Kevin Coval: A People’s History of Chicago

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.

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