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An Introduction to Chicago’s Best Social Justice Books

Friday, September 11, 2020

by Patty Kelsey

The murder of George Floyd on May 25th of this year was, sadly, nothing new. American history before and since reflects the systematic and consistent social injustices waged against powerless people, particularly, as in this case, People of Color. This murder did not happen in Chicago, but Chicago reacted, as did the rest of the country, with various protests across the city and suburbs. We are and always have been a city that takes to the streets in an effort to demand social justice, to raise public consciousness about societal wrongs and ways to do better.
We also have always been a city that takes to the pen. Or typewriter. Or computer.
Chicago authors, for more than a hundred years, have explored issues of injustice through plays, poems, novels, short stories, screenplays, memoirs, and even spoken word performances. These literary works amplify injustices and in some cases spur real change. In a year in which marching and home sheltering equally define our Chicago lives, we are presented with the opportunity to read some of these classic Chicago books dealing with social injustice.
Here are a few to get started:

A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, as well as the first with a Black director. The play introduced aspects of Black life to predominantly white Broadway audiences, and drew a larger Black audience than any Broadway play that came before it. In 1960, the play was nominated for four Tony awards: Best Play, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Direction of a Play. The title comes from the poem “Harlem” by 20212 Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inductee Langston Hughes, and centers on a Black family in South Chicago as they navigate changing financial circumstances after an insurance payout from the death of their father. The play was very close to home for Hansberry, quite literally, as many aspects and themes were drawn directly from her own life and experiences. Hansberry was inducted into the CLHOF’s inaugural class of 2010. 

Frank London Brown’s debut novel Trumbull Park, originally published in 1959, tells a fictional story of the real-life struggles faced by the first Black families to integrate to Chicago’s housing projects in the 1950s. Particularly the endless racial violence endured by these families, including racial slurs and harassment, bombings and shattered windows, and police interference. Frank London Brown worked as an organizer and program officer for United Packing-house Workers of America and other labor unions, as well as working as a journalist and writing historical coverage of the Emmett Till murder case. Brown was selected to the CLHOF’s most recent class, and will be inducted when the health pandemic allows for live ceremonies. 

Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in civil rights. She was one of the founders of the NAACP, and worked with her husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett, to found The Chicago Conservator in 1878, the first Black newspaper in Chicago where she worked as editor. Her journalism and organization spoke out against lynching and school segregation in Chicago. Wells’ words were collected and edited together by her youngest daughter Alfreda Duster to tell her mother’s story in Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells published by the University of Chicago Press in 1970. Additionally, Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster wrote Ida B. The Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells which is to come out in 2021. Wells was inducted into the CLHOF’s second class in 2011.  

There is a whole range of nonfiction books exploring contemporary Black experiences in Chicago, as well. In High Rise Stories Voices: from Chicago Public Housing (2013), Audrey Petty shares first-person accounts of actual residents who lived in Chicago’s housing projects. In Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018), Eve L. Ewing peers into Chicago’s Public schools and the structural and systemic reasons for their lack of resources. Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (1991) depicts the experiences of two brothers growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing project. It deals with themes of domestic abuse, violence, and systemic oppression. Children as young as thirteen are already involved in drug dealing and gang violence. However, the book does deliver the message that children will succeed if they are given a chance. Kotlowitz uses a combination of reporting, urban nonfiction, and biographical writing to tell this story, which was adapted to film featuring Oprah Winfrey and won many accolades, including the Carl Sandburg Literary Award. In his 2019 book, An American Summer: Love and Death in ChicagoKotlowitx, returned to themes prevelant to and impacting our most at-risk neighborhoods. The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation (2016) by Natalie Moore depicts contemporary segregation in Chicago through the intersection of race and class by sharing the stories of those living in these communities. High-Risers: Cabrini Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (2018) by Ben Austen tells a story, through the eyes of residents, of our nation’s failed attempts to create affordable housing for our poorest citizens. The book delves deeply into issues of race, class, and politics. 

In addition to these books centering on Black voices and stories drawing attention to systemic issues of justice and inclusivity, there are many Chicago books that feature other groups and communities that also experience hardship. Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings, Bad Kings (2013) is a coming-of-age story about teenagers with disabilities. This kind of representation in a familiar and popular story format calls attention to the dearth of disabled characters and ableism in media and everyday storytelling. Jeanette Howard Foster, a librarian, professor, and poet from Oak Park who will be inducted into the CLHOF’s newest class, premiered scholarship on overt and covert lesbian themes in literature and authored books focusing on lesbian representation, such as Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956) and Two Women Revisited (1991). 

Similarly, Jane Addams, famous for co-founding Chicago’s Hull House, was also a settlement activist, reformer, social worker, sociologist, public administrator, and author. She was an important leader in women’s suffrage and social work, emphasizing issues involving children, prostitution, and social illnesses. Addams, who was a 2012 CLHOF inductee, authored many books; her memoir Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) is a good place to start. 

Harriette Gillem Robinet is a contemporary author also residing in Oak Park who writes books for younger readers centering on themes of social issues. Some of these that are related to Chicago include Children of the Fire (1991) and Missing from Haymarket Square (2001). The characters in these books deal with issues of housing conditions and child labor. These stories introduce younger audiences to the realities of historical injustice through fiction. Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Finding Langston (2018) is another book for young readers centering on themes of segregation and discrimination taking place during the Second Great Migration in Chicago. 

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905) exposed the dehumanizing labor and living conditions of workers in Chicago’s meatpacking district. Most of Chicago’s packing-house workers were recent migrants from Poland, Lithuania, and Slovakia, and men packed for ten or more hours a day for pennies per hour in dark and unventilated rooms, the floors covered in blood and meat scraps, wielding dangerous tools. Women and children worked at meat trimming, canning, and sausage making. While Sinclair’s intention was to spark public outcry for better working conditions and better resources for these underprivileged laborers, the public’s horror was focused on the quality of the food they were consuming. Public demands after The Jungle’s publication led to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, allowing the federal government to regulate the private enterprise of food production. Upton Sinclair famously stated, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” However, the main character of the book, Jurgis Rudkus, gained sympathy from readers as he alone could not provide for his family and over the course of the book, his entire family must work in the stockyards to survive in jobs that take fatal tolls on the family. Sinclair was a 2015 inductee into CLHOF. 

These authors focused on different social issues, often rooted in true personal stories, to influence how readers then would go about their own personal lives: with some more awareness of and understanding for experiences other than their own. This list is just a few examples of published works I found to be useful to Chicagoans, but this list is not exclusive. Many Chicago institutions, such as Women & Children First with its Social Justice Book Group and American Writers Museum with its exhibit My AmericaImmigrant and Refugee Writers Today, are doing their part to highlight some of this literature here and beyond. Social justice themes are explored in a large body of Chicago poetry, scholarship, drama, novels, short stories, memoirs, essays…the body of literature is exhaustive. And enlightening. 

Patty Kelsey graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from DePaul University in 2020. She is just completing a summer internship with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. She has also interned at StoryStudio Chicago, and local literary magazine Poetry East. 

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