A literary landscape of the celebrated Chicago poet
By Angie Chatman
4724 South Evans Avenue was located a block south of Cottage Grove, one of the main thoroughfares through the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The three-flat building, now demolished, initially housed four generations of my family. The oldest generation—my great-grandfather Ernest Hezekiah Fambro, along with his two sons, Curtis and Timothy, his wife, Nellie, and her mother, Amelia Beasley Ball—had moved to Chicago from DeKalb County, Georgia, in 1916. This was early in the Great Migration of African Americans from the agrarian South to the industrial North of the United States, which continued through the 1960s.
My relatives weren’t the only Negroes to settle in Bronzeville. Gwendolyn Brooks and her family also migrated to Chicago, in response to lynchings and other forms of racial unrest in Topeka, Kansas, as well as for economic opportunities. Brooks lived in other places after her literary successes brought more lucrative teaching assignments, but those were temporary addresses. Chicago was home. This is obvious from the title of her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945, as well as Bronzeville Boys and Girls, published in 1956.
Due to national and local laws mandating segregated housing, at its peak three hundred thousand Negroes lived in Bronzeville, in the area between 39th and 51st from Cottage Grove to Halsted (until the Dan Ryan Expressway was built in 1961 and cut the western boundary line of the neighborhood to State Street). Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first open-heart surgery at Provident Hospital, the first African American owned and operated hospital in the country. Loraine Hansberry’s 1959 stage play, A Raisin in the Sun, was based on her family’s experience living in and attempting to move away from Bronzeville.
Once, on a Saturday morning my mother took us to the South Side Community Art Center, a three-story brick building on Michigan Avenue. We were going to hear Mrs. Brooks, who was then the first African American Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois, read her poems. My younger siblings and I sat on the linoleum floor on mats of woven fabric, fans moving the air like a barge on the Chicago River. Mrs. Brooks’ voice rose above the hum, like that of the soloist in the choir. I don’t remember what poems she read, only that I recognized the tenor of the words. Her poetry had the same rhythm and cadence of conversations among my relatives during a backyard cookout in the sunshine.
My mother had promised we’d stop for ice cream after the reading. She took a detour on the way and pulled over in front of 4724 South Evans. Stairs led up to the entrance. Every apartment had the same layout: an open living room, three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen. There was a small yard in the back. My siblings and I were dismayed that a family of six shared one bathroom.
I never lived in that building on 47th and Evans; it’s now an empty lot. For my mother, though, it was the telescope she used to focus on fond memories of carefree days with her three older sisters: days full of hopscotch, double-dutch jump rope, roller skating to the Hall Branch library—a mile and a half away—and movies at the Regal Theater. Ms. Brooks’ also uses her experiences in Bronzeville as a lens with which she can zoom in and out to comment not only on the quotidian activities of Black folk, but also display how dysfunctional racist practices are for both Black people and white people.
I have not lived in Chicago for over twenty-five years. Yet, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew from Minneapolis, to Chicago, to cover the globe, I turned my telescope towards home. It occurs to me—each time there’s another murder of a Black man/woman/child by police, and as people of color face a disproportionate impact from COVID-19—that “We die soon.” Too soon.
I turn also to Brooks’ Annie Allen, published in 1949, especially a poem entitled “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” about a drive through Beverly, a then all-white neighborhood on the South Side:
Nobody is furious. Nobody hates these people.
At least nobody driving by in this car.
It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us
How much more fortunate they are than we are. ■
This story was originally published as part of the Literary Landscapes series by our partners at The New Territory.
Angie Chatman is a native of Chicago. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Pangyrus, The Rumpus, Blood Orange Review, and Hippocampus Magazine.
Cover image via Wikimedia (creative commons).
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