Chi Boy

A family's northern migration

Summer, 1947. Chicago. Photograph by Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos.

Not long after the end of World War II, a family of three travels from Canton, Ohio, to Chicago, Illinois. They are moving between great factory-powered provinces, but really they are Southerners: The man is from Birmingham, the woman from old, rural Florida, and she is beautiful and sad as everything raised there is. The child, known to close family as Butch, meanwhile, is an infant born in the passage: Unlike his parents, he is a Northerner. Born in Canton, he will be a son of Chicago, of Kedzie Avenue and Cottage Grove. 

Chicago sits at America’s center, unique among American cities, its location fortuitous in that it is barriered by the Appalachian Mountains from the East Coast’s ports, except New York. This fact makes Chicago the economic heart of the country, its busiest inland harbor. It was the French-Canadian trader and explorer Louis Joliet, a product of Jesuit education in Quebec and French Manifest Destiny dreams more generally, who in 1673 first dared to conceive that a tribal intersection where the native peoples of the land had bartered goods with one another for centuries, their Chicagoua, could become the centerpiece of New France. The Indians of the western lakes spoke of a great river to the south, the Messipi, or Great Water. The French hoped both to establish influence over the native tribes as far south as present-day Florida and Mexico and to find this great river and follow it all the way to its promised source at the California sea, a distant destination west that would in turn serve as the waterway to the golden land Cathay. But in ignoring Joliet, who died penniless, his revelation unfinanced, France overlooked Chicagoua’s centrifugal force, a miscalculation of continental proportions. 

In living fact, Chicago, from its earliest settlement by the Haitian fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in the late eighteenth century, was a great convergence, a teaming welter of races and customs and sordid commerce and outsized ambition. The Wolf Point area, the center of early Chicago, was a rollicking gathering place. The French Canadians remained, as well as Native Americans and Anglo Americans and the mixed-race progeny of these peoples. Joliet and du Sable are well known now, their status as dead men far outstripping any recognition they received while alive. Yet this, in itself, is telling: The world discards living beings no matter how brilliant, no matter the originality of their designs. And their records are rarely ever kept. Joliet’s name can be found in a thousand books, and du Sable’s adorns a museum and a high school, amongst other Chicago institutions. Yet almost nothing is known about these men aside from the fact that they founded some small slice of the big city we now know—the city we assume we know. But how much can we know about people and their places when what we call history is just a small sliver of what really happened, when our most foundational archives are, at best, fragmentary and incomplete if not forgotten or misplaced or erased altogether? Some archives are right where they should be, while others are misplaced in ivory towers. Meanwhile most, like my family’s, that should sit somewhere, don’t exist at all.

• • •

See this: Friday night. Saturday night. Butch and his sisters would stay up, sticking their heads out the bedroom window to watch the sea-colored streets as the night fell out in blues and greens and curses and fights. Fistfights, knife fights, razor fights raged outside the bar above which they lived. This was their television, their internet, drunks trying to beat each other sober. Making their rounds, the beat cops would drive past and “roll” the men outside the bar. Lining the winos and innocent passersby up along a wall, the cops would have them turn out their pockets and hand over their money, and if a man had no money they would get their kicks clobbering him, or if he fought back they would push him into their police car and take him away. The stories told by men who’d returned after a night or a weekend spent as the plaything of the police scorched the fear of them into Butch’s brain. Saturday night. Sunday morning.

These are not fictional crimes perpetrated in an imagined underworld: The cases brought against former Chicago police chief Jon Burge and against the city for the torture of criminal suspects, which resulted in jail time for Burge and reparations paid by the city to some of the torture victims, corroborate stories of police station brutality that for decades were belittled as urban legend. The 60-year-old stories my father grapevined down to me about police beatings, electric shock, suffocation, and other tactics of torture have all been echoed in the testimonies of those tortured. The continued existence of the Homan Square detention facility, where it’s been alleged detainees are still subjected to Burge-era coercive tactics, serves as the seamless strand connecting Chicago policing past, present and future. 

