& they say Chi-City…

A Scribe Called Quess
Sep 17 · 18 min read

I don’t necessarily need to leave the country to explore the richness of Black culture in an Afro-colonial setting.

Step off the plane and make my way to the CTA train station adjacent. First marvel at the giant spinning fans whirling above me. Then ogle the massive cylinder funneling down towards the black tunnel awaiting the approaching train serving old America vibes. I could be somewhere in the 50s, or on set of an 80s movie emulating 50s vibes.

Malcolm X’s car, a 98 Oldsmobile, on sight at Malcolm X College of Chicago

The next day spit poems at a convening at Malcolm X College. Didn’t even know there was a Malcolm X college. On entry I’m greeted by a blue 98 Oldsmobile perched on a risen platform behind the reception desk. Malcolm’s car. *mind cues Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” as I look at the life sized photos of Malcolm. See my dad. See Denzel’s somber face floating towards death and a sweet old black woman interrupting him with, “you just keep right on doing what you doing… Jesus will protect you!” Next day visit a museum on the other side of the town. Everywhere I go feels like the other side of town. The museum is an hour away, as is everything. Least they got good public transportation. Make it to DuSable Museum. A Black museum named after the founder of the city who was also Black… MAN. WHAT.

Portrait of Chicago’s founder, Jean Baptist Pointe DuSable in Patric McCoy’s home museum

Yes. Chicago was founded in 1837 by a formerly enslaved Haitian man turned fur trader who married into a First Nations tribe and thereby got access to trade in the Chicago area. An Urban Native woman will tell me two days later that “he brought capitalism to Chicago.” More on that later. DuSable Museum introduces me to the artwork of its founder, Margaret Burroughs, originally a Louisiana girl herself, she grew to be a matriarch and giant in the arts world of Chicago who laid the foundations for this museum and created space for much of Chicago’s crucial arts and activism in the 20th century. I learn about Black participation in all the 20th century wars — only mildly interested — with artifacts like real medals, weapons, and letters written from France by members of the 8th Infantry. Learn about the first Black mayor of Chicago, a gregarious looking old cat named Harold Washington, who died of a massive heart attack in 1987 in the middle of his term.

A letter written in France from James Hall, a Black soldier in World War I

Learn, most impressively, about the 1919 race riots set off directly after World War I in response to the influx of Black folks moving up North seeking work and escaping Southern terrorism cross faded with the affects of recently armed and empowered Black men who had “fought for their country” in World War I cross faded with the Red Scare of communist influence on Civil Rights organizing in the wake of the recently successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia only two years prior. Demographic redlining starts here. So does the spark that set off 24 other race riots around the country (mostly in the South), due to the same post war dynamics, that same year. Perhaps, further still, some of the anti-socialist rhetoric that seeded the McCarthysim of a few decades to come, and some of the anti-Obama and anti-Bernie rhetoric that reverberates to this day.

Speaking of communism, see Fred Hampton’s jacket. See Emory Douglas’s original flyers and artwork on The Black Panther newspaper. See original flyers of MLK’s 1964 rally with Dick Gregory. See aged copies of Ida B. Wells’ original publications. See ironworks, a wagon, an original quilt all from antebellum or Jim Crow days. Later on that night, after dinner at my first Senegalese restaurant, a bomb ass spot called Yassa’s, after sharing words and wine with one of Chicago’s finest poets and her people, see the empty space once occupied by Fred Hampton’s last home. See the home next to it where people come to pay homage, where his widow, Mama Akua holds vigils yearly. See the life sized mural to Chairman Fred around the corner.

Mural to Chairman Fred Hampton, Sr.

