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Book Review on “A Ghetto Takes Shape” by Kenneth Kusmer Essay

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Updated: Nov 24th, 2019


The book A Ghetto Takes Shape by Kenneth Kusmer is a fascinating must-read chef-d’oeuvre that strategically presents a history of the Cleveland Afro-American society and the formation of an urban ghetto. The book is meant to show how the present Cleveland Afro-American society evolved in different stages for up to 60 years from the year 1870 to 1930.

The Black society in America has gone through so many challenges since its introduction into America. It has been relegated to the second place in society. The relegation appears behind the white society in terms of social economic power because, for a longtime before the civil rights movements brought a semblance of equality in the American society, the black community was then a second-class society. To bring change, different black leaders came in and went.

The book therefore is intended on documenting the transformation of the black society from a poor and hopeless community to one that can stand on its own. With this hint in mind, this review is a critical analysis of the facts that the writer has given in this book in a bid to find out if they give a true picture of what happened then. However, it begins by giving a brief summary of the book.

Summary of the Book

The book opens by presenting the misunderstandings that exist concerning the state of the Negro people with some declaring them as free though with no valid facts to support their claim. The book narrates the experiences of the black community in Cleveland since the year 1870 to1930.

It dwells on the different leaders who led the black community represented by the Negroes during the period when racial segregation was rife. It presents the commissions and omissions of the different leaders at the time. The writer has highlighted the different steps that the federal government as well as the black leadership community took to improve educational standards of the society with regard to the race issues.

The book also highlights different black leaders and their roles in elevating the black society from the shackles of oppression showing how leadership was transformed from the old to the young. The book touches on the black migration of 1915 and goes ahead to point out how the then black community was laid back by wholly depending on the direction from the white community.

The book dwells on the hostilities that were frequent then between blacks and the whites when incidences of clashes between the two societies happened. Most of these hostilities were referred to as the anti-Negro campaigns that would sometimes lead to lynching of black members of society who were accused of anything that would lead to their attack.

The writer compares the race riots that happened then by taking a comparison between Cleveland and Chicago where black and white societies lived in the same city. In this case, the writer indicates that, although both societies faced hostilities from the white society, the industrial location in Chicago forced black workers to pass through a predominantly white society area to go to work thus making black workers become easily vulnerable to mob attacks.

This case was different in Cleveland because the location of industries was in such a way that the black workers needed not to pass through predominantly white areas to get to work. The book indicates that, at around 1920, unity of the black community slowly started to take shape- a unity that had been sought for a long time without success. The book informs the reader on the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was formed by Marcus Garvey, who was a Jamaican born civil rights activist.

This association was meant to empower the black community to make it become self-dependant. Kusmer (1978) points how the influx of black immigrants into Cleveland in 1915 led to the heightening of hostilities between the two communities. With time, the black community consolidated itself to appreciate the ghetto and take it to the next level by empowering itself economically.

Kusmer (1978) touches on different black leaders and the approaches they took in defending the black community against white racial harassment. Kusmer (1978) indicates that the dalliance between the black community and the Democratic Party started around 1928 when the party offered the black community a better alternative to the Republican. “It would not be until the 1930’s that the Democratic Party would offer black voters an alternative to the GOP” (Kusmer, 1978).

It states how Smith defected from the Republican Party and later on urged blacks to arm themselves if necessary for their own self-defense against white racial attacks. This act was also an indication that the black community was being suppressed politically and that its vote was being taken for granted.

The black community in this case decided to use the power of its vote to make gains politically to fight for its rights from high political offices. It was a departure from the tradition that blacks used to apply in their voting in that they would throw their weight behind white candidates whom they believed would represent their interests. This happened only after blacks realized that the best way to fight for their interests would be to elect fellow blacks into the office.

Critical Evaluation

The Authors purpose in writing this book was to give the story behind the development of ghettos in the black community specifically the Cleveland community. The author gives a background of this community by dividing the book in eleven chapters. Each chapter has a topical issue that it discusses. The chapters are gelled in such a way that the whole book is a continuous narration of events in a chronological order.

The author accomplishes his purpose of tracing the background of the Cleveland black community by showing how it came into existence from the year 1870 -1930. The author has strategically gone deep to narrate the different events that occurred then by stating the time, the leaders who were involved, the events that led to certain actions, and the events that were also happening in other black communities like in Chicago.

Through this factual strategy, the author has been able to bring his point home by supporting all the information he wishes to put across by giving names and dates of events as they occurred. The author uses information and data sources appropriately in supporting his thoughts and narration in this book.

