As the city of Chicago blows out its birthday candles this weekend, Kevin Coval is clearing the smoke with the real and sometimes forgotten stories of the city’s working-class heroes. Beginning on March 4, the poet and activist who is also behind Young Chicago Authors and the annual Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry festival will embark on a one-year mission of readings and events sharing “A People’s History of Chicago.” It’s the title of his eighth book, a collection of 77 poems representing the city’s 77 diverse neighborhoods and the people within them.
A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF CHICAGO LAUNCH
(A Louder Than a Bomb event)
When: 6 p.m. March 4
Where: Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State
“Chicago has a bad habit of not really claiming our own, and I wanted to share some of those victories working people have had throughout the course of our history,” he says of the intent behind his latest works, which fittingly will be released by the Haymarket Books imprint in April. “They’re profound stories that we can continue to learn a lot from right now and maybe provide some blueprints about how we might alleviate the circumstances of terror, injustice and havoc that are typically reaped upon the poor and working people of color in the city. …By leaning into that history we can continue to push forward.”
Alongside illustrations by Hebru Brantley, Paul Branton, Runsy and Max Sansing, Coval pays homage to the mercenaries in Chicago over the past 180 years in a trademark full-mouthed style. There are pieces about The Great Migration and The Eastland Disaster, about cultural icons (“Muddy Waters Goes Electric” and “Studs Terkel Drops a Mixtape), about historical events (“Martin Luther King Prays in Marquette Park” and “I Wasn’t in Grant Park When Obama Was Elected”) and about the brave actions of a few (“Republic Window Workers Sit In,” referencing the labor strike in 2002 and “Dia De Las Madres” inspired by the 19-day hunger strike in 2001 led by mothers pressuring CPS for a new high school in Little Village).
“Of course I leave out many people and giant gaps of the full story, but part of the whole idea of the book and the year-long events is to also to have people I meet along the way begin to fill in some of those spaces,” Coval says of a planned online archive of stories that will evolve and live on “in perpetuity.”
It’s a style of utilitarian art he gleaned from one of his idols, the late great Gwendolyn Brooks. “She talked about reporting conditions in front of your nose and using those as way to begin to think about and elevating stories around us,” he says. “She found art in the every day.” As such, Coval has branded the theme of this year’s Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) festival as “Our Gwendolyn Brooks” in celebration of the centennial of Illinois’ former poet laureate.
For Coval, that’s because the mission is not just to look back but also push forward with a new crop of young writers. In his early 20s in 2001 he founded LTAB, also known as the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival (a documentary was released in 2010). And since, he has become artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, a communal “safe space” for local youth at 1180 N. Milwaukee, which he zips to the morning of our interview.
“It’s as much a youth cultural center as it is site for creation of new literature; those things have everything to do with one another,” Coval says, admonishing other cultural institutions, including schools, for too often criminalizing young people as soon as they walk in the door.
“One of the things we seek to do is to create a different cultural sphere where young people can feel free,” he says, proud to be hosting the longest running youth open mic in the country. “It’s a powerful thing to hear them when they are themselves, unapologetic.”
The list of alumni that have come out of the program, which regularly draws upwards of 1,100 teenagers, is proof of its success and its power. Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Noname and Chance the Rapper (who also writes the foreword to “A People’s History of Chicago”) are just some of the individuals that have been inspired by Coval, who is in many ways credited with fostering the new class of Chicago hip-hop. In a show of support, local footworker Litebulb also helped Coval release a new music video bringing to life one of his new poems.
“We are really in a cultural renaissance. I think these artists are changing the way work listens to and receives music,” says Coval, recalling how he, as a young Jewish kid growing up in the suburbs, also found his cultural pulse through hip-hop. “A large portion of this new book is what I’ve been doing for a long time. Ever since I was handed a record and read through the liner notes, I went digging. I read a lot, researched and found materials that resonated with me beyond the narrow whitewashed canon I got in classrooms,” he says. “Which teaches you about the folks we ought to champion throughout history.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.