A horde of books have been described as genre-breaking, but few actually shatter convention with the kind of hammer wielded by Kevin Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago. A poetry collection masquerading as a textbook, it’s a double genre-buster. Plus a lens-buster. Don’t read it unless you’re prepared to have your own conventions upended, not only your notions about literature, but also your perceptions about Chicago, the greater Midwest, and the historical impact of American whiteness.
Part poetry collection, part textbook
Paying homage to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States through both its title and its centralization of marginalized and silenced narratives, Coval’s latest work attacks pre-conceptions of what constitutes both a poetry collection and a history textbook. Whereas many contemporary poetry collections seem to offer a paean to the poet’s mystical and mysterious mind, offering up a chronicle in which the chronology of poems, the section-breaks, titles, line-breaks and even images themselves appear to suggest that much of the author’s power derives from the inability of the average reader to decipher what the book’s trying to say, the purpose of Coval’s work is immediately clear. He’s trying to illustrate the history of Chicago from the ground up, painting the story of a flawed, bloody, beautiful and dynamic city through the words, struggles and deeds of those who’ve helped build and define the author’s beloved home, but who often either haven’t received enough credit for their accomplishments or worse, wound up on the wrong end of a police officer’s billy club (or gun) for failing to keep their mouth’s shut (or their spray-paint cans holstered).
The time-line of Coval’s 77-poem narrative begins “before 1492” – in an obvious allusion to grade school social studies depictions of Christopher Columbus’ “discovering” America – with a description of Native Americans gathering in an area known as shikaakwa to trade “wild leek, onion, garlic” and “talk shit” and ends with the Cubs winning the World Series in the fall of 2016. Along the way – with each piece dated and contextualized – poems highlight contributions to Chicago/American culture from a diverse collection of historical figures, illuminating the stories of (and appropriations from and attacks against) people like Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Muddy Waters, Rudy Lozano, Chief Keef and, of course, the matriarch of Chicago Poetry Gwebdolyn Brooks.
Making a study of whiteness
Coval, who has long made Ann Arbor a kind of second city to his Second City (though for him Chicago will forever and always be the First City) through teaching writing workshops and giving readings at local high schools, UM, The Neutral Zone and through The Ann Arbor Book Festival, told National Public Radio, “the problem is we continue to tell cultural production in America through the same whitewashed lens” and that “part of my work is to interrogate whiteness and hopefully deconstruct it with people around me.” The result for the co-founder of Chicago’s Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival, Artistic Director at Young Chicago Authors, and Professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago – where he teaches hip-hop aesthetics – is his fifth full-length poetry collection and first poetic history textbook, a tome ticketed for adoption by Chicago Public Schools teachers and that Karen Simpson, head of the fabled Chicago Teachers Union, called “a vibrant, dynamic collection of vignettes that expose the naked truth of our fair city.”
To view a short film of Coval’s poem Ode to Footwork, featuring a beat from Chance the Rapper and dancing by Ligtbulb, hit up Youtube.
For more information or to order A People’s History of Chicago, go to haymarket.org.
The Murder of Eugene Williams
July 27, 1919
the summer was hot as hell.
for relief, his boys brought a raft
to the beach at 25th street, the whole
city’s body laid out on water.
lake michigan’s powerful current
dragged the raft a few blocks south
a/cross an invisible line in the water.
at 29th street rocks flew. launched
from white hands on land
they thought theirs alone, to own.
one rocked the temple of Eugene, 17,
off the raft. he drowned in the body
at the bottom of the lake.
& again water graves claim Black
& again white police refuse to arrest
& again white gangs rally
from Bridgeport, back of the yards.
white gangs like hamburgs
like richie daley’s crew, like the future mayors