Next day go to an unassuming lunch with a brotha from Friday’s convening. He walks me into a brick apartment building. See the hallways oddly decorated in framed pictures of Black art that trace all the way up the stairs. Step into the apartment to an older brotha dressed like he’s in his 40s but looks like he’s in his 60s. Find out later he’s early 70s. Fit cargo shorts, t-shirt and a 1980s looking granny pouch on, with silver jewelry round his hands. He greets us all cordial. Meet 2 sistas — native Chicagoans — chillin in the living room. We chop it up under the vibrant glow of walls covered in art. Endless. Not one square foot without it. Nearly all of it Black. Notice the one wall covered in nothing but metallic bicycle arts. Later on the older brotha will tell us he’s a cyclist and that it’s all themed. One wall is Black music and dance. “…See, they got some New Orleans in there!” he’ll enthuse. And sure enough the little metallic looking noodle art shapes out to be a few standing men doing second line dances. Then he’ll explain how his roots trace back to the Boot and how his great grandpa, Mumford McCoy, was a politician during Reconstruction who the white supremacists tried to get to sell his seat. And sure enough, in the room in the back themed around positive and negative depictions of black masculinity, there’s a quote that says “I was bought and sold when I could not help myself. Now I belong to Mumford McCoy.”

Art curator Patric McCoy pays homage to his Great Grandfather

Every wall is themed with curatorial perfection. There’s a wall for Black resistance. And a wall for peace and serenity. By the windows, every piece of art depicts a mask, inspired by a woman who once told the older brotha to deal with violence in the community by first realizing that everyone was working through trauma by wearing a mask, so don’t fear the mask, consider the person beneath it. The art by the front door is all eyes, inspired by a trip he took to Italy where he learned that many Italians still mark their front doors with a singular eye, a tradition they inherited directly from the Egyptians’ infamous Eye of Ra. Ain’t dat sum shit. Older brotha said if they got an eye on folks, he was gonna have all the eyes everywhere.

The frist thing you see when you step in the curator’s home, a wall full of eyes.

In his bedroom was all the sensual stuff. His dad, an artist himself, painted a piece of a voluptuous woman’s curvaceous body, topped off with a hand for a head. The piece was called masturbation. Go figure. Here’s where we, the brotha from Friday’s convening that invited me and an additional young brotha that had joined us, got to asking about legacy. And what was the older brotha gonna do with the clearly 1,000 + pieces he had in his house. He broke down some precise plan dealing with trustees, his non-profit and an LLC or something. The older brotha’s name is Patric McCoy. Next time you’re in the Chi, look him up.

Patric McCoy’s bedroom

Left all that magic only to find that outside and across the street is the once home of Muddy Waters. Here lie the steps where the Rolling Stones and all the other swagger jacking white boys used to come to learn the great one’s chops. Above the legendary steps are boarded up windows with red X’s on them. No idea of the city’s plans for these sacred grounds. But between here and the empty lot where Chairman Fred’s house used to stand, I think of another empty lot that I was introduced to on my trip to Trinidad & Tobago two summers ago. This one belonged to the late great prince of Pan Africanism, Henry Sylvester Williams. I remember my tour guide and comrade was immersed in a battle to remove white supremacist statues like Columbus and have hallowed grounds like the birthplace of one of their islands oldest, greatest activists venerated, instead of bulldozed by the city, as Williams’ house had been only weeks prior to my arrival. My comrade told me that they alerted family members of the Williams family of the home’s demolition and they didn’t even know who the man was. Damn.

Muddy Waters’ once home

Went from the street of Patric McCoy and Muddy Waters to the legendary Green Mill, hosted by infamous founder of Slam Poetry, Marc Smith — “So What!” Told him I was former Chicago slam team member and New Orleans hometown hero and poet Chuck Perkins’ homeboy and he showed all the love. Let me perform a piece. I did my Grandma poem over a rock-n-roll type beat even though I asked for something bluesy, Al Greenish. Crowd loved it. Marc offered me a feature next time. I just might take it.


Next day ventured from my Air BnB on the West Side to the American Indian Center on the North Side. Met with the First Nations sista who did the land acknowledgment at Friday’s convening. But was first greeted by a bubbly young lady who introduced me to the space. She looked oddly like an old student of mine from a high school I taught at. Then found out she is an old student from that very high school — not the student I taught but she knows her and gets that comparison all the time — and is in Chicago finishing up college. She showed me the gym where a couple dozen Native tribes flags hang. One said Miami on it. Then she introduced me to the head of education at the center. This woman dropped knowledge on me for the next hour worthy of a college class.

Even once indigenousness was claimed, it was hard to identify folks because of the displacement from colonization.

