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A Poet’s History of Chicago

Kevin Coval's new collection creates community through history.

Courtesy of Louder Than A Bomb

In his introduction to St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, a foundational text of the African-American urban experience, Richard Wright wrote, “Chicago is the known city; perhaps more is known about it, how it is run, how it kills, how it loves, steals, helps, gives, cheats, crushes than any other city in the world.” What does this mean, to be known? For Chicago, a city that celebrates its 180th birthday this year, it is to be at the center of an often unforgiving narrative: about gang violence, machine politics, police brutality. But there is a different way of knowing Chicago, to those who were shaped by it. “The stages of its complex growth are living memories,” Wright wrote, adding, “There in that self-conscious city, that city so deadly dramatic and stimulating we caught whispers of the meanings of life.”

Haymarket Books, 150 pp., $17.00

Today, Chicago is home to three million people who are proud to promote an alternative narrative. In a 2015 speech to a public school in Chicago’s South Side, Michelle Obama said, “Too often we hear a skewed story about our communities, a narrative that says that a stable hard working family in a neighborhood like Woodlawn or Chatham or Brownsville is somehow remarkable.” Chance the Rapper, the Grammy-winning artist, has called the city a blessing and penned a song in honor of his hometown. Kevin Coval is the most recent addition to this melange of voices. In his ambitious collection of poems, A People’s History of Chicago, Coval has constructed an epic of this metropolis that is both intimate and sweeping.

Coval’s book is divided into 77 poems, one for each neighborhood in the city. Its title is an allusion to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which told this history from the viewpoint of the oppressed. For Coval, a white blue collar Jew, the heroes of history are minorities and the working class, those whose lives are the true test of whether America has lived up to its promises. Coval’s history of Chicago begins before 1492 and ends in the present day, right after the Cubs win the World Series. The first poem, “Shikaakwa,” tells the story of the Native Americans who called Chicago home before they were forcibly removed. Coval writes: “there were thousands, before. This land, a sacred / burial ground, a people we delete.” Erasure, he insists, is sewn into the fabric of his city. He lists every tribe robbed of their home before commanding his readers to put down their morning papers, put their ears to the earth, and “hear the terror of the horses / the wails of the hunters / howling in this city of wind.”

The next poem, “lasalle Wrote It Down Wrong,” picks up where the last left off. Robert de la Salle was an early French explorer of Illinois who used the word “checagou”—the first iteration of “Chicago”—to describe the city in an early report. By bastardizing the land’s original Native American name, he committed another type of erasure with his “misshapen mouth.”

Coval’s poems saunter through time, exploring various characters associated with the city. “Albert Parsons Can Hang,” about the labor activist and former Confederate soldier, lays bare a tension between competing claims of oppression. Coval acknowledges Parson’s beginnings as a “son of the south,” before placing him in a nobler tradition of fighting for workers’ rights; Coval calls him an “organizer in the good times.” But an equivocal allusion to Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party in the middle of the poem (“a white tiger, before Huey, maybe”) reveals Coval’s own hesitation to commit to a redemption narrative for the likes of Parsons.

Even poems about more famous people, like the poet Gwendolyn Brooks or the rapper Chief Keef, retain the same intimacy of “Albert Parsons Can Hang,” as if Coval is saying he knows these people because they all have Chicago in their bones. Kanye West makes an appearance (“Kanye Says What’s on Everybody’s Mind”), as does Chanel Sosa, a high school senior who recited a poem at Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral inauguration. Coval bristles at transplants and those who, he believes, superficially claim the city, particularly politicians. His poem about Barack Obama is called “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when obama Was Elected,” while Emanuel gets this slam: “Atoning for the Neoliberal in All or rahm emanuel as the Chicken on Kapparot.”

Punctuating Coval’s poems are illustrations by Chicago natives like Hebru Brantely and Max Sansing. These portraits of Lorraine Hansberry, Kanye West, and Ida B. Wells emphasize that what Coval is creating here is a pantheon of Chicagoans past and present, famous and pedestrian.

Coval was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He grew up in a Jewish working-class home and was obsessed with hip-hop from a young age. He would later use hip-hop to further understand and interrogate his Jewish identity. As a child he showed his rabbi the lyrics of “Why Is That” by KRS-One, a song that argues that Abraham and Moses were likely black. While the rabbi was less than pleased, this moment serves as a metaphor for Coval’s life.

Hip-hop is the through line for Coval. “Hip-Hop brought me back to Judaism and made me wrestle and remix it, understand my Jewishness in the light of critical race theories,” he wrote in an essay two years ago. “I am a breakbeat poet, a hip-hop generation writer who is trying to translate and synthesize the aesthetics of my moment and life and generation for a popular/populist audience.”

A People’s History of Chicago, then, feels like the appropriate next step for a man who has dedicated his life to building and learning from the city’s communities. Coval is a cofounder of Louder Than A Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam in Chicago, and the creative director of Young Chicago Authors, a program whose alumni include Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Jamila Woods. Chance the Rapper, who wrote the introduction to this collection, describes Coval as his “artistic father,” someone who made him understand “what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to serve the people.”

The latter half of A People’s History of Chicago is a deft mix of his personal history and the ongoing history of the city. In “Carl Sandburg Village (Where My Parents Met),” Coval situates his parents’ courtship within the urban renewal of the 1960s. In “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when obama Was Elected,” he describes “listening to the only democracy” he believes in, a youth open mic night. Instead of celebrating his country, he was “scheming on the ave, with the people, cooking up a new one.”

Toward the end of his introduction to Black Metropolis, Wright says, “Current American thought is so fastened upon trying to make what is presently real the only and right reality, that it has quite forgot the reality of the passion and hunger of millions of exploited workers and dissatisfied minorities.” It’s a bleak characterization of a nation built on paeans to equality and dreams of prosperity. A People’s History of Chicago feels like a contemporary echo of Wright’s description. Coval’s poems not only bridge the past and the present; they create a community through history, returning the city to those who built and continue to build it.