These urban violences seen and unseen, told and untold, come to define Chicago, this quintessence and nadir of the urban North, quintessence and nadir of Black hope. Every movement of the city, its vibrations, shudders, spasms, procedures, routinized labor and leisure, laws enforced and unenforced, the city’s refusal of ritual and custom and its consequent randomness of encounter, all this establishes, for the children reared in its depths and for the men and women negotiating its antisocial public spaces, the inexplicable ubiquity of a violence without origin or cause or predictable signs and therefore absurd and with out remedy. 

• • •

Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency signaled for some the end of America’s racial crucible and the beginning of a post-racial era. In retrospect, that seems like fantasy fiction. And the criticisms of Obama’s presidential record are many and come from the Left and the Right. Added to the usual roster of Beltway discontents came Chicago’s crisis: In the final year of Obama’s term, 2016, murders in the city rose from fewer than 500 to 780, a remarkable upswing, and in the years since, the toll taken by street violence has not abated. 

In Grant Park, I sat where Barack Obama stood when he accepted the nomination to the presidency for the first time. I heard an old song blaring from a battered boombox balanced on the roots of a shade tree, I want to be free as the spirits of those who left. I walked the park. Nearer the river, I hadn’t been able to feel my face it was so fiercely cold, but now, farther from its icy reach, I unfroze and felt everything. The cold had gotten past my layers and was in me, making me live in time and place. I looked down at my hands, chalky white over dark brown skin, and at my shoes pounding forward: The dead white and brown grasses had already been padded away by a million feet before mine and had turned a consistency as fine as dust. I thought about my family’s life that had happened here in this city. It is all gone, everybody, to wherever death goes when it takes us.

Death has taken Butch Norris. It has taken Butch’s parents, my gramps, with his penchant for war novels and war in the streets, and my granny, with her hushed and silenced dreams. It has taken Londa and Linda and Steph, Butch’s three sisters. It has taken my cousin, strangled to death in a drug deal gone bad in California on New Year’s Day 2016, which happened to be the first day of what would become Chicago’s most lethal year in two decades. Everything that was in me gave and tore away and I wandered, heading nowhere, a child lost in the city. 

The term “Chi-Raq” links Chicago street violence to an infamous American war on the other side of the world. In thinking about the violence that has beset my own family, I’ve had to sink deep into the ways American street violence and American militarism are connected. I’ve had to think hard about my family’s most difficult days and about Chi-Raq as something other than a rap song or media hype or the nonsense we tell ourselves about people we fear but instead as a story that does not even know itself.

• • •

“You all need to learn how to talk like white folks,” Mrs. Walker said one day at recess. She was talking to Butch and the other boys. It was their habit to carry the stickball games they’d begun the day before in the streets outside the row houses into the next morning at school, where they patiently bided their time through bottomless lessons in crowded, musty classrooms just for the chance to resume the bat-cracking, caterwauling chaos. Mack and Cash and Sam’s brother could swing a bat, catch a ball, and play the dozens all at the same time, natural talent like no other, but Mrs. Walker had apparently tired of these childish things and was of the mind that right then would be a good time to teach the boys a lesson. 

She was a janitor and a truant officer for the school district, the only woman who had been hired in either capacity that Butch could recall. She had none of that teacherly calm about her but spoke, instead, like the men in his life spoke: unasked, unpolished and to the point. “How you ever gon’ get a job downtown talkin that mess? Here we is, in 1956, white man up here givin out good jobs, but our people still out here actin’ all niggerish. Y’all, we need to do better—need to start talkin like they do downtown.” 

Mack, Cash, Sam’s brother and the rest paid her no mind, but for whatever reason Mrs. Walker’s words stuck with Butch. He’d rarely seen, let alone spoken to white folks. He would be 18 years old and in college in a different part of America before he would have a full-fledged conversation with one. He thought about a white man back in Alabama, his country accent kin to the Black speech of Chicago. He thought about his mama yelling at him to hit the lights and he and his sisters crouching down in the darkness as the bill collector rapped his thick Irish boxer’s knuckles on their front door, how the door frame trembled against the speechless insistence. He thought about the white people in the movies and in the shows that his friends whose families had bought television sets would tell him about. Was that the way white folks sounded? John Wayne? Howdy Doody? 

