Other writers who appeared in “Lights and Shadows” and went on to greater acclaim include Langston Hughes and Frank Marshall Davis, a journalist and another free-verse experimenter. Davis worked with the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project during the Depression, and his poetry bore the social realist stamp of those experiences.
After bouncing around Illinois and then the South and then Illinois again, working as a labor activist, teaching jazz history courses, and penning a pornographic novel called Sex Rebel: Black (Memoirs of a Gash Gourmet), Davis moved to Hawaii, where he eventually became a mentor to the young Barack Obama, who writes of him in his memoirs:
It made me smile, thinking back on Frank and his old Black Power, dashiki self. In some ways he was as incurable as my mother, as certain in his faith, living in the same sixties time warp that Hawaii created. Keep your eyes open, he had warned. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded.
While Davis, Hughes, and Brooks all owe something of their careers to “Lights and Shadows” for publishing their earliest poetic attempts, their subsequent fame is by no means representative. In fact, they’re the exceptions.
Most Lasers were teachers, nurses, journalists, and other professionals who moonlighted as versifiers in the evenings and on the weekends, writing as much to flirt, joke, and participate in a community of peers as to fulfill any serious literary aspirations. More typical of the Laser crowd were people like William Henry Huff, a lyricist and gospel composer from Chicago; Lucia Mae Pitts, a stenographer, secretary, and eventual art critic who wrote under the pseudonym “Lady Called Lou”; and Era Bell Thompson, who wrote from North Dakota as “Dakota Dick” and went on to become a journalist at Ebony.
Pseudonyms were popular among the Lasers. The Pirate, The Bootblack, The Old Meddler, and The Iconoclast were all regulars, and trying to figure out contributors’ real identities became an ongoing game and a running thread of conversation. “Hiya Dewey,” The Nutty Nebraskan wrote to Jones in September 1934, “Little by tiny, I’m learning the identity of our darling (?) Lasers. For instance... Nappy Haid: Miss Narvie A. Purifoy. I knew it all the time. Or did I?”
Collectively, the Lasers’ verse covered everything from political poetry (“The trees in Mississippi, / Hung their heads in silent shame, / while a fiendish torch was burning, / Human flesh into a flame”) to the corniest doggerel (“Twilight is falling, / Stars come above; / For you I’m calling—You and your love”), to formal experiments, like the weirdly ahead-of-its-time “Incomparable Masters,” a pastiche by Ray Hamlin Scott built entirely of lines from other poems by Robert Burns, Alfred Tennyson, John Dryden, and others.
Though the majority of the poetry published in the column was aesthetically unremarkable, it still composed the soil from which a vital literary and social community grew. Many of its contributors may not have written poetry for the ages, but they were professional, middle-class African Americans— and thus exceptional, for the time.
“You hear about W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Talented Tenth;’ it was really more like the ‘Talented One-Hundredth’ back then,” says Richard Courage, a cultural historian at Westchester Community College and the author of The Muse in Bronzeville, which chronicles the Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Courage is one of the few scholars I spoke with who has studied “Lights and Shadows” in any depth. He talked with me from his home in Valhalla, New York, with piles and piles of the columns stacked at his elbow. After sifting through years of material, his impression is that “Lights and Shadows” created a virtual community of college-educated black elites who comprised such a small fraction of the population at the time that it might’ve been difficult for them to find each other otherwise. “Lights and Shadows” became a place for them to interact, to banter, to outwit each other, and to share and read each other’s poetic efforts.
Jones’s voice was a consistent thread in the column for many years. He curated poems, prodded frequent contributors to send in new work, asked for suggestions for what to name the office cat, and generally acted as the host of the “Lights and Shadows” party. His tenure there ran, on and off, from 1923, when he took over as editor, until sometime in 1935, when he headed to Washington, D.C. to work for Harold L. Ickes, the secretary of the interior, and to serve as an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his Black Cabinet.
Over time Jones’ life moved toward more direct (and increasingly radical) political engagement, although politics—and more specifically, the struggle for racial justice—was clearly a major concern of his all along, evident in his work as an investigative journalist for the Defender and in his book reviews of work by emerging black writers.
Curiously, this political impulse was only sporadically evident in “Lights and Shadows.” Courage points to Jones’s inaugural column as editor, in which he laid out a miniature aesthetic manifesto, cautioning contributors to steer clear of both militancy and minstrelsy: “Anyone who thinks he’s funny, witty, smart, temperamental, poetic, descriptive, pretty, plain, or dumb, can let that fact be known by writing us,” Jones wrote. “But there are some things taboo: Don’t send us any poems about lynchings, ‘Going North,’ or the ‘Rising Race,’ etc. And don’t tell us about what Elder Dofunny said to Sister Skibuleena.”
So why this deliberate sidestepping of politics? Courage says that Jones would’ve come of age as a black intellectual steeped in the tradition of racial uplift and propagandistic literature, maybe best defined by W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Criteria of Negro Art.” In that essay, Du Bois wrote, “I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”
Jones’s mini-manifesto may have been pushing against that received tradition, Courage says, calling for work that transcended the usual tropes of the day. Maybe Jones wasn’t asking the Lasers to avoid politics, so much as he was asking them to “make it new.”
