Author’s Note: This essay originally published in Lana Turner Journal, January 2018. Thank you to Editor David Lau for permission to reprint.
A People’s History of Chicago is 132 pages, but the content is much denser than this. Compressing three centuries of Chicago history in a potent poetry collection, Chicago poet-activist Kevin Coval writes 77 poems for Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Published by Haymarket Books, the Foreword is by Grammy-Winning Chance the Rapper, who Coval mentored when Chance was in high school.
A lifelong Chicago resident, Coval follows Chicago writers Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Haki Madhubuti, Lorraine Hansberry, Common and Kanye. Each of these figures appear in a poem or an epigraph. He names the names, meticulously honoring everyone in a variety of poetic styles. Using free verse, concrete poetry, prose poems, sonnets and ghazals, Coval is a poetic craftsman and perceptive social historian.
Coval chronologically catalogs it all from the city’s pre-colonial birth to the Haymarket Martyrs, public housing projects, the City Beautiful architecture movement, the Chicago River, McCarthyism, white flight, Fred Hampton’s assassination, workers’ rights, women’s rights, gay rights, race relations, musicians like Tommy Dorsey, Muddy Waters, Sun Ra, movements like disco, house music, hip-hop, the Black Arts, the Cubs 2016 World Series victory and the city’s 2017 violence. The extratextual references within every poem could be explicated for several paragraphs each. In the tradition of historian Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History, series, these poems masterfully tell the Windy City’s untold stories.
The first poem, “Shikaakwa,” names Chicago’s indigenous peoples and flora and fauna before 1492. The piece begins: “sea of tall grass. sky quiet/ enough to hear yourself think. / ancestors talk shit where the wind/ whips brisk from the lake. the face/ of the river ripples. land of marsh. / before the steel plow/ & forced removal// this was shikaakwa.” An appropriate invocation to begin Coval’s ambitious project, the tone is about remembering. He reminds us: “there were ash trees, elms & basswood, oak/ hickory was stories your elders sang. / the young danced rain & memory awake. / there were thousands, before. this land, a sacred/ burial ground, a people we delete.”
Erasure of history is a theme. The above stanza applies to Chicago and the history of America. Coval writes: “before your morning paper/ put your ear to the earth/ hear the terror of the horses/ the wail of the hunters/ howling in this city of wind/ on this land of skunk, the stench/ of blood inescapable.” A later poem covers the erasure of the Cabrini Green housing project.
The next poem, “lasalle Wrote It Down Wrong,” addresses Sieur de la Salle, the early French explorer who claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France during the 1670s. LaSalle differed from British and Dutch explorers because he was friendly with Native Americans and attempted to peacefully trade goods with them; nonetheless, LaSalle’s exploration started the tidal wave that became modern Chicago and now LaSalle Street is one of the city’s major north-south streets.
LaSalle, “gringoed the whole place. / every street & building some flat/ mispronunciation, some misshapen/ mouth some murder.” His name is in lower case in the poem’s title and the other words are capitalized because Coval is recording the history how he sees it. The poem concludes: “Chicago is malignant, a mass/ of machinery built upon mass graves. / the beginning of a long death march. / an inadequate water/ down. An erasure, an eraser/ pink as the whiteman’s tongue.”
The Father is a Black Man
The third poem “The Father Is a Black Man,” discusses Jean Baptiste DuSable, “the first non-Native/ to settle in Chicago.” DuSable’s mother was a slave and his father was a French mariner. The epigraph by Lerone Bennett, Jr. states:
“There is not a single street in the city of Chicago named in honor of the Black man who founded this city, not an alley…but John Kinzie, a white man, who came after DuSable, when DuSable was forced out or pushed out or whatever, he ended up with DuSable’s property, and Kinzie has a bridge, Kinzie has a street, Kinzie has a building, and all he did was buy DuSable’s house.”
