UChicago Scholar Writing about Space and Race Wins Modernist Studies Association's First Book Prize

UChicago Scholar Writing about Space and Race Wins Modernist Studies Association's First Book Prize

Adrienne Brown

When Adrienne Brown was studying modernism at Princeton, she wasn’t sure if there was still room for her to write about it. Fortunately, Brown, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, was able to find unexplored territory by analyzing the connections between skyscrapers and race in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. This research proved so fruitful that the resulting book, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (John Hopkins University Press, 2017), recently received the Modernist Studies Association’s First Book Prize.

Each year, the MSA reviews books published in the previous year by first-time authors and notes those that made the most significant contribution to modernist studies. The MSA’s short list for 2017 included books covering such varied topics as the lyric ecology of black literature; how radio reshaped America’s culture; and photography, writing, and space in Shanghai. Of these, Brown’s work—which engages with obscure science fiction and melodrama in addition to more canonical literature and architectural history—earned the award through its innovative and interdisciplinary approach.

“Adrienne Brown is a stellar young scholar whose originality and breadth of learning are fully on display in The Black Skyscraper,” said Deborah Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in English and department chair.  “And remarkably, as wide-ranging as her first book is, Adrienne writes brilliantly about a host of other topics—music, television, popular culture, museums.”

When Brown came to UChicago in 2011, she found the perfect place to write the book, which expanded on her dissertation topic about the skyscraper’s absence in early 20th-century novels. She recalls, “Just living in Chicago, moving through the city, and understanding its scale, allowed me to view skyscrapers in real space.” This was essential to her research, since as she notes, “Architecture affects how we view the world in three dimensions. We cannot understand the way race works without spaces.”

As the book progressed, the relationship between space and race became its primary focus. Brown explains, “This question about the life of race—and whether race could remain a viable category that you could read from the outside—was constantly shadowing the skyscraper.” Answering it led Brown to extreme fringes of American literature.

Dime novels, science fiction tales, and romances were full of skyscrapers. The more time Brown spent researching popular fiction, architectural writing, and reporting from the era, the more she realized that the representation of buildings was intertwined with post-Reconstruction racial anxiety in America.

Skyscrapers did more than change cities’ skylines. Brown contends that they also required people to create new ways of viewing and connecting to others. Those fresh perspectives came at a time when Americans deliberating about how to conceptualize race and make racial identifications. In her book, Brown notes that “an early skyscraper threatened to reveal the ‘nothingness’ of race … precisely when the nation most desired to assert and extend the meaningfulness of race.”

Another challenge was enabling today’s readers to comprehend the radical shift skyscrapers represented. At the turn of the 20th century, the ability to see the world from above was a new and novel phenomenon. Urban dwellers had to adapt their bodies to these new architectural heights.

As her book developed, Brown found inspiration and source material from eclectic sources, such as Princeton professor William Gleason’s Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (New York University Press, 2011), writings by the influential Chicago-based architect Louis Sullivan who is known as the father of the skyscraper, and W. E. B. Du Bois’s essays and short fiction. She describes Du Bois’s work—criticizing skyscrapers and imagining the possibility of changing perspective by looking from a skyscraper to sights below—as an anchor for The Black Skyscraper.

For her future scholarship, Brown has two projects underway. One in collaboration with Britt Rusert at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, is recovering Du Bois’s little-known fictional writings from UMass Amherst and Fisk University archives and publishing them for popular readers. When Brown and Rusert published Dubois’s short story “The Princess Steel,” it received a great deal of attention, including an article in Slate about its influence on the development of Afrofuturism.

Brown’s second project is another architecturally inflected monograph, this time focusing on buildings at a much smaller scale. Like The Black Skyscraper, it expands on the topics covered in Race and Real Estate (Oxford University Press, 2015) a collection she co-edited with Valerie Smith, a distinguished scholar of African American literature and current president of Swarthmore College. Tentatively titled “Residential Forms from the Rent Party to the Fair Housing Act,” Brown’s next book examines white flight from cities to the suburbs during the 1940s and 1950s, and how real estate reshaped race and racial perceptions in the period.

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December 18, 2018