Sweet Home Chicago


In 1949 and 50, I felt like an only child when the others were off at school, while I stayed at home with Mom. God knows she couldn’t watch me every minute as my attention took me from an ant, to a flower, to a butterfly, out of sight, out of mind and on to infinity. So Nature spirits watched and guided me as I wandered in the open, urban fields of my far Southside neighborhood in Chicago. They talked to me and taught me through my senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. Can you imagine, from the ages of 2 to 5 my Mother referred to me as her “Wandering Jew”. Periodically throughout my life, people who knew nothing of my childhood, have with affection and exasperation pinned that archetypal tag on me.

It was there in those urban fields while in a real trance state, watching spiders weave or listening to the symphony of wind, birds, insects and the repetitive whistle-whine of a distant conveyor belt from the coal yard that I began to discover my muses. There was also the voice of Mahalia Jackson: regal, majestic, and ecstatic, like a mountain singing, her powerful handclaps punctuating the story of victory with thunder. Riding the bus through the Southside, a visual stream of consciousness bombarded my senses. There was Charlie the Chicken Man with one of his friends perched on his head. There was some unknown woman passing the bus stop lipstick, perfume, powder, hair piled high with the rhythm and rhyme of clicking heels on pavement, above her swaying hips a sympathetic counter rhythms in sound and motion. Although she’s telling a story that captures my attention, I won’t understand the meaning till much later. At another corner we passed a sanctified church with tambourines, piano, drums and voices levitating the whole block. At the next corner the Howlin’ Wolf was doing the same thing from the juke box, telling the story of how many of us came to Chicago, Smokestack Lightnin’.

I lived in a world where consciously and unconsciously the sacred and sexual were almost always intertwined whether one was consciously or unconsciously a saint or a sinner. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint goin’ there! Going with Dad and Granpa to their favorite bar, I learned that some pretty righteous people held church perched from a barstool bestowing wisdom, counsel and blessing. Or the poetry you could hear in a barbershop through animated conversations amongst Black men in give and take! It was a symphony of verbiage in swiftly changing movements. Where did I get my esthetic of writing and performance? Well, mostly not at the University.