He looked at Mrs. Walker, her doughy face full of shades and folds, from diabetic black to brown and bronze. His people were the colors of charcoal and amber and pennies and olives and parchment and Irish freckles and weathered wallpaper and rich wet soil. But they were not white, none of them were. Butch was blacker than the back of your neck and he lived in Chicago, on the West Side, off Kedzie, so white people in his world did not exist unless trouble was coming in tow, bills his parents couldn’t afford come due, some citation to be delivered, or the police. 

He didn’t want to stop his play and ask Mrs. Walker what white folks sounded like, but he never forgot her words. He had been a resident of Chicago several years by then, but that was the moment that begot this one and this writing because it was when he started to really think about the city, its invisible lines, its segregation, its customs and institutions, its hierarchy and history. In the years to come, the years of his adolescence, the white North Side would rise like a wall, or a brickbat. And some Black parts of the city would seal away as well. He would learn that South Side folks often joked that you could get robbed down to your socks and slit to the white meat on his side of town amongst the wild Negroes where he lived, and, conversely, he came to know that West Siders had their own soft bigotry of tall, rivalrous tales about the South Side, even though they were really all just one people tossed ashore in America and lost in the city. 

That night, Butch waited up until his sisters were down for the night and Daddy had tucked himself away inside one of his massive novels. Then and only then did he ask Mama what did white folks sound like and why should we be talking like them when we already talked like ourselves just fine? Should he be talking like some cowboy movie actor, and, again, why? The questions probably surprised her. When he wasn’t running around, hitting and catching balls, Butch was a quiet, shy Chi boy not at all given to showing out. But the boy who would one day be my father was also inquisitive underneath it all, and once he started to question the world around him, there was no end of it. He would eventually take after his father and mother, reading whatever he could get his hands on, and the questions that he would ask would lead him well beyond Chicago. 

But back then he was just a boy for whom the city was a couple neighborhoods, a few streets. Mama, he suspected, knew much more: She had worked for white folks down South and up North, cleaning their homes, tending to their children, the common work of Black women in those days. She knew Chicago and more besides, the whole world of white and Black about which he had so many questions. 

“No, not like no movie actor.” She laughed, looking out at streets that glowed mercury vapor sea green and haunted blue in the dark. 

“Then like what?” 

“Butchie, you only need to sound like yourself,” she said. But he could see her thinking on it and coming around, in her patient, mild way, to an idea. “Like the president, though, that’s probably what Mattie means by talking white: like Mr. Eisenhower sounds on the radio.” Her eyes darted away from his, out the window and into the future. “Talk like you could be the president, child.”

• • •

Everywhere North, James Crow real estate policies, preferential hiring practices, union segregation and on and on and on, enforced the color line more completely on the material level of housing and jobs than anywhere South of our dreams. 

Chicago was a city rife with segregation long before we showed up in large numbers. The southwest side of the city, for instance, was a patchwork of harshly divided ethnic European territories, Irish living, working and churching with Irish, Lithuanians with Lithuanians, Poles with Poles, Germans with Germans. 

Owing to the demographic shifts that resulted from the 1919 riot, escapees of Jim Crow, Southern droughts, floods and boll weevils and racist pogroms arrived in a Chicago that was objectively even more segregated than it had been a few years before. Between the wars, Black migrants crowded the narrow isthmus on the South Side. 

