A lineage of Black women shaping culture in Chicago

I‘m Black, I’m a woman, and I’m an artist and cultural worker living in Chicago. In Chicago’s arts and Black cultural legacy, there’s a long line of Black women who not only paved the way, but gave way to Black institutions, Black literary developments, and Black Arts movements. I’m profoundly indebted to these women who basically did the damn things that needed to be done. 

I remember being a bright eyed, curious, and eager eighteen year old in college, ready to learn as much as I could about Chicago’s Black art history. I was guided toward doing a deep dive on Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, who helped found two Black institutions here in Chicago–The South Side Community Art Center in 1940, and DuSable Museum of African American History in 1961. I had never heard of Dr. Burroughs at the time, but I felt affirmed in deciding to become both an artist and an arts worker.  

My decision was tied to a history of Black women at the helm of arts and cultural work, which made me feel without question that I was doing the right thing. Naturally I began to learn more about Black women outside of Burroughs who have made an impact on our art and cultural legacy here in Chicago and beyond. Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry (beyond A Raisin in the Sun), Barbara Jones-Hogu, Beryl Wright, Madeline Murphy Rabb, and Elizabeth Catlett are several of these women.

There are Black women today who are not only maintaining, challenging, and leading in this legacy, but creating new pathways on their own terms. As I created portraits with the women here, I’m aware that none of us are without the guidance and accountability of this history, and of the women who led us here. 


“We are a dream people”

-Janelle Ayana Miller (artist and cultural worker)

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I consider myself a grandchild of the Great Migration, and I am the harvest brought forth from my grandparents’ dreams. All their hope and possibilities existed in me. Being a Black Midwesterner, Black Chicagoan, and a woman means being tapped into something greater. We come from brilliance and will continue to exist despite odds. We are a dream people. 

[Dr. Burroughs’] legacy is one of world building in the sense she saw what was needed or even beyond what contemporaries thought was possible. To see someone who lived as boldly and passionately, with a life dedicated to the arts and Black people, leaves me in awe. Dr. Margaret Burroughs is a bridge to the possibilities I have yet to realize in myself.  

My first understanding and shaping of fine arts was realized through [the] work of Dr. Burroughs that hung in my Grandma Lula’s living room on the Southside of Chicago. To have been visual in dialogue unbeknownst to my child self, and coming into womanhood as an artist practitioner and programmer makes me feel so thankful there’s a blueprint of Black makers…to pull strength from. Dr. Margaret Burroughs’ journey lets me know I am never alone in my work.

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I tell folks through and through that it’s by way of my Black women contemporaries that I’ve been able to sustain a career and be supported within this arts realm. How is the work we all do interconnected within Chicago’s cultural ecosystem? What calls us to do the work we do? Who ultimately supports that work? How do we support and see each other?


“In search of a muse”

-Kyel Joi Brooks (writer and poet)

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My Black womanhood has always felt like a cloak of safety in Chicago. I have been so fortunate to spend a lot of time watching people on buses and trains, and walking through neighborhoods that are not my own to write poems. As long as it isn’t too late, I feel that I can move freely in and out of any and all Chicago neighborhoods in search of a muse. I know that there are Black men in Chicago who do not feel that same freedom. My feminine energy and my empathy allow me to roam freely in this complex and beautiful city. 

Gwendolyn Brooks is a guiding light. My most tangible and metaphoric reminder that my poetry is important. Reading her poems taught me that time spent honing my craft will produce passionate and masterful work. She is a constant voice in my head telling me words matter and these carefully crafted poems will live beyond my physical body. Her legacy lives on in 2021 with murals and public spaces in dedication to her. Her poems are timeless and full of a grand Black Chicago history to be read forever. It has always been an honor to be a poet in the same city that Gwendolyn Brooks lived her life.

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It is by way of other Black women that I’m able to share, grow, and be challenged through my work. It is by way of Black women that Chicago’s artist community is held up and constantly reinvigorating itself. It is by way of a Black woman that I’m able to work in the very space co-founded by Dr. Burroughs, The South Side Community Art Center. I hold all of this close to the chest and don’t take it for granted. 


“The embodiment of infinite possibilities”

-Essence McDowell (Organizer, writer, and Co-Author of Lifting As They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women in Chicago)

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Being a Black woman in Chicago (and everywhere in the world) means that I am the embodiment of infinite possibilities. Here in the city, I’m a part of a beautiful community of Black women who love, support and protect each other endlessly. Together we are manifesting dreams, envisioning alternatives, healing, fighting against injustices and creating new pathways for ourselves and others. To be a Black woman in Chicago is a gift for which I am infinitely grateful.

I took on Lifting As They Climbed with Mariame Kaba because the tremendous impact that Black women have had throughout history is often missing from dominant historical narratives. It was not only important to document their lives and share the legacies they’ve left behind, but to do so in a unique way through a walking tour. The book takes readers on a journey to the neighborhoods, institutions, organizations that 48 Black women built and transformed in the city of Chicago. Years later, I am in awe as I witness the book continue to circulate as a historical resource and educational tool. I’ll forever be connected to the women in the book because all I have learned from them has become a part of my blueprints for liberation. Their creativity, strength and commitment to their communities serve as a boundless inspiration that will reverberate through my life for as long as I live.

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“There is This We” is a line out of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire. Source: Blacks (Third World Press, 1987). ■



zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal’s is a Chicago based visual artist, curator, and educator. Her work is most often initiated by personal and social histories related to family legacy, queerness, community making, and intimacy. She is currently an Artist in Residence at University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life initiative. You can find more of her work at zakkiyyahnajeebah.com.