Leanita McClain’s elegant, but also blunt writing brought into focus the intersection of race, politics, justice, and family life as passionately as any writer in America ever has.
McClain (1952-1984), the first Black member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board and only its second Black columnist, was propelled up the ranks of journalism by her talent and perfectionism, and into the national spotlight by her essay “The Middle-class Black’s Burden,” a “My Turn” opinion column printed by Newsweek in October 1980. “I am a member of the black middle class,” it begins, “who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success.” Her former husband, Clarence Page, the other Tribune Black columnist, said in his introduction to A Foot in Each World, a collection of McClain’s work: “The emerging class of black professional baby boomers needed a voice, and Leanita McClain was becoming that voice.”
But such stardom proved costly, and McClain took her own life on May 29, 1984, barely 32 years old. The Time magazine obituary of June 11th said that her death came, “…after bouts of depression brought on at least in part, friends said, by the strain of being a role model and by the furor resulting from an article she wrote for the Washington Post…which prompted the [Chicago] city council to consider demanding an apology.” The Post published that article, titled “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites,” on July 24, 1983. It begins:
“Chicago—I’d be a liar if I did not admit to my own hellish confusion. How has a purebred moderate like me—the first black editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune—turned into a hate-filled spewer of invective in such little time?
“Even today, the vicious, psychotic events leading up to and following Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago leave me torn as never before. I’ve become a two-headed, two-hearted creature….
“In one day my mind has sped from the naive thought that everything would be all right in the world if people would just intermarry, to the naive thought that we should establish a black homeland where we would never have to see a white face again.”
McClain also often probed the very construction of racial categories, as in an April 1, 1984, column on James Baldwin entitled “There are no white people.” Summarizing Baldwin, she writes that whiteness, “…is a fraud ethnics who arrived on these shores perpetrated against themselves out of the necessity to deny the humanity of blacks…no one was ‘white’ before they came here, were, in fact, proud to be hyphenated Americans, with strong ties to their mother country. But then their fear of people of color led them to fade into a generic whiteness to better ensure and exert their collective power.” But her writing also shows that fear often drives Blacks into a generic blackness, and these contending fears and generic outlooks seem almost certainly to have been other large factors in her death.
I have often spoken about Leanita McClain being the emotional center of my book Black Writing from Chicago. Later in that book I put a poem, “This One,” by Rohan Preston dedicated “to Chairman Flax / Grand Wizard, Grand Dragon of white fire.” It mentions Leanita McClain twice, once alluding to her suicide: “You got into Leanita’s head and made her / take herself out—that’s the hard way….” Indeed, it is. It attests to the powerful tensions of being in a society that won’t fully let you be a part of it, something I tried to convey in my book’s subtitle, a question: In the World, Not of It?