Learn the original name of Chicago, “Zhigaagong,” and the nature of its founder, Du Sable’s relationship to the First Nations community. Learn his marriage to a First Nations woman secured him the bag, err granted him entry to the culture where he established himself as a fur trader. Learn that his work, for what it was worth, never received much credit, cause the white boy colonizers that followed him years later coopted his efforts. Big bank take little bank. Lay down with Peruvian dogs come up with Spanish fleas and such. Learn the difference between First Nations, Urban Native, Indigenous and American Indian. And most importantly, between all the aforementioned and Latinx. Learn their are 140 known First Nations groups in present day Chicago. They constitute some 65,000 or so folks. That they are not one and the same with the Latinx community. That while both have socio-cultural and biogenetic ties to a shared ancestry and history in the Americas, Latinx represents a political designation that separates them from their indigenous history.

That until Latinx folks do the research of finding out who their people are and where they come from, they cannot actually claim the title of Indigenous, nor ultimately join the fight for indigenous sovereignty. Furthermore, even once indigenousness was claimed, it was hard to identify folks because of the displacement from colonization. The Ojibwecree peoples, for example, are a mix of Ojibwe and Cree First Nations folks, whose tribes were forcibly blended after the Death Walk aka Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears. Another tribe, that was forced to blend with others on land that they weren’t native to, now call themselves a name (I can’t remember) which translates to humble people. “We’re humble because we’re not on our own land,” she told me. I told the Urban Native sista that it was analogous to Black folks of different nationalities and ethnicities who shared a common bond mostly through the shared trauma of colonization but actually had roots in different regions like the Caribbean versus the South for example, though they might all live in Brooklyn. And even once we trace back to Africa, we come from countries that are no longer in their original form due to the colonization over there.

Segued from that convo to a photo exhibit in the next room. Pink and periwinkle walls adorned in pictures of beautiful, strong, resilient, brilliantly beaming Native women. All in their ancient ways of dress. See the colorful woman in Native garb, her back to the Chicago wind, walking regally past a white woman in Blackhawks shirt and shopping bag. Note the contrast. See the woman adorned in blue standing boldly in the foreground, a blurry visage of a turquoise statue of Columbus in the background. Note the contrast. See the woman with her back to the camera, her fist brazen in the sky against the backdrop of a large downtown building blocks away marked, “TRUMP.”

Photograph from an exhibit by Adam Sings in the Timber on the power and beauty of Indigenous women.

Next day chop it up with 2 Chicago officials. Both organizers. Both artists. One a former crew member with Chief Keef, Lil Durk and such — a street dude turned community activator who runs an organization dealing with the healing of trauma in the hood. Another a poet at the top of her game, fresh off of an opening for Common, a feature with RhymeFest and all her usual greatness. Also a trauma informed curriculum designer who I met when she and her partner bought a bunch of youth down to New Orleans about five years ago and they blew my mind with their words. Talk shop and chop it up about the equity-centered poetry project I came to do in the Chi. Easy peasy for these two. I spent a month in the Bay and couldn’t get nothing poppin. Talk to these two over one meal and the deal is all but sealed.

Later on hit up the Third World Press headquarters. Been a fan since copping The Isis Papers in college. Since hearing legendary Detroit poet Jessica Care Moore drop their founder Haki Madhubuti’s name here and there. I imagine she drew inspiration from him in founding her publishing company, the one that put out Saul Williams’ first book. Step into this damn near goth 18th century looking building and feel old Negro Spiritual vibes like the ghost of Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass ‘bout to force me into a sit down for a five hour lecture on antebellum to Jim Crow days. Like an old 1980s biopic of Dr. King was shot in these very halls on sum shit. But Iain’t trippin. I chose to come here. But no I don’t have to look far for ghosts neither. Gwendolyn Brooks, the matriarch who ushered Haki into his line of work, whose namesake bears more titles than anyone on his roster others than himself — her life-sized photograph is the first thing to greet me on entry. Others than the older sista who opens the door and welcomes me in. “We usually do tours by appointment but I’ll see if I can get our guy for you.”