Coval reveals that “DuSable spoke spanish, french, english/ & several native dialects.” We know DuSable married “a Potawatomi woman,” and that “he made okra & oxtails/ with sos pwa noir, a black bean/ sauce, & joumou, a pumpkin stew/ harvested from the acres he farmed. / his house had a large stone fireplace/ a piano, a garden & orchard. / he collected paintings, mirrors/ & walnut furniture.” Coval writes explicitly: “the father, a product/ of terror & rape/ the father, the city/ forgets, is mixed.” Furthermore, “the mix made the British/ nervous. a body protestants/ couldn’t wrap their heads around.” The poem concludes: “the father is a Black man.”
The Walt Disney of Misogyny
One poem examines Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine. Though the Playboy Mansion is on LA’s westside near UCLA, Hefner started in Chicago in 1953 before he moved to California. The poem “hugh hefner, a Play Boy” is a ghazal using the form masterfully repeating the word boy in the second line of every couplet. The first two lines explain Hefner’s evolution:
his first wife Mildred cheated. her guilt
assuaged. She allowed him to play, boy.
The poem’s eight couplets critique Hefner brilliantly, especially the fourth and eighth couplets. First the fourth: “the parties, a wink, a club house, cosby friend/ offering Quaaludes, thigh openers. he preyed, boy.” The piece’s final couplet is equally explicit. The concluding two lines state: “the walt disney of misogyny, mainstreaming objectification. bunnies/ splayed bare, just supposed to lay there, silent, in playboy.”
The Birth of a Movement
The poem “Mamie Till Bears the Movement,” is a sonnet about Emmett Till’s brutal 1955 murder, and why his mom left the casket open. The epigraph from Mamie Till-Mobley explains, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” The sonnet repeats the following line 14 times: “Mamie told ‘em keep the casket open.” The line’s repetition reinforces the brutality of Till’s death. After the world saw the murderer’s brutality to Till, the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. Coval’s effective repetitive technique follows a sonnet Terrance Hayes did repeating a line 14 times. Sonnets have 14 lines and even if does not follow the Shakespearean or Petrarchan form, 14 lines still make it a sonnet.
Coval’s register focuses on sites of struggle. In, “The Division Street Riots,” he remembers when Puerto Ricans aligned with Black Panthers in 1966 to defend, “the fight, the stand/ the stake in the land.” “Martin Luther King Prays in Marquette Park,” recalls a 1966 speech King gave in Chicago and how he was struck by a thrown object on his head mid-speech. “Studs Terkel Drops a Mixtape,” honors Terkel’s 1967 book, Division Street America, a groundbreaking oral history narrative collaging testimonies of 70 diverse Chicago residents.
The poem’s title fits because Terkel collages oral history like mixtapes blend songs. Coval writes: “here is the collected/ memory of a city that is the country/ the microcosm. the division in us all.” Coval befriended the legendary historian before Terkel died in 2008 and he continues the legacy by cataloging Chicago’s contemporary collected memory in this poetic mixtape.
Respect the Art Form
“Wall of Respect,” celebrates a mural painted in 1967, “the wall/ a shrine to Black creativity.” “The Assassination of Fred Hampton,” describes how Chicago Police and the FBI conspired to kill the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers in 1969. “Don L. Lee Becomes Haki Madhubuti,” explains how Black Arts poet Don L. Lee changed his name in 1972 to Haki Madhubuti. Coval waxes: “Haki was given by a committee of ancestors. / a reclamation & renaming. they allowed him/ to reintroduce himself: Haki means justice. / Madhubuti is four syllables, means justice. / means dependable. what other poet/writer/ teacher been more dependable in the struggle/ for justice.”
