‘A People’s History of Chicago’ Hits Home in a Poem

‘A People’s History of Chicago’ Hits Home in a Poem

Poetry is who we are. It is sweet music that fills the air around us and makes us smile, cry or wonder.

And what better way to read about the true history of our city than in a book filled with poetry that tells the stories of our real heroes, with all the anger and emotions one must feel to truly understand.

Kevin Coval, a poet and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has just published a book entitled A People’s History of Chicago in the spirit of Howard Zinn’s magnificent history book which focuses on the peoples’ heroes and struggles rather than the presidents and generals we read about in the textbooks.

Coval speaks to us like an angry man through pages of punchy, rhythmic poems about the injustices inflicted on our poor brothers and sisters and the outrageous events that shaped our city.

“Chicago is the city of Gwendolyn Brooks and Chief Keef, Al Capone and Richard Wright, Lucy Parsons and Nelson Algreen, Harold Washington and Studs Terkel. It is the city of Fred Hampton, house music, and the Haymarket Martyrs. Writing in the tradition of Howard Zinn, Kevin Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago celebrates the history of this great American city from the perspectives of those on the margin, whose stories often go untold. These poems honor the everyday lives and enduring resistance of the city’s workers, poor people, and the people of color, whose cultural and political revolutions continue to shape the social landscape.”

I remember when I worked as a journalist in Russia, the Russians told me that May 1st International Worker’s Day came from Chicago. They told me thanks to Chicago we all work an eight-hour day. I had no idea. How could the Russians know more about my city than me?

That is why we need to read books like this that tell the history of our people who struggled to build a better society.

His poem about Albert Parsons, one of the organizers of the Haymarket’s Riot that led the fight for the 8-hour workday, is particularly captivating because it is about the importance of radical revolutionaries who fought for the workingman’s dignity in the city that builds things – “a longing for bread or blood. a leader in the rise of the working class. a target the barons went after. an albatross to the merchant prince marshall field.”

His poem The white City has a different take on one of the stars of the Chicago flag devoted to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that the city proudly showcases to the world. I must admit even I have been wooed by the pictures of imperial white classical buildings and canals that were built to highlight the city resurrected after the 1870 fire, but here’s how Coval put it: “the world’s fair turned the swamp utopian lie, classical architecture a garish nod to old ass empire, made the poet of steel Louis Sullivan, mourn the buildings businessmen desired to show off. all bluster & façade. all fronts. the white city meant to distract, erase the Black city of smoke & sky, grime & grind.”

His poem The Eastland Disaster July 24, 1915 brings to life the worst human disaster to beset our young city in which a passenger ship overturned and 844 lives were lost right on the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets.

Our city’s finest poet Carl Sandburg wrote: “Grim industrial feudalism stands with dripping and red hands behind the whole Eastland affair.” Coval noted, “the boat had problems before, not seemed to care. it was top-heavy like the economy, the hubris of the city’s over-fed owners.”

As a teacher I tell my students poetry is one of our most precious gifts. I tell them poems are fun, a celebration of life, a diary into our lives and everything beautiful in the world around us. Teachers enjoy teaching poetry and students enjoy writing poems.

The joy of poetry rings clear in this book. I remember teaching my fourth grade students about how important punctuation is, and how playing with words in a poem is what makes it sweet music to the ears. I especially liked his poem, ‘hugh hefner, a Play Boy’ – “captain of industry & sexual harassment, selling the dream, a new hi-fi, just press play, boy. the parties, a wink, a club house, cosby friend offer Quaaludes, thigh openers, he preyed, boy. flaccid maleness, plastic surgery, Eurocentric ageless, airbrushed, his fantasy, a play, boy.”

The poems are told in chronological order, beginning with what Chicago was like before 1492 ‘Shikaakwa – “sea of tall grass, sky quiet enough to hear yourself think,” through Mayor’s Harold, Richard and Jane up to Rahm in The Night the Cubs Win the World Series – “the mayor keeps popping up on camera smiling like a jackass. the owner upholds the trophy in the club house & writes checks to the campaigns of fascists in the mist of champagne … the blue flag flying the W stands for whiteness & blue lives.”

