Professor and Author Lance Freeman on Books and Writers Who Inspire Him

Who would he invite to dinner? W.E.B. DuBois, Robert Weaver and Ann Petry. 

Eve Glasberg
June 07, 2019

The black ghetto is often thought of as a place of urban decay and social disarray, a space of confinement imposed on black America by whites, a home to a marginalized underclass. Yet while black urban neighborhoods have suffered from institutional racism and economic neglect, they also have been places of refuge and community.

In his new book, A Haven and a Hell: The Ghetto in Black America, Lance Freeman, a professor in the urban planning program at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, traces the evolving role of predominantly black neighborhoods in northern cities from the late 19th century to the present day and reveals forces that caused the ghetto’s role to wax and wane. Offering timely planning and policy recommendations, Freeman provides a new understanding of urban black communities at a time when the future of many inner-city neighborhoods appears uncertain.

Columbia News caught up with Freeman earlier this month to chat about his reading habits and books and authors who inspire him. 

Q. What book are you reading now?

A. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves in the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco.  The book tells the story of the importance of fugitive slaves in stoking the conflict between the North and South in the antebellum era. By their very existence, fugitives both belied the notion that slavery was a benign institution—if it were so benign why were the slaves running away?—and forced Northerners to partake in the institution directly. Consequently, fugitive slaves—although few in number—played an outsized role in triggering events that would culminate in the Civil War and their eventual emancipation.

A Haven and a Hell book cover image

Q. What book or books would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about African American urban life or culture? (Besides your own, of course.)

A. I’ll answer this question chronologically because urban life has changed in many ways over the past century. For the period prior to the Great Migration, the Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B. DuBois is a classic, offering a comprehensive view of blacks’ economic, political and social life in late 19th century Philadelphia. For the first wave of the Great Migration period, there are many terrific histories, but probably my favorite is Harlem: The Making of a Negro Ghetto by Gilbert Osofsky. For the middle 20th century, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Manchild in the Promised Land, an autobiography by Claude Brown, who grew up in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. For the more recent period, Blue-Chip Black by Karyn Lacy introduces the reader to the contemporary black middle class, an oft-overlooked but important part of black urban life.

Q. You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three scholars or academics, dead or alive, do you invite?

A. Much of my book is historical, so I’d love to hear what contemporaries thought of my portrayal of the ghetto in different time periods. Was I on target? What did I miss? To answer these questions, I’d invite W.E.B. DuBois, Robert Weaver, who wrote the first overview of the American ghetto in 1948, and Ann Petry, whose novels brought to life the black urban experience of the Great Depression and the Postwar Era. (She was the first African American woman to write a novel, The Street, that sold more than one million copies, and she also studied creative writing at Columbia.)