Restrictive covenants were critical to this racial convergence. In April 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board had met to resolve what it saw as the ominous invasion of Black Southerners into Chicago’s white city. Marking off certain South Side neighborhoods as exclusive to the new arrivals, the decision stated that “each block shall be filled solidly and … further expansion shall be confined to contiguous blocks.” In 1920, the Board voted unanimously to expel any member who sold property to Black people on a block where all the homeowners were white. In the year of the writer Richard Wright’s arrival, the Chicago Real Estate Board instituted a “Model Restrictive Covenant” that, in accord with the mainstream bigotry of the times, separated by fiat areas deemed white from Black residential entry of any kind. 

Restrictive covenants worked in multiple ways to segregate us out of mainstream Chicago and to hamper health and human opportunities within the ghettoes that the riots and the restrictive covenants had formed. 

Racial cordoning subjected Blacks to the economic truism that governs all captive markets. Desperate for housing in the overcrowded slums, folks were crammed into a kitchenette apartment design invented just for us. Realtors, after having bought apartment houses on the cheap, cheapened them further by walling and partitioning single-unit dwellings into multiple kitchenettes with little more than a gas burner or charcoal stove in each. Black renters often paid double what white-flown former tenants had rented the previously more spacious apartments for. These price-gouging strategies were put to solid numbers long, long before my family’s or even Wright’s arrival in a 1924 Urban League study of Harlem, at the time America’s second largest Black ghetto (after Chicago’s South Side): Black renters paid 40 to 60 percent higher rents than white tenants for the same New York apartment. The crowding that this overcharging caused resulted in skyrocketing disease rates in the Black Belt of every Northern city: In Harlem during the Depression, TB made a comeback, slicing through the tenements and government housing. A similar determinism etched the South Side, where scarlet fever, TB, pneumonia, typhoid and other diseases that predominate amongst the poor and overcrowded retrenched at rates seven times higher than elsewhere in the city. 

The Civic Unity Committee, in a 1946 publication, defined racial restrictive covenants, or redlining, as agreements entered into by coalitions of homeowners and property developers in a given neighborhood. The agreements specifically bound the members from selling, leasing, renting or in any way transferring their property to a list of the forbidden racial and religious minorities in the main, unless all parties agreed to the transaction. When in 2013 I interviewed the novelist David Bradley about the social science concepts that informed his novels, he pointed to redlining as the sine qua non of all social science misadventures, as it was based upon the racist and paranoid precept that racially diverse neighborhoods are fundamentally unstable. In practice, these covenants simply allowed white people to maintain a myth of white racial purity even as they subdivided by degrees of whiteness these very same areas. 

Even the University of Chicago participated in the planned segregation by financially backing restrictive covenants written to stop the spread of Blacks into Hyde Park. Frustratingly, despite Horace Cayton’s activism and the equally stalwart anti-covenant protests of fellow Chicago School sociologist Louis Wirth, the researchers by their very employment were empowering an institution that abetted America’s urban apartheid. 

If scholars created racist policy, simple terrorism less subtly surveilled the color line: In a speech given at the AME Church in Woodlawn, Cayton described numerous incidents where Black home buyers new to an all-white neighborhood would be greeted with fires set on their porches, at the entranceway to their homes, and then by bombings, in an attempt to stalk them from the neighborhood. In 1946, a Black doctor who had purchased a home in the white South Side neighborhood of Park Manor was met by a mob of whites who set fire to his garage and stoned his home. In December of the same year, two Black war veterans, one of them a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, upon attempting to move their families into a temporary veterans housing project, had their moving van attacked and a cross set ablaze outside their building. In August 1947, 5,000 whites rioted over a three-night period to protest the entrance of a few Black families into another South Side temporary veterans housing project. In the summer of 1951, 5,000 whites wrecked an apartment complex in Cicero that had dared to rent one unit to a Black family. The 1940s and ’50s saw many such instances, with Black families that attempted to cross the color line mobbed, their homes stoned and set on fire. Even the police convoys that were sometimes deployed to protect these Black families might be assailed by mobs, as was the case in a 1954 incident at the all-white Trumbull housing project on the South Side. 

