Smoketown : The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance
by Mark Whitaker

Overview - " Smoketown brilliantly offers us a chance to see this other black renaissance and spend time with the many luminaries who sparked it...It's thanks to such a gifted storyteller as Whitaker that this forgotten chapter of American history can finally be told in all its vibrancy and glory."-- The New York Times Book Review

The other great Renaissance of black culture, influence, and glamour burst forth joyfully in what may seem an unlikely place--Pittsburgh, PA--from the 1920s through the 1950s.  Read more...

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More About Smoketown by Mark Whitaker
"Smoketown brilliantly offers us a chance to see this other black renaissance and spend time with the many luminaries who sparked it...It's thanks to such a gifted storyteller as Whitaker that this forgotten chapter of American history can finally be told in all its vibrancy and glory."--The New York Times Book Review

The other great Renaissance of black culture, influence, and glamour burst forth joyfully in what may seem an unlikely place--Pittsburgh, PA--from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Today black Pittsburgh is known as the setting for August Wilson's famed plays about noble but doomed working-class strivers. But this community once had an impact on American history that rivaled the far larger black worlds of Harlem and Chicago. It published the most widely read black newspaper in the country, urging black voters to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party and then rallying black support for World War II. It fielded two of the greatest baseball teams of the Negro Leagues and introduced Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pittsburgh was the childhood home of jazz pioneers Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner; Hall of Fame slugger Josh Gibson--and August Wilson himself. Some of the most glittering figures of the era were changed forever by the time they spent in the city, from Joe Louis and Satchel Paige to Duke Ellington and Lena Horne.

Mark Whitaker's Smoketown is a captivating portrait of this unsung community and a vital addition to the story of black America. It depicts how ambitious Southern migrants were drawn to a steel-making city on a strategic river junction; how they were shaped by its schools and a spirit of commerce with roots in the Gilded Age; and how their world was eventually destroyed by industrial decline and urban renewal. Whitaker takes readers on a rousing, revelatory journey--and offers a timely reminder that Black History is not all bleak.

  • ISBN-13: 9781501122392
  • ISBN-10: 1501122398
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: January 2018
  • Page Count: 432
  • Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds

Related Categories

Books > History > African American
Books > History > United States - State & Local - Middle Atlantic (DC, DE, MD,
Books > History > United States - 20th Century

BookPage Reviews

The many forms of a freedom fighter

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For many Americans who believed in the concept of “colorblindness,” the election of Donald Trump abruptly shattered the myth of a post-racial America. Yet for many minorities, the unapologetic racism and bigotry that helped elect Trump served as a reminder that the institution of white supremacy is alive and thriving. At a young age, Patrisse Khan-Cullors learned that blackness functioned as a target and watched as racism chipped away at the humanity of her loved ones. Yet Khan-Cullors, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, found strength within the unconditional love she held for her family, which provided a refuge from the dehumanization tactics of white supremacy. The title of her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, co-authored with asha bandele, references the labeling of Black Lives Matter as a terrorist movement by conservative media outlets, politicians and government officials. According to a report leaked by Foreign Policy, the FBI’s counterterrorism division determined that “black identity extremists” were a violent group of domestic terrorists. Activists such as Khan-Cullors cite this assessment as an example of dog-whistle politics. For those under the banner of white supremacy, it’s deemed radical to say that black lives matter—because black people are rarely seen as human.

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In 2014, the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner, a black Staten Island resident and neighborhood fixture, was caught on video. The footage shows white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo wrestling Garner to the ground and using what appears to be an illegal chokehold. Garner struggles, uttering those infamous last words, “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Regardless, a grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo on a charge of murder. In I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, a carefully constructed and researched portrait of Garner, Rolling Stone staff writer and author Matt Taibbi utilizes the tragedy to hold a mirror to the degrading, demoralizing and crippling manifestations of American racism. I Can’t Breathe not only examines the wide-reaching effects of racism but also specifically breaks down how the ideas of “law and order” contribute to a system of racist, predatory policing. Although Taibbi recognizes that Garner had his flaws, he pushes beyond them to compile a rich, nuanced depiction of a devoted family man who became yet another victim of bad luck, unforgiving environmental circumstances and the racially fueled injustices of the country’s police forces. I Can’t Breathe demands readers ask: Who are the police really intended to protect?

When we think of the black renaissance, we typically conjure images of bustling Harlem streets and flashy zoot suits alongside the black excellence of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. We may even think of Chicago and its cultural icons such as author Richard Wright and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Memoirist and reporter Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance is a thoroughly researched celebration of the black community and culture in Pittsburgh from the 1920s through the 1950s. Pittsburgh’s black residents, Whitaker argues, offered cultural contributions that significantly shaped black history—and the nation. With the diligence of a seasoned anthropologist, Whitaker spotlights the city’s stunning feats of black achievement and resilience through the lens of his extensive cast of influencers and icons. While some of the names may be unfamiliar, each subject’s narrative is a nuanced portrayal meant to challenge our country’s often narrow, dismissive version of black history. Cultural heavyweights such as boxer Joe Louis are treated as historical catalysts rather than extraordinary oddities. Black history, as evident in the cultural renaissance of Pittsburgh, is not defined by oppression. Despite the setbacks of systemic racism and discrimination, black excellence flourishes regardless of the white gaze.


This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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