Margaret T. Burroughs: Black History IS American History

Burroughs-2Writer of essays, children’s books, and poems, Margaret Burroughs (1915-2010) is best known  for her art and her involvement in Chicago culture.   In 1961 using their own collection of art and artifacts, she and her husband Charles started a small museum in three rooms on the first floor of their recently purchased South Michigan Avenue home, originally calling it the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art.  In 1968 they renamed it after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the black settler considered the first permanent resident of what would become the city of Chicago.

Burroughs-DuSableThe DuSable has grown to become one of Chicago’s most important cultural institutions, and Mrs. Burroughs (pictured here with a bust of DuSable) one of its leading citizens.  Of the DuSable she later said, “A lot of black museums have opened up, but we’re the only one that grew out of the indigenous black community…We weren’t started by anybody downtown.” At her death in 2010, aged 95, President Obama paid tribute to her many “contributions to American culture,” lauding her for her “commitment to underserved communities” and all her work “that both inspired and educated young people about African-American culture.”

Besides being president of the DuSable—a position she gave up when Mayor Harold Washington appointed her commissioner of the Chicago Park District—Margaret Burroughs taught for more than 20 years at DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side, and for over a decade at Kennedy-King College.  And through all this she also managed to Burroughs-Artcreate an impressive body of art herself.  She was, after all, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (bachelors in 1944, masters in 1948) and also studied at the Esmeralda Art School in Mexico City, the influence of that experience clearly visible in the form she gained most notoriety in: the woodcut. One of my most prized possessions is a Modonna and Child woodcut she signed to me when I met her sometime in the mid-80’s.  The October 13, 2010, cover of N’Digo to the left shows four iconic woodcuts, perhaps the most famous being “The Face of Africa” in the upper left.   I also love the two woodcuts below, “Riding Together in the 60’s” and “Folk Singer.”  Both show not only her mastery but her sense of history, especially her belief that Black history IS American history.

Burroughs-RidingVirtually every poem in her 1968 What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?  urges the importance of black pride and black history.  In “To Non-African American Brothers and Sisters” she attacks slanted, lying white history by extolling blacks who invented the blood bank, performed the first open-heart surgery, “proportioned the Sphinx,” etc.  “Homage to Black Madonnas” is one of several poems (and an included lecture titled “Message to Soul Sisters”) Burroughs-Folksinger2creating  black feminist pride by uniting Sheba, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra with Margaret Walker, Mahalia Jackson, Rosa Parks, and Ida B. Wells in an expansive black history.

From this book I included a poem she wrote for her grandson in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  I said in the introduction, “If this anthology needs a smaller, sweet piece of writing, the piece below is it; and even here Burroughs’ sense of the importance of history filters in.”

“For Eric Toller: Age 10 months, 7/3/1966” begins with interesting and sweet grandmotherly sentiments:  “As soon as the first delicious chortle smacked the air, / I became a wiser, smarter, and more intuitive person. / Now I know all, see all, and sense all since you came, Eric.”  But soon the passion that drove her life—though still expressed with grandmother sweetness—finds its inevitable way in:

I have become highly conscious of our folk heritage and lore
For I realize that it is my duty to pass it on to you.
So lately, I have been going over songs and rhymes and games
Of our people, and the stories of our great heroes and heroines.
Like Tubman and Truth, Douglass, Gannet and Wheatley and more.
For it is up to me to acquaint you with these noble ancestors.

Less than two years after this poem, her and her husband Charles’ little museum, then five years old, would become the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Sam Greenlee: Spooks Sitting by Doors

Sam GreenleeBorn in Chicago on July 13, 1930, Sam Greenlee has written poetry, fiction, plays and screenplays, and been a teacher, producer, director and actor.  He traveled the world as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the early fifties, then through a long career as an officer in the U.S. Information Agency where he has served in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and Greece.  These experiences have led to a unique literary vision which deals with race issues in a military and “spy” context, especially in his two novels The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1969), and Baghdad Blues (1976).  Accepting a literary award for the former in 1999, he said, “I had no idea when I wrote the book on the island of Mykonos during the summer of 1966 that one day Black people would call it a classic.”