My dad remembered wondering why his parents insisted he never cross certain streets and that entire areas of town—the North Side, Wrigley Field, the whole villainous Cubs organization—were deemed off-limits to him. His answer was a rock through a window, a fire on porch steps…. 

When Butchie was six years old, in 1955, Richard J. Daley ascended to the mayor’s office in Chicago, where he would err again and again on the side of segregation. The great patriarch of Chicago’s machine politics, Daley, in his 21 years in office, managed to oversee the construction of many historic structures and thoroughfares, from the immense 14-lane Dan Ryan Expressway to downtown’s Magnificent Mile. Daley saw to completion America’s tallest structure, the Sears Tower, and the world’s busiest airport, O’Hare International, as well as its largest convention and exhibition centers. His system of political patronage not only consolidated for him a voter base of whites and Blacks, it kept the middle class from fleeing the city the way they did in Detroit and the rest of the Rust Belt. But Daley was also the savviest segregationist of the twentieth century, having decided that the Dan Ryan should run right between the Irish American Bridgeport neighborhood on the southwest side of the city where he was born and raised, where as a youth he and other Hamburg Athletic Club toughs had enforced the color line with bricks and bats, and the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing development in world history. Daley lived his entire life in Bridgeport, and the Expressway that he brought into existence effectively walled his community from the Black underclass who were housed in Robert Taylor, the Ickes and the other public housing behemoths that lined State Street. In fact, Daley holds the title of master builder and social architect of Chicago’s mostly forsaken public housing projects, which in their sad heyday during the back half of the twentieth century served to isolate thousands upon thousands of impoverished blacks in towering, ill-maintained, poorly policed superstructures. Nicholas Lemann inveighed in his coda to The Promised Land that the city’s projects were among the most perilous places on earth for a child to be born and come of age, utterly impoverished Global South living conditions right in the middle of one of America’s greatest cities. The housing projects would come to symbolize the segregation-without-laws but of urban design and unspoken custom that characterizes our residential patterns to this day. 

Today, the shadow of Chicago’s historical segregation is everywhere obvious: Residents casually note that theirs is still a segregated city. Interracial friendships and romantic relationships are relatively rare. If white people show up in a Black area, especially an area deemed dangerous and/or one that is notable for being within walking distance to one-stop El service to downtown, it is because they are about to move the Black people out. A prime example of this is the mass relocation of underclass Blacks from South Shore to the South Side suburbs while whites moved into the vacated areas along South Shore. This is the all-too-familiar cycle of displacement and reclamation that most Black folk in Chicago believe is the true object and motive force behind the sudden media hysteria around the long-standing problem of gang violence in the city. 

• • •

Butch and the Norris family lived above a bar, so they were crowded within the apartment and below it as well. There were rodents, of course, due to all the humanity. There were also the problems humanity brings with it: Often, his daddy would spend nights downstairs and stumble up at 1, 2 a.m. laughing and cussing his friends below, waking Butchie and his sisters from their sleep. Then he and Ruth would get to arguing. The noise never stopped. Butchie didn’t understand half the Gullah that came out of his incredibly country kin’s mouths, but their field-holler volume put dents in both his eardrums. Five people was enough for one apartment, doubling and sometimes tripling that number when more and more family flowed into town and made of the home a temporary hell of sound, stink, smoke and no privacy. And the summers brought out the swamp, full of reeking, drenched bodies; Chicago in August could make you not want your body, let alone anyone else’s. After the late-leaving summer, the long deep winter drove folks indoors, into the fetid, stifling fleshliness of one another. And the rats, real rats, brown and black, came in with the people: Drawn to the human flood in the home, they would somehow get from inside the walls where they scuttled nightly to inside the kitchen, running over Butchie’s feet for fallen scraps. He and his family were all Bigger Thomas then, with pots and shoes trying to corner and kill the rats that just as desperately represented their own cornered plight. 

One night, an old, dying rat bit little Londa, swelling her arm to twice its size, just like the Gil Scott-Heron song. They found it dead in her bedsheets in the morning. Bleary-eyed and panicked, the whole circus car of parents and children made the trip to Cook County Hospital to save Londa’s life. 

