John Fountain: Soul arises, soul survives, in Chicago

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“Monument to the Great Northern Migration,” by Alison Saar, is located at King Drive and 26th Place. | Sun-Times library

This week’s column is an excerpt from a spoken word piece I have written that will be presented by singer-songwriter Christine Whack as part of Orbert Davis’ “Soul Migration” premier at 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on the opening evening of this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival.

Soul migration celebration. Apocalyptic reverberations. Transatlantic Middle Passage. Sandwiched huddled human masses. I taste the salty breath of death as a slave ship passes.

Anchoring in American ports of hate. Transported to southern plantations cruel and sunbaked. Stripped of language, culture and freedom’s imaginations. By fear and the gun, we suffer slave indoctrination. Soul deprivation.

Soul arises. Soul survives…


Massa’s lash upon our backs. Keloid scars where the skin once cracked. And the blood ran warm. Our babies born into incarceration generation after generation. Human property to a hypocritical nation. Our blood, sweat and skin at its foundation. Pure evil manifestation — 250 years to The Great Emancipation.

We stood. Filled with bittersweet sensations in fiery winds of subjugation. White rationalization, painting in broad strokes of Black Code justification as Jim Crow spread like fresh morning dew. And the horror of American slavery was born anew: Bone-breaking, lynch-making, life-taking, Godforsaken hate. Our souls at stake.

Soul arises. Soul survives…

By our culture, soul and hands, we transformed this land. Laborers in industry. Interwoven in the city’s tapestry. Black Mecca — Chicago. Transplant Home of the Delta blues. Birthplace of Gospel Music. And Chicago Defender news. Inspiration for Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” and “Native Son.” City from where we shouted, “Run Jesse Run.”

Setting for Lorraine Hansberry’s, “A Raisin In The Sun.” Where a renaissance in Bronzeville was birthed by migrant daughters and sons, like Louis Armstrong, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ida B. Wells. Where the election of Harold Washington made our hearts swell. Like the election of a migrant son to the highest office in the land: Barack Obama as President, the first African American.

And yet, Soul cries…

Metropolis, rising like skyscrapers tickling cotton clouds. We stood proud. Fists clenched around that check once marked “insufficient funds,” believing our time had finally come. Though later realizing it was only for some — as integration proved a one-way street. And upward social mobility predestined some of us to flee.

Soul cries…

For hope became the hood. And the hood forsook the good of the soul as crack-cocaine laid hold. And the powers-that-be neglected and stole. And guns and gangs grew like wild weeds — so bold. And systemic racial oppression and schemes untold isolated the hood, caused the hood to implode. The evaporation of a dream, like wisps of steam.

Or was it all just a scheme? How can life in the city be so cold and mean?

And “strange fruit” appears again — in a once Promised Land, where black folks perish mostly by black folks’ hands. And the children die, their blood cries under a school-day sun, where they dream of escaping bloody pools that run, sometimes like rivers here on the darkest side of fear. Cascading waterfalls of endless tears. Beneath the veneer in the Promised Land, where genocide and mass incarceration gnaw at the soul of a nation.

Soul cries. For Soul yearns to survive.

Soul — breath, life, metaphysical translucent indomitable essence whose presence drifts from the bowels of history. Along the continuum of eternity. Soul — that still speaks from the graves of our ancestors of slavery. That endows courage and bravery.

Soul — spirit that sails on the winds of hope. That sings only one note. That captures fear and conquers feeble imaginations. That preserved us through Jim Crow and segregation. That whispered harmonies and melodies. Of rhapsodies sublime. That soothed our wounds and healed our minds. Soul.

Even amid apocalyptic reverberations, amid genocide, poverty, racism and mass incarceration, even amid premature autopsies on the death of a nation, the depths of our soul will be our salvation.

For Soul arises. Soul survives…


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