Fenton Johnson Inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

FJohnson-Induction2On September 14, 2017, I was asked to be one of the speakers at a ceremony inducting Fenton Johnson into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  Also on the program—co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and held at its wonderful John-Ronan-designed headquarters in Chicago—were literary historian Alexander W. Jacobs, poet Vida Cross, and legendary poet-publisher-professor Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press and an architect of the Black Arts Movement.  Professor Michele Jolivette, Fenton Johnson’s great grand niece, accepted the CLHoF statue from the Hall’s founder and executive director, novelist Don Evans.  Ms. Cross and youth from the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble performed some of Fenton Johnson’s poetry.  The following are the gist of my remarks and some afterthoughts as well, which expand upon a previous post, “Fenton Johnson: Request Denied.”  Since Johnson did his most famous work in the early 1900′s, and people would probably not be immediately familiar with his work, Don Evans ask me to give a sense of why this poet needed to be honored today.


When I think of Fenton Johnson, I think of a poet who played the game so well…until he didn’t.

I mean that he did well what the white world allowed black poets to do.  It allowed dialect verse, for example, so Fenton Johnson wrote some of the finest dialect verse ever written with pieces like “Fiddlah Ike” and “Questions,” the latter of which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  “Whaih’s de sunlight, Mammy Lou?” it begins, and runs to the sentimental conclusion that the questioner is Mammy Lou’s “wahm sunlight, and his “love’s de moon o’ night.”  Black poet’s were also allowed to write sentimental verse not in dialect, but properly formal.  So Fenton Johnson wrote that, too, as well as poems related to the “Sorrow Songs,” poems of grieving, religious deliverance, Battle-Hymn-of-the-Republic triumphalism.  With “The Vision of Lazarus,” “The New Day,” and “Children of the Sun”—which begins “We are the children of the sun / Rising sun! / Weaving Southern destiny, / Waiting for the mighty hour / When our Shiloh shall appear / With the flaming sword of right”—he also wrote some of the best poems in that genre.  For this skill alone, he deserves induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation's magnificent library behind us.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation’s magnificent library behind us.

But even more so he deserves this honor because he went far beyond what was allowed.  He played the game so well…until he didn’t.  To go beyond what was allowed, black poets from the spirituals, through the blues and beyond practiced a lot of signifying, so that the surfaces of their works comforted the gate keepers of decorum, the watchers of what was allowed, but also fooled them, conveying meanings only those in the know would understand.  “Steal Away to Jesus” meant, on the surface, getting away to be alone with Jesus—and it meant this sincerely—but it could also signify when the Underground Railroad was coming though so a slave could get on and “steal away” to freedom up North.  I’ve tried to catch the signifying undertones of Fenton Johnson’s poetry, but have had a hard time hearing them.  When he broke from the game, he broke from it spectacularly with poems like “The Scarlett Woman” and “The Daily Grind” and, most of all, “Tired,” perhaps his most famous poem, which begins: “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.”  It addressed M’Lissy Jane, saying, “Throw the children in the river; civilization has given us too many.  It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

Such powerfully direct expressions of despair took America by surprise.  In his seminal anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson says that Fenton Johnson’s startling effect on American poetry, “…was in some degree due to the fact that [his poetry expressed] an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced.  Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”  At least,  sounded it so directly, so openly, so harshly.  Arna Bontemps said Johnson had succumbed “to a more rugged influence.”

I have tried, as I said, to hear a stronger signifying undertone to Johnson’s poetry.  How much could he really have meant to “Throw the children in the river,” for example?  Is this the same kind of bravura blues singers partook in when they sang, “I’m gonna lay my head down on the railroad track… / When the train comes, I’m gonna snatch it back”?  Perhaps. But the blues song finally cops to that false threat, and the music pulses with so much life that we question the threat from the beginning.  So while Johnson might not really have meant what he said about the children, and while I try to hear some redeeming “humor” in the name The Last Chance Saloon—where M’Lissy, and the Scarlett Woman, and the poems’ speakers drown their sorrows—there’s nothing pulsing with as much life as the blues, nothing that winks at the threats, thus guiding us clearly to a signifying intent.

In poems like “The Banjo Player” and even “Prelude,” the first poem in his famous 1916 volume Visions of the Dusk, there are strong hints that he knows he’ll get tired of playing the poetry game, that dialect verse and humble peasant stuff was something to break from.  When he finally did, he did it in such clear, spectacular fashion, seeding so much of the strong directness in black poetry and culture that would follow.  It’s for both his skill at playing the game and his spectacular denial of that game that he deserves our notice tonight and every time we think of great poetry.