He shows up. Young brotha round my age but bout a foot taller. Walks me round the joint. The front glass bookcase holds several of the Third World Press titles. Everything from Malcom X’s diaries (who knew?) to a rare compilation of Gil Scott Heron’s poetry to old chapbooks by Gwendolyn Brooks to a new title that I found real familiar, “Be About Beauty” by my elder Kalaamu Ya Salaam who would coincidentally pop up on my voicemail two days later when I got home. Tour the grounds, and the pictures on the wall tell the stories. Some of the greats who have either been published there or walked its halls — Amiri Baraka (“Don’t put no woman on the phone — let me talk to a man!” he was famous for saying as my tour guide told me), Melvin Van Peebles alongside Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis (whose wife Ruby used to famously walk these halls leaving my tour guide starstruck) — to other greats that preceded the establishment entirely (which came together in 1967). There’s the life-sized stamp of Langston Hughes — one of many commemorative pictures of him. An intimate photo of two old buddies all chummy and comradely, nestled up in chairs next to one another — Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois, together just as Emory Douglass said they used to be in his childhood in the Bay.

The GOATS, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Gordon Parks chillin on the walls of Third World Press.

And then the princely, divine visage of a life-sized painting of Malcolm at Mecca as he became El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, kneeling on a prayer rug before Allah, his downward gaze cast in the direction of Haki’s massive mahogany desk. The desk covered in papers, folders full of them, and books and books and more books. Finally the soft maternal warmth of the matriarch Betty Shabazz, glowing from a photo not far from DuBois and Robeson. Apparently Haki managed Malcolm’s estate after his passing. Hence the sacred temple to the great ancestor vibes that his office gave off. I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet the man. He had left 45 minutes before my arrival. I ended the tour downstairs mulling over which half dozen books to buy. Once i finally made my decision, my tour guide, also the accountant, social media manager, graphic designer and other things, rung me up. While he ran the numbers, we talked No Limit records history and the link between Chicagoans Southern roots and their affinity for so many things New Orleans.

Malcolm looking down on the desk of Haki Madhubuti

Left from the 79th and Cottage area and headed to what I believe was Downtown. Had some of that infamous Giordano’s pizza for dinner as I marveled at buildings that licked the roof of the heavens in the city that invented the skyscraper. Went from there to my first Chicago Broadway show. Fatigue kicking in knocked half of the first Act of Hamilton out of view. But I saw enough to confirm every suspicion I already had about a mostly POC cast using NY hip hop to present a colonial white narrative. Brilliant. And problematic. As fuck. We’ll leave a review for a separate essay… if ever. Just suffice it so say it bore all the corniness of a 1990s after school special trying to charm white America into loving us on some “seeee… we can be all street and hip and still tell your stories to you in ways that make you feel like your heroes were actually worthy of being called heroes seeee…” Some modern day minstrel shit on the slick if you really get into it. It essentially validated a lot of normalization if not valorization of extremely problematic white slaver/colonizer/rapists all neatly packaged in the brilliant aesthetic casing that only the progeny of the formerly enslaved could provide. Aint’ that a kick in the head…

Alas, close the night on zombie level energy at a hip hop spot called Subterranean only about 15 minutes away. A return… of sorts…to the ahem… “real” hip hop. Which is to say a hard legged sausage fest of toxic hyper masculine braggadocio replete with requisite broke niggas freestyling bout “how they bout dough/ and if you ain’t bout yo’ bread you gots to go” or some such eloquence. To be fair, an MC or two did pop off and give those good old days vibes for a tic. Irony: amidst it all, the most illuminating moment was a young obviously millennial cat named Austin Filmore who jumped around the stage like Li’l Wayne (right down to the obvious swagger swiped footwork) while rowing up the crowd with a sing song flow sounding like a rapping ass gospel preacher. Think Cee-Lo Green meets Little Richard. His best single, “Juke,” had this one brother doing footwork that could damn near give a New Orleans second liner a run for his money. *cues: “It’s time for the Perculator”*