The Spook Who Sat by the DoorSpook tells the story of Dan Freeman, who tries to climb the CIA ladder after being recruited to work in an elite espionage program.  Blocked and plagued by race, however, he drops out to train young Chicago blacks as Freedom Fighters to spread revolution throughout the U.S.  “Oakland blew first, then Los Angeles, then, leapfrogging the continent, Harlem and South Philadelphia. After years of crying conspiracy, the witch hunters found, to their horror, there was a conspiracy afoot among the black masses.”  In Chicago, the Freedom Fighters “moved easily and silently through the ghetto which offered them affection and support, their coloration finally protective.” Few books have dealt with race, civil rights, and black militancy in so focused and unusual a way, which Time magazine described as blending “James Bond parody with wit and rage.”

It is also a story of a Freeman’s relationship with a woman named Joy, who regarded his “militant idealism and total identification to his race first with amusement, then irritation and finally, growing concern.”  With “no intention of becoming her black brother’s keeper,” she convinces Freeman he can best help Negroes as a Civil Rights lawyer, “join the legal staff of one of the established civil-rights bureaucracies,” “argue precedent-making cases before the Supreme Court.”  But Freeman, after trying that route, says, “Baby, there ain’t no way I can work for those motherfuckers.  They don’t give a damn about any niggers except themselves and they don’t really think of themselves as niggers.

“You ought to hear the way they talk about people like us.  Like, white folks don’t really have much to do with the scene.  It’s that lower-class niggers are too stupid, lazy, dirty and immoral.  If they weren’t around…why, everything would be swinging for the swinging black bourgeois bureaucrats, their high-yellow wives, their spoiled brat kids, and their white liberal mistresses.  Integration, shit!  Their definition of integration is to have their kids the only niggers in a white private school….”

Again, an excoriation the black middle class.  I included passages from Spook in my book Black Writing from Chicago, whose subtitle is “In the World, Not of It?”  You can read my Introduction Here, paying particular attention to the idea that the controversy over how much Blacks should want to be part of “the World”—that is, a society which they have so largely made, but which so virulently shuts them out—boils down to attitudes about middle-classness.  It’s a certain way up and out, but at what price?  This argument, this complex dilemma, runs through the book like, as one critic put it, a “charged current.”

For a February 2005 forum at the Carter Woodson Library in celebration of OBAC (the influential Organization of Black American Culture), Greenlee read a prose poem written for the occasion.  Called “Weary Warrior Blues,” it bemoans the disappearance of “warriors, revolutionaries devoted to a solution of the global pollution of Western Imperialism….”  Almost four decades after Spook, Greenlee’s wit and rage seem undimmed as he casts a suspicious eye towards those who are “doing all right and without a fuss dropped back into the system they used to cuss.”

As a side note, I had done a lot of research for Black Writing from Chicago at the Woodson and went to its OBAC celebration, partly hoping I’d run into Sam Greenlee.  A year before, I had sent him the excerpt from The Spook Who Sat By the Door that I wanted to put in Black Writing from Chicago.  I heard nothing back.  I had created the excerpt by rearranging passages and providing context and transitions using Sam’s words and my own.  “Did you like what I did with Spook?” I asked him after his reading.  “Oh, I loved it!” he said.  I had brought along a copy of the permissions contract I had sent him.  “Well, can I get you to sign this contract so I can put the excerpt in my book?”  “No you can’t,” he said.  “I won’t sign anything.  That’s the white man’s way.  You can put it in the book, but you and I will just have to shake on it right here.”  And so we did.

Movie: The Spook Who Sat by the DoorThe Spook Who Sat by the Door was made into a film in 1973.  Distributed by United Artists, with screenplay by Greenlee and Melvin Clay, it starred Laurence Cook and Paula Kelly, and featured music by Herbie Hancock.  In addition to “Spook” being a racial slur against Blacks, the entire title refers to a practice in the early days of Affirmative Action.   When a company hired a Black person, that person would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all could see that the company was “integrated.”  See protagonist Dan Freeman’s expletive above.