Nobody died—but living the way they had to in Chicago wasn’t what the boy who became my father wanted to call life.

In the city, people are everywhere: They are in the home; they are on the stairwell between your apartment and the bar downstairs; they are rushing past and melting into and out of doorways and alleyways; they are strung-out half naked in the street; they are telling you to move off the curb because they are the police, they are the Vice Lords, they are the Disciples, they are more somebody in a faceless city full of faceless souls than you are. Only crimes might be committed alone, but everything else is surveilled by the passing cars, by the law, by one’s parents or peers or by slow, bright, boy-watching eyes that you come to sense without seeing. In Chicago, Butch Norris had the feeling in his bones that he was both benevolently watched over and maliciously preyed upon. 

As they gained their footing in Chicago, my father’s family was, by the standards of Black people in those days, not very poor. In the postwar years, in part due to his military service, Butchie’s father found “good job for a Black man” kind of work. WWII, paradoxically, opened up avenues of blue-collar opportunity for Black people. The Norris family, for one, found a more open world: As their patriarch began to find his way in the city, the family was able to leave behind the kitchenettes and the doubling and tripling up with just-met relatives. They rented an apartment of their own and no one caught TB or typhoid. 

But James Crow is a graceful, elaborate enemy that adapts to Blacks and their wanderings much better than his killer cousin ever could. Their good, clean, three-bedroom apartment above the bar was still hell up on Kedzie deep in the ghetto and because of that, everything was just simply harder—harder than what? Harder than some lives and easier than others, but not anything that could sustain what little success they were gaining without another war or some other universal shock that would throw America upside down again. 

If Butch’s schoolbooks seemed thousands of years ancient, whole chapters torn away or disintegrated like the archived dust of papers unpreserved, why wouldn’t the public housing down the way be crawling with rats and TB? If the cops ran people’s pockets late at night outside the bar, why would you think it would be easy to run a respectable business on that same street? A business of one’s own was to him something for white people with safety and money and the law on their side. Gramps’s greatest successes were his government jobs, Army medic, garbage worker for the city. When Butch thought of Black businesses, he thought of the Muslims that he and the other kids scattered from in the street like windblown leaves. He thought of the hustlers, the numbers man that came to the door every other Saturday, the bookies at the bar below that his daddy had him run his money down to, the shoestring pimps and the nervy old whores who knew the police rotations and worked Kedzie accordingly in the hours after decent people were indoors. 

He was two years old when they first arrived in the big city. They were the ones we read about coming from the country, up from the South with no knowledge of the North. They slept on Hilda and Alf’s kitchenette floor. They were without work and winter clothes and went on relief. His first memory was of an outdoor ice rink. He remembered his father, my gramps, hoisting him aloft and then gently lowering him until his fingers were touching the ice. He remembered how hard and fascinatingly, unchangingly cold it was, not like snow, which melted in his hands like people disappearing around Kedzie’s corners, into its alleyways, suddenly out of sight. Not like ice in a glass that melted in his throat or of its own slow transformation. No, this ice was changeless and forever; it was more impenetrable than anything he had felt, the surest, safest thing that he had ever known. Butchie trusted the ice.

• • •

In the early twentieth century, the term “ghetto” referred to the densely populated Jewish neighborhoods in places like the Lower East Side of New York and the West Side of Chicago. This was the case in the West Side Lawndale neighborhood that Butch’s family would one day call home. Beryl Satter writes in Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America about how in the early 1910s, Russian Jews began to move to Lawndale. It was better than Chicago’s “Jew Town” on Maxwell Street, where homes routinely lacked windows and bathrooms. Lawndale was unique in that as a working class, largely immigrant community of Dutch, Irish and German residents, it lacked the financial means and legal and political wherewithal to systematically discriminate against and keep out Jews. Lawndale became host to myriad Jewish social organizations in the coming decades. But after WWII, as their economic prospects improved and the city, in its hostility, bisected the neighborhood by building the Congress Street Expressway clean through its middle, Jews began to leave the area, which was, for whatever its charms, marked by overcrowding and “tarred as a way station for Jewish migrants,” in Satter’s words. 

