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Just as Bronze: Memories of the West Side & Gwendolyn Brooks

Street in Chicago

First, you’ve got to know about Chicago's West Side. Not the West Side of right now, with bland, suspicious dwellings sprouting up in the dead of night and white women slicing through on their Schwinns, hair rippling like a wrong silk. Not the West Side suffering the sudden hilarious appearance of pâtés and confit, slant-rhymed menus scrawled on slates swinging from brass chains, florescence-splashed outlets for designer kale. Not the West Side puffing and huffing, straining to push black folks to its outer edges and then—OK, to someplace else, please, OK? Not even the West Side of murder so sloppily perfected, the city’s famous storybook hell bleeding past its borders, terrifying those who shall be terrified.

Instead, you’ve got to know about the West Side of the early ’60s, after streams of the deceived had poured into its veins with their strapped suitcases and uncontainable dreams. In the South, they had all heard the wild promises of the gilded city—cheap tenements flooded with sun, thousands of assembly line jobs ready and waiting, and a racism that had learned how to whisper. In this promised land, nigger was muttered, not bellowed. It had a smile on its face. It was so much easier to pretend not to hear.

You’ve got to know about the West Side that became the West Side because my God, where are we gonna put all those people with their insufferable wide-eye and twang? Let’s funnel them into this hard space. By the time they realize how wide this lie is, it will already be home. You’ve got to know the West Side of the dawning knowledge, the endless rows of tavern and church, all those streets made up of nothing but corners.

That's the West Side where I grew up, a gangly and unrooted child, one of so many first generation up north. Our parents, blinded by streetlights and short paychecks and Saturday night neon, still faced forward, but were often confounded. The city had a smell layered on top of the same smell they had left down south. It smelled like plastic and crammed shadowboxes and cheap threads trapped in layaway. It smelled like the real hog’s head in the butcher shop window, and that floor of blooded sawdust. It smelled like the same ol’ yessuh and right away, m’am. It smelled like a musty Mr. Crow struttin’ in a pewter sharkskin suit. It still smelled like his side-eye.

But I was a child, and I didn’t know that my parents spent so many evenings shaking their heads, that my father was destined to fall in love with a jukebox, that my mother was destined to fall in love with the Lord. Because a child can make anything good.

There was Garfield Park with its funny ghost of an ice rink, and the raucous barbershop with deep-throated daddies and piney oil rubbed into the whirling chairs. There was church and wobbling elders and tambourines and funny flailing sparked by the Holy Ghost. There was the corner store and then the corner store, and then the other corner store, touting vanilla-iced long johns, wax lips and buck teeth filled with sugar water, pungent pickles wafting in a splintered barrel, and a record player that would play any 45 I asked it to. There was Smokey Robinson and everything Smokey Robinson did and how his slinky hips were beyond my little vocabulary. There was his creamy skin and white-boy waves and the way he made Ooh baby baby rhyme with my plain ol’ name. There was school, even though all I remember is the word anemone. There was my daddy, still thinking he had an Arkansas back porch, leaning back and spouting stories made up of tobacco spittle and sneaky sips of JB and magic.

It didn’t take long, though, to learn that being from the West Side meant being from nowhere good. We were the part of town everyone told everyone else to stay away from, because something swarthy and mercurial swirled within its fringes. We were nappy and boorish. We were undeserving of fresh meat and vegetables that gleamed. No movies came near us. (Well, one did, finally, in the ’70s: The Alex, a theater announced by local fanfare and stuttering neon bulb, but—well, rats. Bold AF. On the seat next to you. ON THE SEAT. Staring transfixed at Cleopatra Jones. Nibbling on popcorn kernels. Then turning to you, like What?) We were isolated, uninvited to a city that blossomed around us. Don’t go downtown. Horrified salesgirls shuddered as we picked up a lipstick in Marshall Field’s, afraid we’d move it to our bubbled lips. May I HELP you? We dressed for fight and flight, PF Flyers and sweat socks pushed down just right on Vaselined calves. We jumped doubledutch like we were possessed and our legs popped such unladylike muscle. Some of our mamas and daddies used all their words wrong and danced all up on each other in places too dark to be righteous. In every house, a fraying picture torn from Jet Magazine. Emmett Till, a lesson in his casket.

