Tag Archives: Timuel Black

R.I.P., Dempsey Travis

 

An early picture of the late Dempsey Travis, who died earlier this month at age 89.

An early picture of the late Dempsey Travis, who died earlier this month at age 89.

 

 

The Chicago and human family is poorer now due to the recent passing of Chicago real estate mogul, author, musician and community activist Dempsey Travis.  The South Side native and son of a stockyard worker was part of the generation that, along with Timuel Black, Lu Palmer, Harold Washington and so many others, changed the city and the nation through their civil rights advocacy. 

Travis also authored close to two dozen books, including Harold: The People’s Mayor, a biography of Washington, a fellow Roosevelt University graduate, .  This popular book is more a tender look at the groundbreaking politician than a critical appraisal of Washington’s historical significance, but is no less worthy of being read for its intimate character.   The book closes on a sad note, with Travis urging Washington to eat more healthily and to use the exercise bike he had received as a gift.  

Unfortunately, he did not. 

Now Travis is gone and we are far richer for his having graced the planet with his presence for 89 fully lived years and sadder for the hole his departure leaves behind.

Studs keeps giving us reason to hope.

The late Studs Terkel provides us with reasons to keep the faith in this memorable book.

The late Studs Terkel provides us with reasons to keep the faith in this memorable book.

By any definition, it is safe to say that we are living through tough times.

The global economy is in one of the most extended downturns in decades

 Whole industries that once were the backbone of American industrial capitalism-automobile makers come to mind here-are teetering on the verge of outright extinction.  Global warming continues without abatement, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grind on, and the violence in Sri Lanka has recently reached alarming levels. 

Here in Chicago, unemployment rates in black communities like Englewood are estimated to be as high as 33 percent.  To give an historical perspective, the peak unemployment rates during the Great Depression were in 1932, when 25 percent of the nation’s work force was unemployed.

Given all this evidence, some people understandably are feeling despair, President Obama’s bromides about the audacity of hope notwithstanding.

Yet there are reasons for optimism, and a book by the late Studs Terkel is one of them.

Studs died just four days before Obama’s historic election last November, but there was no mistaking who he supported. 

The legendary and Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, who produced such memorable books as Working, The Good War, and Race, focused his attention shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the often elusive but undeniably real quality of hope.

 Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith During Difficult Times, a work that informs, teaches, inspires and reminds us what a treasure Studs was, is what resulted.

 Studs dedicates the book, which draws its title from a quote by farm worker Jessie de la Cruz, to Virginia and Clifford Durr, long-time advocates for peace, justice and equality in the American South. 

In the introduction Studs cites their “radiant vision, affirming themselves, saying no to the official word. 

“They may always have been in the minority, but it was a prophetic one,” Studs wrote.

Hope Dies Last is written in that spirit. 

In typical Terkel fashion, the book is sprinkled with well-known figures like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Pete Seeger, Frances Moore Lappe, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, each of whom share their thoughts about where we are as a nation, their own journeys and how the two intersect.

Yet the book also has plenty of people who are less renowned and have at least as important things to say. 

These include a pair of married undocumented immigrants from Guatemala talking about struggling to make it in America, Will Campbell, a white southern minister who talks about how his grandfather taught him to respect black people, and a university student who was galvanized into supportive action during a staff strike at Harvard and who acknowledges that he saw the workers differently after getting involved in their efforts. 

Chicagoans will enjoy reading the words of local griot Timuel Black, who continues to publish oral history books of his own as he approaches 90 years of age.  Black talks about his relationship by blood to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who in his youth was a Ku Klux Klan member.  Black recounts his skepticism at his father’s ultimately accurate insistence that the former KKK members would turn out all right as well as his initial meeting with Studs on the way to the 1963 March on Washington.

Others may want to read the words of Kathy Kelly, whom Studs calls The Pilgrim and whose words he uses to close the book.  Founder of Voices in the Wilderness, Kelly has not paid taxes to the U.S. government for nearly three decades and has shown her willingness to oppose war and fight for peace by being arrested countless times and serving multiple prison stints.

After one three month sentence in federal prison, she returned to Chicago by train.

Studs was there, holding a single rose.

As with his other works, Terkel’s presence animates the entire work.  Like few before, he was able to listen with insight, without judgment and with an intertwined sense of history, story and identity. 

