The evening opened with DJ Cash-Era playing some tunes as the audience gathered in the elegant ballroom of the Richard Driehaus Museum, that mansion of the Gilded Age. The ballroom’s coffered ceiling, heavy damask draperies and carefully restored woodwork and wall coverings created a fine environment to celebrate Chicago music and lit.
Kevin Coval, Chicago poet and activist, was there to talk about the young poets he works with and read from his poetry collection, A People’s History of Chicago. But first, he introduced the musicians from the Huey Gang (Headstrong Urban Educated Youth) to perform “The Go,” a Chicago song they called a counter-narrative to Spike Lee’s film, Chi-Raq.
Coval is founder of Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world. He talked about how he grew up in Chicago and Northbrook and how music and specifically hip-hop helped him learn. “Hip-hop sent me to the library,” he said, “because the poets … singers I loved mentioned names I didn’t know.” And so he discovered the public library, where you could read books free and the librarians would help you find them. He also talked about “going through the crates” of history, as you would go through an old record bin.
Two books that were especially influential were Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1962) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980).
The Zinn book inspired Coval’s new collection of poems, A People’s History of Chicago. The book is a magnificent collection of poems that both love and condemn our city. Each of the 77 poems represents one of our neighborhoods and honors a moment in Chicago’s history.
Appropriately, the first poem he read salutes Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a founding father, Coval pointed out, who has not been honored by the city. (Why isn’t there a DuSable Street?, we might well ask.) In “The Father Is a Black Man” he reads, “the first non-Native to settle in Chicago / Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was a hustler / He worked the trap. / he traded pelts at the frontier. / married Kittihawa/ a Potawatomi woman / … the father was cool / with the Indigenous.“
In “How to Be Down,” Coval tells the story of Jane Addams, who is revered as a Chicago activist for social justice and founder of Hull House, but never recognized as a queer woman. She “originated in loot and leisure, got shook / the world wasn’t like that for all / so she built a table, a house, not perfect / but bout it bout it her living room big / enough for the whole west side.”
Other readings included “Thomas Dorsey, Gospel’s Daddy” and “Molemen Beat Tapes” that were “copped from Gramaphone,” the Chicago record company.
there was a time when hip-hop felt like a secret
society of wizards and wordsmiths. Magicians
meant to find you or that you were meant to find
like rappers i listened to and memorized in history
class talked specifically to me, for me.
“Chicago 21 Plan” critiques the real estate developers who tried to stabilize a large wealthy neighborhood: “a plan to centralize in the loop / to build a mote, a fortress, a gold / coast. gold mine. mine. take dead / tracks & build condos. river norths / south loops to stave off white flight ….”
Coval closed by reading the final poem in the book, “Chicago Has My Heart,” which ends like this: “we rise, Chicago / this body / politic will rise / our fire will burn / again.”
Listen to Coval read “Chicago Has My Heart.”
The book opens with a foreword by Chance the Rapper, who calls Coval “my artistic father.” Portraits of some of Chicago’s famous citizens by artists including Hebru Brantley, Bianca Pastel and Max Sansing illustrate the book.
You can buy Kevin Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago (Haymarket Books, 135 pp, 2017) from bookstores or online booksellers. The price is usually $17 but buy it now for $12.