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


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St. Charles Hospital Wins Driehaus Award

StChs-Driehaus1One of a series of articles I wrote during Rick Guzman’s Aurora mayoral run reported on the key leadership role he played in rehabbing the old St. Charles Hospital, rescuing the crumbling building and re-purposing it as much needed senior housing for the city.  (Read that article: “A Sleeping Beauty to Stabilize a Neighborhood.”)

Now news has come that the St. Charles Hospital rehab has won the prestigious Richard H. Driehaus Award.  The citation on the Landmarks Illinois website reads:

“Aurora St. Charles Senior Living is the recipient of the 2017 Landmarks Illinois Richard Driehaus Preservation Award for Rehabilitation. Located at 400 E. New York St. in Aurora, the project transformed the former St. Charles Hospital, a six-story Art Deco building, into a 60-unit senior housing complex. The building served as a hospital and nursing home beginning in the 1970s and closed in 2010. It then sat vacant for six years before being redeveloped as the state’s first affordable housing project to use the River Edge Redevelopment Zone Historic Tax Credit, a program in Illinois that offers development incentives in Aurora, East St. Louis, Elgin, Peoria and Rockford. The rehabilitation project included cleaning and repairing the original Art Deco-style brick, limestone and terra cotta exterior and restoring and converting the original chapel and balcony to a community room for the building’s residents. An incredible example of public and private cooperation, this iconic building can now continue to serve the residents of Aurora.”

StChs-Driehaus2Since 1994, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards have recognized the people who have gone through extraordinary efforts to save, restore, rehabilitate and reuse historic places in Illinois. The Foundation supports the preservation and enhancement of the built and natural environments, and encourages quality architecture, landscape design, and organizations that provide opportunities for working poor people.

A successful investment advisor, Richard H. Driehaus made his first public philanthropic gesture in 1983, when he established the Driehaus Foundation. In 1992, with the establishment of a board and the hiring of an executive director, giving became more formal and focused, particularly on preservation, and partially in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

 Go to the main page on this site for Emmanuel House.  This organization—founded by Rick and Desiree Guzman as a living memorial to Rick’s youngest brother, Bryan Emmanuel—also works to provide opportunities for the working poor, helping lift them from poverty through home ownership, education, volunteerism, and equitable development.  In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of “The Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2017

This is part of a series featuring excerpts from a journal I keep on my time in Sedona, AZ, especially up on Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock to the rest of the world).  I put some of my youngest son Bryan’s ashes there under a tree in January 2007.  In 2016, Emmanuel House—the living memorial started in his honor by his oldest brother Rick and his wife Desiree—was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world. Emmanuel—”God with us”—was Bryan’s middle name.

BushBeetle-1bAugust 15.  This year, as part of his plan to be in the Zone of Totality for the eclipse, Aaron and family were in Illinois till August 12th, so I put off my trip out West until August 11th, flying first to visit Daniel’s family in Scott’s Valley, and not getting to Sedona until the evening of the 14th.  Today, therefore, is the latest day in August I’ve ever gone up to Bryan’s tree. My first Sedona picture is usually of his tree, but today as I spotted it in the distance my eyes were drawn to a bush about 40 yards before it. I know it well, but this year it was flowering more profusely than ever, and I stopped to take pictures of it, the one here featuring a bronze beetle climbing all over. Someone said it’s been a vigorous monsoon season, the flowers thick on this bush being proof.  We often use grasses as a symbol for transience: they blow in the wind and are gone.  But the grasses around Bryan’s tree, and especially the rock next to it, are thicker and taller than ever.  I think of Lewis Thomas’ first essay in his great book The Lives of a Cell.  “There is nothing fragile about the life on earth,” he writes, commenting on man’s tendency to imagine that he’s above nature.  “We are the fragile part,” he continues, “transient and vulnerable as cilia.”


Grandson Liam at Bryan's Tree.

Grandson Liam at Bryan’s Tree.

