Kevin Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago

. August 1, 2017.
Kevin Coval’s A People’s History of Chicago
Chance The Rapper, Covals’ former student, says, “Kevin Coval made me understand what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to serve the people.”

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

Trending

Film Review: “The Favorite”

Cynical, absurd, and fiercely entertaining “The Favorite” is one of the best films of 2018. Dark, twisted, nihilistic, and hilarious, “The Favourite” follows Queen Anne, Lady Sarah Churchill, and a new arrival in court, Abigail Masham, through court intrigue so perilous that it makes “Dangerous Liaisons” seem Disneyesque. “The Favourite” takes place in England during

The Art of Paying Attention

Mother and son make high art of “the tiny majority” We live in an age of attention deficit disorder, surrounded and distracted by devices, games, apps, and ads competing for our eyeballs and mouse clicks. But if we pay attention, a pair of artists, Karen Ann Klein and her son Barrett Klein, show us the

Mad as a Hatter

A search for the original Origin stories, for superheroes, famous people and more, have always been popular in the movie and TV business, but book characters rarely get the same treatment. Local actor, director and playwright Michael Herman’s new play, “Mad as a Hatter”, produced by the Roustabout Theatre Troupe from April 4th-20th at the

DuPont’s Floodplains Flows Onward

Water can be purifying, it can clean and soothe and nourish. It can also be something so formidable as to wear its way through soil and rock. Fittingly, then, Chris DuPont has titled his forthcoming album Floodplains, evoking a subtle but potent force of nature where a river mimics the unpredictable bends of life, depositing