“Disco Demolition,” covers Comiskey Park in 1978 when a middle age white DJ from a Chicago rock station invited baseball fans to bring disco vinyl records to burn in center field. Behind the anti-Disco movement was racism and homophobia: “Disco was dance/ for the generation after Vietnam. / sped up Soul dreamt in Gay/ clubs, Black & Latino & more.” The fire was so chaotic that the baseball game was cancelled. Though the anti-Disco movement was nationwide, disco still evolved into house music: “Chicago/ would grind disco in a steel mill/ run it thru electric sockets till it bumped/ grimy. till it was House & jacked/ the body. till the technology/ displaced white disc jocks. / made them obsolete, old machines/ dancing in their graves.” A later poem, “Ron Hardy Plays the Record Backwards,” breaks down further how disco evolved into house in 1980s Chicago.
“Marc Smith Invents the Poetry Slam,” shares how construction worker Marc Smith invented the poetry slam in a Chicago bar in 1984. “The Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act,” covers the 1994 3 Strikes Law, the “school to prison/ pipeline.” The poem finishes, “3 strikes/ means life. means gone/ till november like the jobs. / means the 13th amendment/ applies here, means you can’t/ apply here. jobs obsolete. / delete. means you’ll be/ deleted. defeated, the city/ creates an indentured/ servitude, a new service/ sector. a new slavery.”
The Rise of Hip-Hop
Several poems chronicle hip-hop’s rise. “Graffiti Blasters: An Erasure (A Buff)” removes words from the City of Chicago’s website about graffiti to create a found poem about the city’s graffiti and the efforts to remove it. “Common’s Resurrection,” is about Resurrection, the 1994 landmark second album from the Chicago-born rapper Common, first known as Common Sense. Coval declares that Common “sounded like the city/ we loved that will never love us back.” Furthermore, “Common put Chicago at the intersection/ of the culture, made Ice Cube an actor. mike/ on vinyl, a ring you could hear in the sweetgums/ & sycamores. footprints in the sand at lake/ shore, a blueprint for the many to come.”
Chicagoans know that the younger Kanye West was influenced by Common and that West produced Common’s Be in 2005. “Kanye Says What’s on Everybody’s Mind,” recalls when Kanye spoke after Hurricane Katrina about George W. Bush. The poem celebrates Kanye’s mom and her influence: “& Donda had done her job. / lullabied the legacy in her son’s ear. / a Chicago State doctor channeling/ her colleagues Gwendolyn Brooks/ & Haki Madhubuti. their cultural son/ storming live tv to tell the planet/ what it can’t wash over.”
The book’s last poems cover Chicago’s last decade: the Obama inauguration, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the gangsta rapper Chief Keef, the teacher’s strike, the drive-by shootings and the Cubs’ World Series victory. The final poem, “Chicago Has My Heart,” ties it all together. The opening lines declare: “don’t ask me to leave/ don’t force me to go/ when the coasts call/ when the rents rise/ when the city I know/ is unrecognizable. / it’s mine, not alone/ not to own.” Meditating on 21st Century gentrification, literary icons like Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti, musical history and his own family’s history: “Chicago you have my heart/ my whole history, my people/ you saved, seeking refuge here/ tucked in apartments in Ukrainian/ Village & North Lawndale/ you saved them from history/ while destroying others’.”
Coval understands the trajectory of history and does not take anything for granted. He atones for the wrongs of the past by naming them. The last words are: “we rise, Chicago/ the body/ politic will rise/ our fire will burn/ again.” Coval passes the knowledge on. He founded “Louder Than A Bomb: the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival” and is the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors. He’s mentored thousands of young writers. This is why Chance the Rapper writes in the Foreword, “Kevin Coval is my artistic father.”
One final word also needs to be said about Coval as an editor and professor. He co-edited The Breakbeat Poets Anthology and he serves as the editor of Haymarket’s BreakBeat Publishing imprint which has produced books like Black Girl Magic and Electric Arches. Coval also teaches hip-hop aesthetics at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A People’s History of Chicago is a poetic tour-de-force embodying his ethics while simultaneously carrying on the legacy of the luminaries he honors.