Our Pledge To You


Abena Joan Brown, mother of Chicago’s black arts community, dies

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Abena Joan Brown loved the souls of black folk.

She loved our dance, our music, our art and our capacity to build something that would outlast our own mortality.

For Brown, that something was the ETA Creative Arts Theater at 75th and South Chicago where she was at the helm for more than 40 years before stepping down in 2011.

Considered by many to be the mother of Chicago’s black arts community, Brown passed away on Sunday.

An artist, as well as a social worker, Brown was part of the generation of African-Americans who created to uplift the lives of black people, and not solely for profit.

Because of the commitment of people like Brown, the Chicago black arts community became a beacon for artists across the country.


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Playwright and black theater expert, Paul Carter Harrison, called Brown an “iconic figure” that was known nationally and internationally.

“She was a woman who had formidable views about what was the best practices in African-American artwork,” Harrison said.

“She had a whole cultural view that she pursued in terms of production. She was an authentic person, and was not trying to work according to somebody else’s design, and certainly not a design described by the establishment,” he said.

Carol Adams, a community activist and former CEO of Du Sable Museum, said Brown gave us a place where we could celebrate ourselves.

“We always knew our voices were voices that she was going to amplify,” Adams said.

Brown left her mark not only on numerous African-American institutions in the city but on the men and women behind those institutions.

“If it hadn’t been for Abena Joan Brown, I would have never gone to graduate school in 1969,” said Conrad Worrill, director of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies.

“She used her prestige of being one of a few black graduates of the [School of Social Service Administration] at the University of Chicago to challenge the university [on diversity], and fought to open up the doors,” he said.

Part of Brown’s love for the black arts community was her love for the continent of Africa.

For decades, she took young people to West Africa to expose them to art, music and dance.

“She took so many people to Africa through her ‘Africa Express’ group there developed an alumni group,” Worrill said.

Despite her national and international travel, Brown still managed to play a major role in helping other cultural institutions develop the infrastructure needed to be sustainable, including the world-renowned Muntu Dance Company.

“Chicago was known for creating the most independent black institutions coming out of the ‘60s, and she was at the forefront of this institution building,” noted Haki Madhubuti, an internationally acclaimed poet and founder of Third World Press.

“Abena never made excuses for being black. She was affirmative around all that she did. She brought some of the best black theater in the country to Chicago,” he said.

Useni Perkins, a playwright, poet and activist, said Brown was driven by her love of and her commitment to black people.

“I can think of no cultural institution that she did not have her hands on in terms of leadership and in terms of being a role model. Writers, poets, playwrights, we all appreciated and loved Abena Joan Brown,” Perkins said.

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