If Jones’s intentions for “Lights and Shadows” could be summed up neatly in any one piece, that would be the article he wrote celebrating the sixth anniversary of the column. There, he described the original “Lights and Shadows” mandate: “It was just another attempt to prove a theory that given the proper encouragement, our people would read and would write,” Jones said. That goal seems deceptively simple, but, given just how few outlets there were for African American readers and writers at the time, it was a serious—and unavoidably political—goal.
Jones returned to Chicago from Washington, D.C. in 1938 after accepting a job with the Hull House, Jane Addams’s sprawling, progressive settlement just southwest of the city’s Loop. He was reunited with his wife, Faith Jones, a social worker, and his young son, Dewey Roscoe Jones Jr., who was just two years old. But in April 1939, a year into his service at Hull House, Jones died suddenly following an operation for long-untreated gallstones.
People from all over Chicago came to pay their respects at his funeral. The mourners included his fraternity brothers from Omega Psi Phi; representatives from the Royal Coterie of Snakes, an exclusive South Side social club; members of the National Negro Congress, a newly formed communist organization dedicated to African American liberation, of which Jones had been the president; and colleagues from the Defender.
Writing of Jones a few days later, Defender reporter David Kellum lamented the loss of one of Bronzeville’s brightest. The obituary ran with a photo of Jones looking young and solemn in a suit, striped tie, and round, black-framed glasses. Even though Jones’s renown reached into many spheres, including journalism and politics, and even though his influence spilled beyond Chicago to Washington, D.C., Kellum noted that he may have been most widely beloved as the man behind “Lights and Shadows.”
“Hundreds of Chicago Defender readers knew him best as Dewey R.,” Kellum wrote, referring to the moniker Jones used in the column. It was these readers, fans, and writers who swelled the attendance at his funeral from the hundreds to over a thousand, and who dedicated brokenhearted poems to him that ran in “Lights and Shadows” for weeks afterward.
Seventy-two years after the funeral, Jones’s son—now a tall, spectacled man, with a deep voice, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and a slow, toothy smile— is sitting in his dining room, surrounded by his father’s faded papers, holding one of those poems dedicated to his dad. Jones Jr. lives in Woodridge, a quiet Chicago suburb, and has spent his life as a lawyer, bouncing around the Midwest and East Coast, setting up legal clinics for law schools. The poem in his hands is by William Henry Huff, the gospel composer, and it is typically full of feeling and bombast:
A noble soul like Dewey Jones can never die,
The heavens now possess him;
A perfect essence of such soul is ever nigh—
Our God will ever bless him.
A pleasant smile he had for all in life’s parade
Who passed along before him;
A multitude of folk of every class and grade
Now clamor to adore him.
Few are clamoring over Jones now. He’s one of history’s bit players, and time may slowly bury him. But until that time, his son—who shares his father’s name—will keep wading through the old photographs, letters, and writings that he left behind.
Jones Jr. spreads a series of sepia snapshots across the dining room table. He picks one up. In it, his father stands in front of a cluster of canvas military tents, decked out in tall boots and a World War I uniform. Instead of a rifle, he grips a typewriter in his right hand.
Next, Jones Jr. places a class portrait in front of me: the 1922 graduates of the University of Michigan. He has a hard time locating his father in the sea of white faces and mortarboards, but he’s there—one of the university’s tiny scattering of African American graduates. Jones Jr. rummages through a box and holds another curling picture in his hands: his father stands in front of the Chicago Defender’s printing presses, a bronze sheriff star clipped to his belt. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, Jones Jr. explains, all the reporters at the newspaper wore one.
Jones Jr. doesn’t remember much about his father beyond what these collected photographs and mementos tell him. In fact, his first memory of his dad is also his last. He was in the bathroom; his father came in, brushed his teeth, complained of a stomachache, and said he was going to the hospital. He died shortly after.
As Jones Jr. sorts through these materials, he’s learning what exactly he lost over 70 years ago. It’s a private discovery and an emotional one. “I would’ve been a much different person had I had his example and tutelage,” he says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “I could’ve—would’ve—done more things than I actually have.” Jones Jr. thinks he would’ve been a better writer and a sharper thinker. Maybe more ambitious. He’s tried to emulate some of his father’s habits—pipe smoking, for instance—in hopes of feeling closer to him. “He was insightful, sensitive, he shied away from nothing,” Jones Jr. continues. This last word comes down soft and assured.
In addition to discovering the contours of his personal loss in these piles of papers, Jones Jr. is learning exactly what Chicago lost. Even if his father’s legacy has largely slipped from the city’s collective memory, Jones Sr. was once one of Bronzeville’s most esteemed denizens—a journalist, activist, and the joking, sweet-talking “Dewey R.” of “Lights and Shadows.”
All photos courtesy of Dewey Jones Jr.