His book reminds us that others before us have been through much more difficult times and survived, that the goal, at times, as expressed in the words in words of organizer Eliseo Medina, can be “to inspire other people to cotinue with the struggle,” and that we are truly privileged both to have Studs for as long as we did and to have access to the rich body of work he left behind.

Are you hopeful about the present? About the future? Why or why not?

What Studs Terkel memories do you have?

Black History Month: Studs Terkel and others talk about race.

Published in 1992, Studs Terkel's book about race informs us still.

Published in 1992, Studs Terkel's book about race informs us still.

Recently deceased Chicago icon Studs Terkel was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which he was probably the only straight white man in both the Black and Gay and Lesbian Writers Halls of Fame.

Studs’ prolific career included multiple memoirs, work in television, a law degree-he never practiced-years and years on radio, and, of course, his oral histories. His subjects included the basic stuff of life and death: work; war; the Great Depression; and hope.

As many of the tributes that issued forth after his death just on the cusp of Barack Obama’s historic election noted, Studs had an unmatchhed ability to listen, to ask probing questions and to make people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, their stories, their souls.  He listened with equal humility and openness to all.

Despite spending the first twelve years of his life in New York, a stretch of time that disqualified him from truly being a Chicagoan, Studs loved Chicago deeply, and it loved him back.  My brother Jon did a project for Smithsonian Magazine in which he took pictures of Studs’ favorites Chicago places.  In that article, Studs asserted that Chicago was the most American of cities.

Studs also makes that claim in Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About The American Obssession.  In the book’s introduction, he writes, “Asided from a few visits elsewhere, Chicago is the locus of this work.  Of all our cities, it is America’s metaphor.”

And race is one of its most thorny topics.

Terkel interviews people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds-a Japanese-American couple and a number of Mexican-American folks’ words appear in Race-and the core is conversations with black and white people.

Many had been interviewed before.  One of the book’s many powerful features is that Studs had interviewed these people before-in some cases, as much as 25 years earlier.  Studs notes that Timuel Black, local griot of Chicago’s black community, who is still publishing oral histories of his own at age 90,  and he rode the same bus to the March on Washington, for instance.

The book is introduced with the words of Mamie Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 during a trip to Money, Mississippi.  Mobley talks about the pain and hatred she felt toward her son’s murderers, but also about forgiveness.  From there, the work is divided into four sections, each of which has an overview and then accompanying interviews.

Chicagoans will recognize the presence of people like Pulitzer Prize winning-journalist Clarence Page and Salim Muwakkil, while aficionados of South Africa will enjoy the thoughts of Mark Mathabane and Rian Malan. Venerated civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, whose 1965 confrontation in Selma, Alabama of Sheriff Jim Clark was part of the Eyes on the Prize series, is in the book, too.

In addition to the appeal of learning from people one already knows, Race also has the benefit of hearing from people who are less publicly prominent.

Some of them have dramatic stories.

In one of the book’s most moving sections, Terkel includes the words of for former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis and his former adversary, Ann Atwater, an African American activist in Durham, North Carolina.  Through a combination of hard times, straight talk and interpersonal contact, Ellis gives up his formerly racist views and Atwater comes to embrace the former Klansman.

Race is not a treacly story of transformation, though.

There are plenty of hard edges throughout the work.  Black people talk about being called racial epithets and their waning confidence that the country will ever give up its racism.  White people talk about their own and their family’s prejudices.  The subject of housing, educuation, jobs and community pulse throughout the book, showing that, close to 400 years after the first Africans arrived in what was not yet the United States, race continues to be a subject that bedevils the country without resolution.

The final section, Mixed, contains the words of two couples, each of which has one white and one black member, and their children.

At the end of the one of the interviews, journalist Hank de Zutter, who is white, looks at Amanda, his sleeping biracial daughter, and says, “Our daughter, who is now asleep, represents to me the embodiment of each culture … She carries a strength that neither of her parents has, because she’s the product of our daring to reach over, because we loved each other.

“She’s the future, if people realize the more we cross over, the stronger we are-as a country, as a planet.”

Stirring words, and, as always, ably elicited and recorded by the inimitable Terkel. 

Still, even as the country has elected the product of a similar union to lead our country, we would do well to look at all of the stories in Race to get the combination of bracing reality and persistent optimism that course through this and the rest of Terkel’s remarkable body of work.