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'A People's History Of Chicago' Reflects A Spectrum Of Experiences


Let's turn to the city of Chicago. It's been a momentous year in Chicago in part because of the continued spike in violent crime. A poet is trying to change the reasons people talk about his hometown. Kevin Coval has been called Chicago's unofficial poet laureate.

For some 20 years, his poetry has been popular in literary circles and in the hip-hop scene. And he's the author of seven books, many of them poetry. His newest is called "A People's History Of Chicago." In it, Coval tells the story of Chicago's working class in minority communities who built the city in some 77 poems. And he joins us now from New York. Welcome.

KEVIN COVAL: Thanks so much for having me.

SUAREZ: Did you set out to be a poet? How did you find your way to poetry?

COVAL: Yeah. I mean, through hip-hop I was always fascinated with stories, and I grew up having the benefit of listening to my dad and my aunt tell the same stories again and again. And for a long time as a kid, I was kind of annoyed that they wouldn't stop repeating the same stories.

But eventually I kind of figured that that was my own family's oral history. And so I began to listen a little more intently, and it kind of, you know, vibrated with the same kind of working-class narratives that hip-hop was also telling me simultaneously in the headphones and boombox that I was listening to. And, you know, I was attracted to some of the, you know, revision-isms of KRS-One and Public Enemy. And they were, of course, countering a lot of the whitewashing that I was getting both in my public school education as well as my own Hebrew school. And so that really fascinated me, too.

SUAREZ: But a white guy doing this has to be careful, no? I mean, there's all this angry back and forth about authenticity, who gets to say what, who gets to do what. Did you have to not only make clear it was homage, but that this was an embrace born of real love?

COVAL: Yeah. Well, I think hip-hop gives all people permission to tell their authentic story. And I think that's part of what it has done for me. And, I mean, we're also talking about now 40 years into the culture. And, you know, from the beginning white people were around and from the beginning, you also had white practitioners.

I think the problem is when we kind of continue to tell cultural production in America with the same whitewashed lens, and we continue to kind of give more praise to the white appropriators or even potentially white innovators in a form that is clearly of the African Diaspora, clearly created by black and brown people in these countries. And the attention that we give sometimes skews, you know, to the whites. And so, you know, part of my work is, one, to interrogate whiteness and hopefully deconstruct it with people around me who are down for the same things.

SUAREZ: Well, starting from the beginning of the city and the name of a skunk - or a stinky onion and the Indian word for that which gives us Chicago, you stop along the way at cultural and political mileposts. And you end with the Cubs winning the World Series and why you love the city. So it's kind of a history book, but it's a very selective telling. How did you pick and choose which parts of these 300 years to tell and what events to cover?

COVAL: One of my colleagues, Nate Marshall, who was a - he was one of my main editors of "A People's History Of Chicago," and, you know, Nate suggested that we come to the number 77 for the amount of area communities that are in the city, and that was a target. And so we kind of, you know, selected poems I think that were most successful as well as really being cognizant of the spectrum of experiences we were hoping to tell with the book.

And, of course, I mean, there are giant gaps in the book. And my hope and plan over the course of these 365 days in the city of Chicago is to do 180 readings in the city, at least one in every neighborhood and have those readings be accompanied by and large from workshops and do a lot of listening over the course of this year.

SUAREZ: I've asked you to pick out some stuff to read. Could you bring us something from the book?

COVAL: Well, it's one of those poems where workers have indeed won, and it's called "The Republic Window Workers Sit-In December 5, 2008." (Reading) Organizing began with whispers in the break room, a tavern after-punch clock. When the company comes to close, the workers will not leave. For six days, capitalism gets its ass kicked. The workers united will never be defeated. They refuse to be refuse. Boss man could care less. They sit like Buddhas, bodies on the line in lawn chairs with coolers and hot aluminum-wrapped tamales. The company thought they slick, opened a non-union odd (ph) shop in Red Oak, Iowa, under the name Echo, and the poems write themselves, echoes of the republic for which it stands. The workers sit. The workers are the best poets - five years from now will take over the whole joint, fire the CEO, rename the company New Era, build a worker-owned co-op. On this day, capitalism lost.

SUAREZ: The book has 77 homes, and you tell stories like that of the Republic Window strike. But if you've never even set foot in the city if you're listening to this radio program in - on an expressway near Phoenix in your kitchen in New England, is there going to be something for you in this book?

COVAL: Yes. And I think I hope two things happen - one, that it is part of what this book does - it speaks to the counter-narrative that, you know, media around the country and even in our own city are trying to perpetuate this notion that Chicago is something that it is not. Chicago is in the midst of a cultural renaissance ran by young people 16 to 26 who are changing the way the world gets down. And so I hope people can lean into the book.

And also I hope that wherever folks are listening, they can also begin to investigate and listen to the stories of their own city. You know, this book itself is influenced by the progressive historian Howard Zinn, who I had the occasion to meet. You know, Howard's belief that these stories of the underdog need to be told. We need to constantly counter the dominant tropes of the main narrative that is being said about our city and about our country.

And I think it's really in the experience of working people, of people of color, of people who struggle to make the city, I think those are the stories that I'm interested in telling that I hope people wherever they are begin to investigate and listen to and speak themselves.

SUAREZ: That was poet and author Kevin Coval talking to us about his new book "A People's History Of Chicago." Thanks for joining us.

COVAL: Thanks so much for your questions. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ray Suarez