The next day is exhaustion. Wake from a ten hour binge sleep, a meeting or two down the drain. Still manage to make it downtown to the Northside where I visit the offices of a local nonprofit. Another connect from Friday’s convening. Enter the upstairs office and feel like I’m in a nonprofit version of the office from Devil’s Advocate. Swanky digs. A young Latino brother walks me around. Shows me the paintings in separate rooms, each room named after a street with deep historical ties to Chicago. Hamlin Street for example, the street that Dr. King moved to when he moved to Chicago to combat the egregious poverty here in the 60s. Another, Mahalia, I discover, is named after New Orleans’ own matriarch of gospel who apparently moved to the Chi when she was 16. Damn. Holy overlaps Batman. I had been feeling this righteous chocolate cities of the Western diaspora vibe with the Chi ever since I met folks from there during my college days. Felt the New Orleans connection especially with how cats could mouth off the whole 400 Degrees album like no one else on campus way back then when Juvie the Great’s first classic LP dropped. But now, I’m feeling it even more.

Reflecting on how days ago, at Patric McCoy’s house, I asked folks what the connection was and they confirmed what I had learned at DuSable the day prior. A lot of Chicago’s Black population, which more than doubled between 1909 and 1919 from 20% to 50% of the total population, migrated from the South, from places like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana. And that was only a century ago. Hence the thick Southern accents that make up most of their hybrid tongues up here. How, much like another Chocolate City, D.C., you sometimes can’t tell if they’re from up North or down South when they talk, and usually they sound more the latter than the former.

Flash from the panels on sacred streets, to a huge foam work of art in the workspace that happens to depict the grid of the city. Finally. The whole thing laid out for me in a way I can grasp. So it turns out the West Side i’ve been staying in all this time is actually the Southwest Side. It’s located directly next to what’s called the South side. Above it all is the North side where I was currently standing — where this nonprofit was located. The North and the South are divided by Highway US 290 — the proverbial highway to split up the hood as decreed by 1960s “urban development” plans — the I-10 to their New Orleans Claiborne Ave. in the 9th ward if you will. The East Side barely exists, falls clean off the map into Lake Michigan. And for whatever reason, the South gets split into West and just plain South while the North gets to claim both North and Northwest.

A map of Chicago. The North & South divided by the major gap in thE middle depicting US HWY 290.

As it goes, Chicago, the most segregated city in the United States, is a perfect microcosm for America. The North is where the white people live, where the streets look like something you can eat off of. The South is for black folks, where some streets look like like they might eat you… look like a tumbleweed… errr weave… is liable to blow up at any given moment, as you wonder where the traffic lights are… or “where Christ is in all this crisis…” Alas, spare the melodrama. All was extremely well in my little 5 day experience (just couldn’t resist the Common reference tho). But when one considers the violent reputation of the Chi, I know that less amicable circumstances must have loomed in many a place I was lucky enough not to experience.

Instead I get to remember the Black beauty that could have dripped off of Essence pages that complimented my beautiful poet homey on her own gorgeous glow right after my homey complemented her. (One time for that good sista to sista love in a Chocolate city making a Black man beam.) All this in a Black owned health and wellness store with a cheesy funny sign outside of it that read, “Rolling down the street, smelling hemp oils, sipping on fresh squeezed juice. With my mind on my honey and my honey on my mind.” All this next to the dope cafe were my poet homey and I brunched with the good brotha I plan to work with out there. The cafe, which happens to be Barack’s favorite, is only a few blocks from his home in Hyde Park on the South Side which we passed on the way there — guarded as it was by police barricades at the corner and some 4 or 5 Secret Service SUVs in the front.

I get to remember a place so far away in mileage and yet so close to home in the way it hugs you back like any good Chocolate city. I get to remember that I don’t necessarily need to leave the country to explore the richness of Black culture in an Afro-colonial setting. I get to remember Chicago, another crown jewel in the Diaspora, where the heir of black regality and richness of culture constantly floored me at the prospect of what we’ve been able to achieve — mostly in just 100 some odd years — that far above the Mason Dixon line, which in some ways seemed to dwarf what we’ve been able to build beneath it in 400 years. And yet I got to witness, from Margaret Burroughs to Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters to Patric McCoy, how so much of what blossomed up there is so deeply rooted in who we are down here.

A Scribe Called Quess

Written by

The Ellisonian Basement is a collection of writings about blackness & visibility in the post-modern world, OR Duboisian double consciousness under surveillance.

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