Bookclub Pick: 47th Street Black, a Look into Chicago’s Painful Past

Screen Shot 2017-02-25 at 5.02.53 PMMookie and J.C., two black boys from the South Side of Chicago, find the body of a notorious gangster in an alley. It’s the 1960s, and while heroin hasn’t yet ravaged the streets, systematic racism has the neighborhood in a death choke. With nothing to lose, the boys offer their services to the gangster’s boss and become muscle men for the mafia. In 47th Street Black, we get to witness the beginning and ending of their careers in organized crime.

Published in 2003, 47th Street Black won the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Great American Book Contest, affirming Bayo Ojikutu as a master in storytelling. His writing does not refrain from heavily using politically incorrect slang or graphic violence, but nothing is done gratuitously; Ojikutu ‘s novel seems simply realistic in its depiction of the time and people there.

The people there are drunks, addicts, and criminals; without prejudice, Ojikutu presents them for all that they are and all that they are not. J.C. and Mookie are not sympathetic characters, but they are written with such authenticism and humanity that you can understand them. Here are two boys who grew up without understanding mercy, love, or any other intangible concept except fear and scarcity. Both Mookie and J.C. beat and kill, but the real violence done by them isn’t physical. They may have loved each other deeply, maybe even sacredly, but how else can love be expressed by boys who don’t know how to love, except tragically? Ojikutu does not shy away from showing us how ugly and cruel we can be, and that fearlessness is his greatest asset as a writer. He is able to show us something human, humanely.

At its core, 47th Street Black is more than a gangster crime novel. Organized crime is the milieu while other themes take center stage: race relations, fatherlessness, and ruthless ambition. The novel’s complexity manifests in its numerous ways of being read: as historical fiction, bildungsroman, and classic tragedy amongst other options. One of the more striking ways of understanding 47th Street Black is seeing it as Ojikutu’s eulogy to the darkest parts of Chicago in recent history.

The book is much about J.C. and Mookie’s deteriorating friendship as it is about a dying neighborhood. We see 47th Street in the 1960s as Mookie and J.C. do, with bustling black businesses and kids throwing craps at brick walls. A time lapse takes us to the 1980s, with the street empty of everyone except zombies looking for their next high. The scope of 47th Street Black goes beyond the outlines of characters. It tries to tell the story of a street, a feat most writers attempt, let alone succeed like Ojikutu.

Originally published in 2003 by Broadway Books, 47th Street Black (432 pages) can be found as an e-book or in print, online, from resellers or in libraries. However you read 47th Street Black, you will be reading a Chicago masterpiece.


Sherry Zhong
Sherry Zhong