  Read Leanita McClain and Barack Obama on Black middle-classness

  Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Ronald L. Fair: “We Can’t Breathe”

Ronald L. Fair: We Can't BreatheMany Thousands Gone, published in 1965, brought Ronald L. Fair (b. 1932) considerable critical acclaim, and that novel was quickly followed the next year by Hog Butcher.  In 1970 Fair published two novellas as World of Nothing, which received the National Institute of Arts and Letters second-highest prize, and 1972 saw the publication of the autobiographical novel We Can’t Breathe.  For several years, aided by several writing grants, Fair traveled abroad, pursuing a writing life of great ambition.  In the early 70’s critic Shane Stevens called him “one of the two best black writers in the country.”  Yet this promise somehow never came to full fruition.  In 1977 he relocated to Finland, dedicating himself more to sculpture than writing.  In December 1980 he became “born again,” thereafter identifying himself as a “Christian writer” and founding the International Orphans’ Assistance Association.

R.L. Fair, Movie: Cornbread, Earl, and Me Perhaps his most successful book, the novel Hog Butcher revolves around the shooting by Chicago police of an innocent black basketball star, Corn Bread.  This was the basis of the 1975 film Cornbread, Earl and Me, with a cast including Rosalind Cash and a very young Laurence Fishburne.  Though some have commented on the novel’s humor and, in particular, on the energy and courage of the two adolescent protagonists through whom some of the action is seen, the novel is a sobering exploration of social class…and, of course, police violence.  It’s a topic much in the news—again—with the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner in Staten Island,  Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee…  There have been 29 “suspicious” shootings by police and others of young black men since 2012—16 of them occurring after Trayvon Martin.  Rodney-King-like beatings continue as well, and, given Eric Garner’s fate, Fair’s title We Can’t Breathe echoes eerily across the four decades since the novel’s publication.

R.L. Fair, Hog ButcherI included two excerpts from Hog Butcher in my book Black Writing from Chicago, the first excerpt a surprising essay interlude appearing half-way through the book.  It sets the novel’s particular action against a history of social class and the Great Migration of Blacks from the South in the early 20th Century.  It excoriates the pretensions and weakness that, according to Fair, beset many of those early migrants and their children.  “They came to Chicago forty, fifty years ago like a school of black minnows frantically dashing away from danger,” the excerpt begins.  They then

“…shouldered their way in and mingled with the foreigners and fought the aliens for jobs, and won the jobs as they won the negative respect of the established citizens.  They squeezed their way as close to the existing social structure as they were allowed to go, and then they settled back and prospered and raised children and taught their children not to fight, not to resist, but to accept their limited progress as the end of the evolutionary pattern.  They grew weak and mellowed from their success, and their children never developed hearts or shoulders or minds, and were gutless.

“Their children refused to involve themselves with trivial things like politics or social improvements and pulled in the fences that surrounded their tiny ranch houses.  Their children tightened the requirements for entrance into their sick social clubs.  At first they only wanted light skin and straight hair.  Then they added a college degree to the light skin and straight hair.  Then they added a minimum salary.  Then they added the possession of a Buick.  Then they added the Cadillac.  They had arrived; they had reached the top of their limited world and they were scared shitless.”

The second excerpt illustrates that “gutless” history by focusing on Larry Atkins, a Black Chicago police officer close enough to the killing to be a decisive factor in uncovering the truth that is being lost in a clumsy cover-up.  Will Atkins rise to the challenge?  That is the question that occupies much of the book’s second half.  At first, Larry dreams of becoming a teacher, helping kids, uplifting the neighborhood, but he’s worn down by neighborhood crime, he’s shot, he’s knifed.  He gives up.  I end my excerpt with these words:

“He found himself wanting to be something other than a black man and finally succeeded in convincing himself that he had nothing in common with these people except color, which was purely an accident of birth…He would finish school and he would become a teacher, but not because he was dedicated, not any longer…He would take up teaching because he wanted to break all ties with that animalistic world, and becoming a professional man would make the break final.  This would put him at the very pinnacle of his middle-class society, and he would never look back again.”

The subtitle of Black Writing from Chicago is “In the World, Not of It?  You can read that Introduction Here, paying particular attention to the idea that the controversy over how much Blacks should want to be part of “the World”—that is, a society which they have so largely made, but which so virulently shuts them out—boils down to attitudes about middle-classness (see below).  It’s a way up and out, but at what price?  This argument, this complex dilemma, runs through the book like, as one critic put it, a “charged current.”

Read Leanita McClain and Barack Obama on “Middle-Classness.”

Read Haki Madhubuti on whether Black Men are “obsolete.”

 Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.


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