What Is the Urban?

Registers of a World Interior

Alice Randall

Alice Randall is a New York Times best-selling novelist, award-winning songwriter, and a popular essayist. She is the author of The Wind Done Gone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001), Pushkin and the Queen of Spades (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2004), Rebel Yell (Bloomsbury 2009), and Ada's Rules (Bloomsbury 2012). Her work is characterized by an interest in text and contexts where issues of race and identity and language and intimacy converge.

Professor Randall holds a primary appointment in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University with a secondary appointment in English. She graduated from Harvard Universityin English and American Literature in 1981 and received an honorary doctorate from Fisk University in 2012.

Zagging with Ziggy: A novelist on writing the Autobiography of Ziggy Johnson.

Imagining the city and being imagined in the city has been a powerful and often contradictory influence in shaping black lives in 20th century America. For many African-Americans imagining the city was a primary act of preparation for taking part in The Great Migration. On the other hand television and film portrayals of African-Americans being imagined in the city, often as violent male urban youths and sexually depraved, exploited and exploiting, female urban youths have done much to shape, contain, and constrain black identity. In black parlance the word “urban” has become polluted. In many black communities “urban renewal” is considered a coded phrase for “Negro removal” and the phrase “urban youth” is considered a code phrase for “damaged goods of African origin—less than human.”

Ziggy Johnson was a black man who claimed and attained the joys of the Black cosmopolitan. And he is the hero of my urban novel in progress, Zagging with Ziggy.

As a novelist I have long been concerned with how my characters imagine the urban, re-imagine the urban, are damaged by the urban, are sustained by the urban, and what they consider to be the opposite of the urban—frequently country.

Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson was born in Chicago in 1913. He made his name as dancer and choreographer in Bronzeville—black urban Chicago—before leaving to move to Detroit, to the world of Black Bottom. He preferred the way the urban was enacted on the banks of the Detroit river to the way it was performed on shores of Lake Michigan. A featured columnist for over a decade for three of the most significant black urban newspapers of his day: The Chicago Defender, The Michigan Chronicle, and the Pittsburgh Courier, Johnson’s columns ostensibly focused on show folk, show biz, and show reviews, but defining the essence of the urban and parsing distinctions between various urban black imaginaries was central to his project. His last column was published days after his death in 1967. He lived long enough to report on the urban riots of the mid-sixties. What were for Johnson the differences between Bronzeville and Black Bottom? How do those differences resonate in the mind in a 21st century black resident of Music City? What does going “Zagging with Ziggy?” (the name of his column and my novel) suggest about the essence of the urban?

Iowa State University

Department of Architecture

April 4-5, 2016