A lot of people talk about giving voice to the voiceless; Beauty Turner lived it everyday.
She did it in many ways, and did it with class and grace and heaping amounts of generosity.
She radiated inner and outer beauty, dressing elegantly and always treating people with dignity and respect. Her style showed how you could start with so little and end up carrying yourself like a queen without losing a common touch.
Born the youngest of 16 siblings, Beauty came up hard, survived and ended an abusive marriage, and eventually discovered a mission she embraced with gusto.
“I’m a writer and a fighter,” she declared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and to anyone she met.
The two were related, and she gave herself completely to both.
For years her writing was in Residents’ Journal, a publication by, for and about residents of public housing. It was the premiere source of stories about the community.
In its pages Beauty wrote stories that garnered national awards and showed repeatedly that the Chicago Housing Authority’s claims of a smooth “Plan for Transformation” were anything but that and that the pronouncements of politicians like Mayor Richard M. Daley were often a bunch of self-serving hype and lies.
“Deadly Moves,” for example, a collaboration with The Chicago Reporter, where I work, showed that the drop in the city’s murder rate was not caused by effective community policing, as Daley maintained. Rather it came from the moving of the people from public housing to suburban communities, where the number of killings rose.
Beauty also wrote for South Street Journal for years; and, after her departure from Residents’ Journal, on her blog.
Writing was just one part of Beauty’s repertoire.
She hosted a cable television show earlier this year.
She created the highly successful Ghetto Bus Tours in which visitors of all ages and backgrounds from the city, from the suburbs, from around the country and even around the world learned about and listened to residents of public housing telling their stories.
Her fighting also took many forms.
There was the public work she did, like attending community meetings, speaking up at public events and participating in marches.
But she also constantly did unheralded work that was no less central to her mission.
I saw this in the summer of 2007, when I was getting started on an investigation of fatal police shootings in Chicago.
My brother Jon, Beauty and I were planning to go to a press conference on the West Side, but had to make a stop at the federal building first. Distraught about a legal difficulty, a woman had locked herself in the bathroom and refused to leave.
In her loving manner, Beauty spoke to the younger woman, advised her and coaxed her out of the room.
“You are the only one who came,” the woman said after we went to the sixth floor, tears streaming down her face when she eventually emerged.
Beauty hugged her, connected her to a lawyer and let her know it would be all right. Other community organizations had said they would be there, but Beauty was the one who actually showed the woman she was on her side.
We missed the meeting, but the action had moved to the police station. On a “work schedule,” I headed back to the office, but Beauty kept right on going. She didn’t stop until early in the morning, when she rested for a few hours and then started the same cycle all over again.
Her actions inspired a song by young men and made her the subject of magazine cover stories and a key figure in multiple documentary films. Beauty soaked in all the affirmation like a warm bath but never forgot who she was or what she was about.
Where most of the outside world looked at the Robert Taylor Homes and saw crime and violence and poverty and a symbol for all that could and had gone wrong in public housing, Beauty saw family and community and people she would do anything for.
No one was better connected to people in the city’s public housing.
No one had a purer relationship with the people on whose behalf she worked.
No one worked harder and listened better.
In short, she loved what she did and the people with whom she worked.
Love is critical to include when reflecting on Beauty because talking only about her actions and accomplishments misses a central part of her essence. Coupled with a hunger for justice, love was her life’s driving force as well as her most common greeting.
I never saw her call anyone anything but “love,” although I didn’t take her up on her offer one day to meet Mayor Daley, so I don’t know how that would have turned out.
In many ways, Beauty she was fully getting launched on her own.
A split with Residents’ Journal after many years had been painful, but she had emerged speaking highly of her former colleagues. The Ghetto and gallery tours had been rousing successes. Her children were doing well and she was working on a book about her life.
She was seemingly midway through her life’s journey and flourishing.
Which is why her death hurts so much.
In the week before she died, she wrote a piece for our publication’s blog about Barack Obama’s election.
In the piece, she recounted dreaming about being back in slavery with prominent black leaders like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and others.
“They told me it was time,” she wrote. “The red blood of our ancestors was crying out from the ground for justice. We danced around flickering candles to the beat of a drum-a Ngoma with the ancestors.”
In Beauty’s vision, Obama emerged in the 21st century eliciting a loud cheer from the people. The three days of rain that followed represented the tears of the people who had been enslaved.
“The ancestors told me to keep him focused concerning the plight of the poor and to tell him, ‘Forget not from which you came!’
Mr. Obama, all eyes of the nations are focused on you; so stay focused on the mission that was ordained by God, which he has laid upon you to do!
Be a president not just for some of the people but for all.”
This was vintage Beauty: the dream, the connection with the ancestors, the joy of the victory, and her mission of urging of those in power to remember the powerless.
Now she is gone, and we are much the poorer for it.
Chicago and the world became a little less brave and a lot less fun on Thursday. Beauty’s death leaves a gaping hole in the city and among the community of people who strive to leave the world better than we found it.
Of course the love she spread and the message of her life will be remembered and honored and heeded by those of us who knew and loved her. Of course her writing and actions and advocacy will endure in all of us.
And the loss is undeniable and heartbreaking.
Thank you, Beauty, for your life.
Thank you for your gifts.
Thank you for your example.
Thank you for your love.
We will miss you. We respect you. And we love you.