Migrants and children of migrants, we were squashed in a shrinking circle bordered by towering housing projects. From the sky, the West Side looked curiously like a target.

There was another side. The South Side, which I knew absolutely nothing about, was Mecca nevertheless. Once I heard that that was where the good black folks lived; I believed it right away. There had to be somewhere to aspire to. I heard tales of neat, squat brick homes with jelly-green lawns. Churches with measured music and manners and not all that wild body heat. Supper clubs. Girls wearing school uniforms and names like Nicole, their hard-ironed pigtails riding perfumed shoulders. Fine boys with curly hair and hazel eyes. Mothers who were teachers and fathers who owned things. Cadillacs sliding down scrubbed boulevards. Bronzeville had it all over my Lawndale.

It was all hearsay, but what beautiful hearsay. I got a cousin on the South Side was like I won at the numbers! The lucky kin, after a weekend visit, would come back with tales of markets bragging rows of polished fruit, whole movies uninterrupted by snooty vermin, and folks who sneered at uncouth phrasing like I ain’t never had—usually mistakenly uttered by a dazzled West Sider, suddenly all out of his or her element.

The South Side—which, mind you, I had never seen—took on an otherworldly glow that I swore I could see when I peered in what I thought was its direction. My friend Jackie once uttered “That’s where all the light-skinned people live,” and from then on, any news from the South Side was like a missive from the moon. The moon was damned beautiful, but nobody was getting there without qualifications.

Enter Gwendolyn Brooks, divine orchestrator of the Chi-town colored girl soundtrack, “reflecting Negro life in a great American city” (so blared the original cover of A Street in Bronzeville). Mind you, not “Negro life on the South Side of a great American city.” Point taken—eventually.

It was through Mama Gwen’s words I realized that the South Side had alleys and pocketed switchblades and back yards as well as front. I learned that the Holy Ghost was frequently in residence, and that stores bulged with layaway-ed flimsy furniture and patent leather Mary Janes. She brought me into the homes of poor people who just happened to be high-yellow, and asked how mere dreams could persevere long enough to win the battle with fried onions and pungent garbage in a tenement hallway. And lo and behold, South Siders were still subjected to white folks’ shudder and side-eye.

Every soul that populated Gwen’s Bronzeville had a parallel soul on the West Side.

On my side of town, Mame’s name was Albertine, and she sang, without microphone or any discernible key, over the blue hoots of men more interested in the swell under her blouse than in the heartbreak in her tired, growled lyrics.

I knew several versions of the gal striding in the salon for a snazzy ’do that would floor her rivals, and my father often reveled in the tale of the quiet factory line worker who inwardly marveled at his employer’s snide stupidity.

Moe Belle Jackson’s West Side counterpart didn’t have a name that I can remember—she just walked into the butcher shop one day, resignedly shuffling in the blood and sawdust, with the entire left side of her face bloomed raw by some man’s fist. The shop customers—including my mother, who warned me Don’t look, don’t look, chile— lowered their eyes and cut a wide path around her.

And The Mother was everywhere—losing her children to the scalpel, to rumbles in alleyways, to the city they were born in.

I know now why I desperately needed for there to be two black Chicagos—because I had not learned to unreservedly love the one I was in. I inherited the slow succumbing of my parents to their less-than-promised-to-them surroundings and consoled myself by aching for the next impossible rung on the ladder. But Gwen’s unswerving stanzas called me out for the fool I was—craving and condoning a separation based on money and skin tone, balancing my wobbly ladder against the wrong wall.

And like a good mama should, she has slapped me straight several times since then.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2017

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...