August 24.  We’ve dreamed for years of beginning to bring the grand kids out to share a week in Sedona with us, and 9-year old Liam, the oldest, was the first. He and Linda arrived on the 17th.  I’ve learned not to paint pretty pictures in my mind of the way things should go. You think kids—or anyone, really—will enjoy this hike, this restaurant, this song, etc., and they don’t, don’t, don’t. So I was hardly surprised when things didn’t seem right from the start.  Not that Liam didn’t enjoy most everything we did and call this the best vacation he’s ever had, but he also coughed and sniffed and went in and out of fevers.  We thought at first it was only him trying to adjust to this arid climate, which so many have problems doing, but this went on so long after we had gotten some nasal spray, nasal gel, cough drops, and more ibuprofen, that we finally spent about 3.5 hours at urgent care four days ago. They did a quick strep test just to make sure, and it came back negative.  But today Linda, calling from New Jersey just before flying back here, said the clinic called her saying the back-up culture they did came back positive!

Strep didn’t seem to hinder his enjoyment of the solar eclipse, which we experienced together at the Chapel on the Rock, where people shared their eclipse glasses with us to supplement the pin-hole viewers I had made the night before. (The glasses are SO much better.)  The family texted back and forth the whole time.  Aaron sent a shot right away and texted, “Wait til you see the others,” to which Daniel texted, “Did you crush it, Aaron?”


The next day we saw Meteor Crater, and the next the Grand Canyon, and Liam seemed duly impressed, though he still coughed what I thought was a deep cough, and his voice got so scratchy he was reduced to whispering.  “I kind of like it like that,” said Linda, who was met with a croaking, “Grandma, that’s rude!” But what he seemed really into the whole time was rocks.  He looked for them everywhere, and we visited three of Sedona’s fanciest rock shops, marveling over their prices. A day before our urgent care trip, Liam perked up from a fever episode when we stopped at a less expensive one, the Village Rock Shop just a half-mile from our place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about connections. Connecting to the first grandchild to visit, of course, but others, too.  On the shuttle ride up from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Sedona a young woman described how she’d had a tarot card reading, then headed up to experience the supposedly powerful vortex energy of Bell Rock.  As she started the main trail, a man suddenly appeared, pointing to a trail he said she should take so that she would arrive to find the exact kind of peace her tarot reader said she was after.  “One of those Sedona stories,” she said.

A famous saying here is, “There are no ‘coincidences’ in Sedona.”  Like today on Bryan’s Mountain I met a young couple from New Jersey just as Linda was flying back from there after taking Liam back home. Or even closer: on August 15th, the first time I went up to Bryan’s tree, I explained a “century plant bloom” to a couple, then when they said they were from Chicago, I asked, Where? And it hardly ruffled me when they said, “Naperville.” Nor did it surprise me that the woman drives by our old house twice daily on her way to and from work.  (Her husband grew up in Oak Park, every day walking past the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio where Linda now works.)

Our old house.

We just moved to Aurora a few months ago, so this year, sitting by Bryan’s tree, I’ve thought that it feels like my most solid home in the world, the geographical spot I most connect to.  I loved our old house in Naperville, and the neighborhood, too, with my bank a block away, and a Trader Joe’s two blocks away, and friends in each place. I’m lucky to have lived in such a beautiful space—our Naperville mid-century modern designed by Don Tosi—and now another one, a historic “farm house” just a door down from another beautiful mid-century modern, next to which is an original Frank Lloyd Wright house. Still, I haven’t quite connected to the new neighborhood, and, because I’ll still be at North Central College another year-and-a-half, I’ll sneak in as many trips to my old bank and my old Trader Joe’s as I can.  And I hope to finally take a picture of a house just about four blocks from our old house, and send it to the owner of the Village Rock Shop.

A couple of years ago I talked to Michael Silberhorn for the first time.  Just the usual Sedona conversation, full of coincidences.  First we determined that we either now lived, or used to live, in Naperville, not just in the Chicago area. “Where in Naperville?” Michael asked.  “On Gartner and Laurel.” “You mean in that house with the big prow window?!  I saw it every day at school.”  Turns out he grew up with his grandparents just four blocks away.  He smiled at the remembrance of Elmwood Elementary just a block from Gartner and Laurel. I turned to another couple in the store, half shouting, “You probably live in Naperville, too!” to which the woman said, “No, Peoria. But my boss graduated from North Central College!” This year, Michael turned a rock over in his hand a few times and said—almost mused—“I think I can do $30 for this one,” giving us a very good deal on a very unusual quartz crystal Liam and I had spotted.  “When I grow up,” said Liam, “I want to play hockey and own a rock shop.”

 Go to the Lead Post in the Climbing Bryan’s Mountain series.

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