Despite the absence of a state mandate, the Venetian template had taken hold in the slums of the ostensibly integrated American North well before the mass arrival of Black Americans. While white popular memory would have it that Lawndale in Chicago was a middle-class haven brought low by Black migration in the 1940s and ’50s, the truth flatters no one. 

The arrival of large numbers of Black migrants to the West Side, instead of undoing the deep structures of discrimination that already existed, only staked those structures more solidly. Redlining, blockbusting and racial terrorism retrenched with a vengeance, which is why, when he launched his campaign in Chicago, Martin Luther King Jr. was rudely awakened to racial animus worse than any he’d known in the South. It is in Chicago, in the contested West Side of the city, that the moral leader was outwitted by Mayor Daley, whose total lack of morality proved more effective. 

Over the years, the West Side’s slums became an even more downtrodden territory than the South Side, which has always had its middle class, its wealthy and boojier-than-thou class levels. There’s no Kenwood, no Hyde Park. The neighborhoods leading off from Kedzie, the neighborhoods of my father’s upbringing, now feel like live wires to be tread lightly. 

Today, there is no industry to speak of on the streets that Butch Norris once called home; the jobs were outsourced to Asia and oblivion many decades ago. Vacant lots solemnly mark the space, as do half-rotted and boarded-up old brownstones. On hot, humid spring and summer days, the West Side might as well be Havana, everyone escaping their un-air-conditioned rooms to crowd porch steps and side streets. On days like these, the population density, easily outstripping the South Side, is no longer a number but tangible in the throngs of children that cars weave between on side streets. On the boulevards, women in skin-tight, sweat-tight dresses sashay along lane lines selling handbags and jewelry before the lights turn green. And men in cohorts of five and 10 fringe the alleyways and decorate the boulevards, their track suits and church clothes immaculate. It is busy, folksy, communal, of the Caribbean more than the cold North in that strange way that our god and ghost-filled cities turn come summer. 

• • •

When I reflect on my family’s time in Chicago, why they came, how it was for them and why they left, a number of things become clear to me. The city was an escape and it was a bridge. From the South, they entered Chicago and arrived in something like America, though not quite the America that we know today. For all of Chicago’s present-day segregation, the overt racial hostility and discriminatory practices are mostly a thing of the past. Black Chicago isn’t much changed except that it has dispersed and desolidified somewhat across the suburbs southward and into North Side homes that would’ve been lit on fire at their entrance 50 or 60 years ago. If my family had stayed on even a few more years, the unions might have opened to my gramps, and with that concession might have come a handhold upon one of the lower rungs of the deathless Daley patronage machine. While this isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams, it would have meant real security and a decided step up for working-class Blacks in the ghetto.

But the city overcame them before they could turn that historical corner. The third wave of the Migration is its outflow. In leaving the city, my family wasn’t fleeing racism, they were escaping the Vice Lords, a Black street gang, and they were escaping the poverty and the squalor of the West Side. Chicago had brought them into modern America, a nation where people were allowed to reinvent themselves, but it did not bring them into the American bounty because Chicago was not yet ready to reinvent itself, let alone its relationship to its Black citizens. Settled centuries before, the metropolis was an old beacon in the new world, with its politics, its customs and society all reflective of that rooted, recalcitrant reality. 


Keenan Norris

Keenan Norris has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Lit Hub and elsewhere. In addition to Chi Boy, from which the essay that appears here has been adapted, his books include the novel The Confession of Copeland Cane and the anthology Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. He teaches at San José State University. 

On the cover of this volume, we call Chicago “America’s City.” That moniker might be controversial in certain circles. But in so many ways, Chicago helped create the vision of the modern American metropolis, not just by virtue of its ...

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