This book takes on an ambitious topic modeled on Howard Zinn’s classic alternative textbook A People’s History of the United States. But this is not that kind of book. You do not learn a lot about new people or events we never heard about. Walking through the halls at Truman City College, you can see plenty of amazing black and immigrant wonderworkers who have done amazing things that we know nothing about. This book is much smaller. It is a book filled with dynamic poetry about certain points in our city’s history. Most of all, it has a different take on those events, in the spirit of Zinn.

His poem The Father is a Black Man is about Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, the founder of Chicago, the first non-Native to settle here, ‘the father was cool with the Indigenous.’  He points out in the beginning of the poem that there is not a single street in Chicago named after the Black man who founded our city, while John Kinzie, a white man, who came after DuSable, has a bridge, a street and a building named after him. And all he did was buy land from our founding father.

The sting of racism rings loud and clear throughout this book.

I also learned something new in his poem Disco Demolition, July 12, 1979 about the time when crazy White Sox fans rushed the field after DJ Steve Dahl blew up disco records. I remember watching this on TV in disbelief as they had to cancel the game, smoke rising and hundreds of people tearing up Comiskey Park. Turns out it was actually a very racist event. He quotes Dave Marsh from Rolling Stone: “White males … see discos as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.” Coval concludes: “Chicago would grind disco in a steel mill run it thru electric sockets til it bumped grimy. til it was House & jacked the body. til the technology displaced white disc jocks. made them obsolete, old machines dancing in their graves.”

Having grown up just north of Chicago, the events Coval writes about are the ones I remember well. ‘mayor byrne Moves Into & Out of Cabrini Green,’ ‘The Assassination of Rudy Lozano,’ ‘The Day Harold Died,’ (he was barack before barack), ‘A Moratorium on the Death Penalty,’ ‘Dia de las Madres (the mothers’ hunger strike to build a new high school on the Southwest Side) and Republic Windows Workers Sit In (‘the workers will not leave, for six days capitalism got its ass kicked’).

I liked his take on the historic inaugural election of our first Black President Barack Obama, “downtown the pageantry projected to the planet protected by guns & cpd. a Chicago transplant invoked the dreams of the founding fathers, not their captives nor workers, the crowd screamed droned the chant yes we can.”

I also really enjoyed his poem about the Chicago Teachers’ Strike September 10, 2012, a memorial to all the union battles that were fought with blood, sweat and tears: ‘the teachers march in Chicago. red in the streets again, perpetually. this is a union town, after all Most radical of American cities: Nelson Algren would say.’

Two Cities Celebrate Independence Day sums up what Chicago is in a poem. The Northside celebrating ‘the sky on fire above the mighty Michigan boasts, penthouses’ where ‘the holiday is every day,’ – and the Southside celebrating ‘dynamite bass drum a requiem for the fire crackers take & for those who won’t make it,’ where ‘small armies overrun the city … of whistles, bottles, bombs, the war of each day, reenacted every night.’


The White City 

May 1, 1893

(Kevin Coval, a poet and professor whose new book ‘A People’s History of Chicago’ we review in this week’s issue, wrote a very real poem about the white city which was built to honor the 1893 World’s Fair and represents one star on the Chicago flag. His version is about how the city’s elite want to erase the true black grit of the Hog Butcher to the world, the city of the working class, Chicago.)

the worlds’s fair turned the swamp

utopian lie. classical architecture

a garish nod to old ass empire,

made the poet of steel, Louis Sullivan,

mourn the buildings businessmen

desired to show off. all bluster

& fascade. all fronts. the white city

meant to distract, erase the Black

city of smoke & sky, grime & grind.

faces that gutted the land, made it run,

banned, pushed to the side. the face

the city presented to tourists, miles

of magnificence millionaires wanted

out-of-towners to whisper about

on the train trip home. a museum

prison Houdini tried escaping.

fraudulent city of the future built

from scratch, from scraps, hidden

the hands that scraped. Beneath

the veneer lurked murder. silent

terror behind white construction.

By Jim Vail