This tactic so far is deemed appropriate concerning the time he is writing about and the period that has elapsed since then. The author has provided such information in the supplementary table at the end of the book. The challenge that can be found in such information sources is that they are limited because the time the events in this book were happening, there was not an effective information documenting process especially in the black community.

Thus, the little information that the author is using is applied indicatively due to its relevance. The facts in this book add up because they can be collaborated by other information sources that the author has used as sources of his information. The information in this book can also be cross-referenced from other books written about the development of the black community in other states like Chicago.

The author has concentrated his time line to a specific period that shaped the Cleveland black community, which is the period 1870-1930. More information could be used by the author in this book. However, due to the specific period he is writing about, the information sources he has used seem adequate. So far, the information in this book can be collaborated because it comprises a collection of information from different sources that have been consulted.

The nature of information thus is factual and cannot be contradicted by other sources. In this case, the only contradiction that can come up would be from another author who wishes to portray the same history in a different way depending on what interests the author wishes to publish. The author has strived to make the reader of the book understand the urban life if the African-American society by giving a chronology of events that led to the development of the African-American urban life (Kusmer, 1978).

The author presents this information by tracing the origins of some black urban towns back in the 19th century when they started forming by indicating social and economic struggles that the black communities faced then together with how they came out of them. The author goes ahead to name specific leaders of the black communities and their roles in the liberation and empowerment of the black urban community.

This blow-by-blow chronology of events enables the reader of the book to piece together what happened, when, and or what led to what that can be traced to the present. The substantive issues raised by the author include racial segregation and its effects like violence against blacks by whites as well as violence between blacks and white. The author also presents information of black political leadership by showing how it changed later on to bring change to the black community.

The economic empowerment of the black community through factory jobs and entrepreneurship by the black community also has a good share in the book. The party affiliations of the black community to the Democratic Party can be traced to this period because it was one of the most transformative decisions made by the black leadership and the Democratic Party leadership.

The book dwells on educational issues of the black community and the kind of training they were meant to acquire for it to take up particular jobs. The book presents issues of segregation from different points of view. In the first place, it touches on segregation of the whites against blacks (which is racial segregation).

At the same time, the book touches effectively on the issue of class segregation amongst the black community members. In this case, poor blacks reside in the ghettos while the elite blacks are economically and socially empowered. This strategy makes the book effective in bringing out the true picture of the situation on the ground. The issues affecting the black community have been addressed by the author who has divided his book into eleven chapters.

Each chapter in the book deals with a major issue thus constituting a comprehensive representation of facts. The weakness of the book can be found in the author’s presentation of the general story without giving numbers at times or specifics of events that occurred in specific places. When the author states that blacks were killed or attacked by whites, there must be more information to that, which would give individual stories to make the writers’ assertions true.

The book should have provided names of specific people caught up in certain incidences and the reasons for the incidents. When one compares this book as written by Kusmer and the book, Enter the Babylon System as written by Bascunan and Pearce, he or she will find that Bascunan and Pearce were able to narrate their stories by further narrating specific strives of certain individuals as a way of authenticating their work. In this case, the author has only dwelled on the names of the then public figures.

However, the author has done incredibly well in explaining his arguments about the African-America urban experience because he has been able to trace in this case the development of the Cleveland urban community in its crucial development period. The book as written by Kusmer is not limited to one field of study because it touches on the whole life of a society, which is more than one area that can be studied.

It touches on the history of the society, the social life, the political life, as well as the economic life of the black community of Cleveland. All these elements are more than one area of study that the book touches. The work is still relevant to the contemporary urban studies to date as it gives a history of how an urban life is formed and the challenges that it comes with before the community is established.

The book talks about the formation of a ghetto, which in the present day society is something that can happen any time, or is continually happening. Ghettos come about due to poor economic conditions that the society faces. When there are too many poor people in society who cannot afford housing and yet the local authorities cannot provide the same to them, there is a high possibility of the mushrooming of ghettos.

This book can be used in the contemporary society as a guide to how not to let a ghetto develop. In the Cleveland community, the book should be used as a historical tool that traces the origins of the community at a particular time as a way of fostering coexistence between different racial communities. So far, the book is still relevant in urban contemporary studies because it is found in the curriculum of many colleges, which use it for studies.


The book A Ghetto Takes Shape has been written with the sole purpose of retracing the challenges that the black Cleveland community faced during the early stages of the community’s establishment. This review has established the merits and demerits of the book along specific factual lines. The reader has found that the book is factual and convincing for anyone who reads it thus making it a book for reading into posterity.


Kusmer, L. (1976). A Ghetto Takes Shape; Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Book Review on "A Ghetto Takes Shape" by Kenneth Kusmer'. 24 November.

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