Kevin Coval: A People’s History of Chicago

March 31, 2017

Bertolt Brecht opens his famous note “To Posterity” by naming his political moment:

“Indeed I live in the dark ages! /A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens/ A hard heart. He who laughs/ Has not yet heard /The terrible tidings.”

Brecht observes that  “…to speak of trees is almost a crime /For it is a kind of silence about injustice!” and he urges his future readers (“You, who shall emerge from the flood /In which we are sinking”) to speak not just of our weaknesses, but “Also of the dark time /That brought them forth.”

In a later poem he asked, “In the Dark Times will there be singing?” His answer: “Yes, there will be singing, singing about the Dark Times.”

For all the years I’ve known him, Kevin Coval has been singing the Dark Times, casting a healing light into the world, lifting up the unheard and the unseen, illuminating injustice, resistance, and alternative possibilities. Kevin is never alone, and whenever you hear him or read him you’ll find a gathering of students and mentors—a chorus of other dazzling poets—and you’ll catch echoes of Chicago writers gone by as well as intimations of a Chicago, and a world, that could be, but is not yet. Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti—Kevin Coval is in the tradition.

With his new collection—A People’s History of Chicago—Kevin resurrects our history and brings this great American city to life with all of its scars and bruises, its sparkling beauty, its broken noses, cut lips, and contradictions intact.  His lyrical narrative is exuberant and elegiac, poignant and ecstatic in turn. Chicago, as John Dewey noted over a century ago, is an every day dance of the dialectic—a frenzied meeting of chaos and opportunity. Chicago is a collision of art and politics, oppression and liberation, workers and immigrants, activism and organizing, La Villita and the Black Metropolis. Kevin notes how lucky we are to be right here, right now, wrapped in a history that has surprised us before and will surely surprise us again—and he reminds us that we may just be the agents of that surprise.

Here is Albert Parsons, one of the anarchists framed and hanged at the Haymarket as they mobilized workers in a fight for the 8-hour day—an event still marked around the world as May Day. His last words on the gallows: “Will I be allowed to speak, oh men of America? Let me speak! Let the voice of the people be heard!” The trap was sprung, and the police, bowing low to the ruling class, snapped his neck. But he was not silenced. His widow, Lucy Parsons, outlived him by half a century, long enough for Studs Terkel to hear her more than once speaking to a crowd from a soap box at the Bughouse Square. Studs told our son everything he knew about Parsons when Zayd was writing his play about the Haymarket, and Studs talked with Kevin for years about history and politics, writing and culture, about art and the art of listening.

Kevin Coval deploys listening as a method of research, and listening as a pedagogical gesture—he embodies the spirit of teaching as the art of seeing and hearing, of letting go, teaching that foregrounds students and places them at center stage in pursuit of their own growth and learning, teaching that nourishes the spark and agency that lives inside every young person.

In “Boy Breaking Glass,” Gwendolyn Brooks writes in the voice of a wayward youth: “I shall create!/If not a note, a hole/ If not an overture, a desecration.” Kevin  Coval is our own poet laureate of notes and overtures, of futures worth having, of lives filled with hope.

April 5 @ 6 pm in Asheville NC

March 28, 2017


March 28, 2017

Fighting Trumpism means fighting for the truth. Please join me in supporting @truthout today.

Remembering Derek Walcott

March 27, 2017

The State is the Lead Terrorist

March 25, 2017

A letter in response to Nicholas Lemann’s article (April 26, 2010), “Terrorism Studies.”

May 17, 2010

New Yorker

Nicholas Lemann’s otherwise excellent review of the current scholarship on terrorism becomes muddled when he attempts to answer the most basic and straightforward question: What is terrorism, anyway (Books, April 26th)? The expert consensus, according to Lemann, includes a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives, and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims. Good enough, but he then veers off track: terrorists are non-state actors, he claims, which exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, Sherman’s march to the sea, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause terror for a political goal. Terrorists, he continues, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s a convenient tautology: if any conventional government decides to pound a village to dust, it’s a field of battle; if a villager kills a soldier in the exact same spot before the invasion commences, that’s terrorism. Terrorism, according to Webster’s, is “a mode of governing, or of opposing a government, by intimidation.” This definition has the virtue of consistency and fairness; it focuses on the use of coercive violence, whether committed by a religious cult, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself.

William Ayers, Chicago, Ill.

Dear Paul Ryan

March 19, 2017

I know that health care legislation is massively complicated, difficult for ordinary citizens to understand, and nightmarish for leaders like you to grapple with as you work to move things forward for the good of all. I’ve followed the debates, and I think you can easily cut through the fog by applying one of the following simple fixes: everyone should receive the exact health care plan members of Congress vote for themselves; or, massively cut costs by instituting a single-payer program (government paid health care, similar but better than Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, or the National Health Service) which would quickly put the predatory health insurance industry out of business and simultaneously weaken the power of Big Pharma.

Whatcha think?


Capitalism is bad for your health!

March 18, 2017
Health care is a human right, not a product to be sold at the market.
Capitalism is bad for your health!