Monday, August 8, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Many novelists often claim their fiction is not autobiographical; yet reading about Mama Pearl and Amy one wonders if the inspiration for the creation of these characters didn't come from your mother, wife and aunts. Is this possible? How does an author, turn a real person into fiction and then create something fictional that seems real?"

 Some literary scholars have pointed out that very few autobiographical details work their way into my novels and stories. From my perspective, there isn't much "drama" in a life that has been devoted to just study and work. But the one exception to this is Dreamer, and for reasons I'll explain.
Dr. King's only northern campaign in Chicago began in 1966, the year I was a senior at Evanston Township High School. Although all my energies were focused on graduation, I remember well the turmoil created by this campaign, which is seldom written about or discussed---certainly not to the same degree as his more successful ones in Montgomery and Birmingham. When writing Dreamer, I covered in that novel the years 1966 to 1968 for a couple of reasons. (1) Because the last few years of King's life before his assassination in Memphis, the years after his major triumphs and the Nobel Peace Prize, highlight the complexities of his approach to the black liberation struggle as well as his transition from being a civil rights leader to an international advocate for peace and a champion of the poor. And (2) Because the site of this campaign, Chicago and its environs, is a geography I knew well. I was born, raised, married, and worked there as a young journalist on The Chicago Tribune, and my first book was published in that city.

 Naturally, then, I saw this story that details King's Chicago campaign as the occasion for invoking that city and my hometown, Evanston, at a certain moment in its history. I'm very pleased when readers tell me they can't tell where fact ends and fiction begins in the novel's portrait of King. The good doctor never visited the suburban township of Evanston, but I have him do so in the novel, speaking at a disguised version of Springfield Baptist Church (It's called Calvary A.M.E. in the novel), which was built by my great-uncle William Johnson (I renamed him Bob Jackson),our family patriarch who built churches, residences, and apartment buildings all over the North Shore area. He's the one responsible for my father, uncles and aunts moving from South Carolina to Evanston because in the '40s he offered them work with his all-black construction company. 
 The novel doesn't contain any events or facts from my own biography, but it does offer references to real places and people I wanted to honor, like Dr. Elizabeth Hill who in the 1940s almost single-handily brought about the creation of all-black Community Hospital (where I was born; I renamed it Center Hospital)) because at that time Evanston Hospital did not take black people, which meant she had to take her patients to a hospital on Chicago's South Side, and many died during that long ride. All my black friends when I was a kid were delivered by Dr. Hill (in the novel she is called Jennifer Hale), who kept track of and remembered me even when I was in my early twenties.
 These rare "autobiographical" elements in Dreamer (it's better maybe just to call them "historical") are, or so I hope, an exercise in capturing the "spirit of place" of my past, an exercise one might refer to as "Speak, memory." Mama Pearl is literally based on one of my poor, Chicago in-laws----the remarks she makes in the novel are from notes I took on her in the mid-1970s. The Black People's Liberation Library is based on the Black People's Topographical Library, a place my wife and I visited once when we were dating in 1969. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Evanston was an unusual, special place in the shadow of Northwestern University. One woman I know who grew up in Chicago once told me, "Oh, Evanston? That's where the uppity niggers lived." I could only laugh at her remark because black people in Evanston during my childhood were proud (or "uppity," thinking quite highly of themselves) and industrious, most of the men being tradesmen of one sort or another, and we formed a very tight, mutually supportive community with roots than ran deep in the black church. In his book, Charles Johnson's Fiction (University of Illinois Press, 2003), literary scholar William Nash did solid, shoes-in-the-dirt research on black people in my home town and portrays them accurately. So does Linda Furgerson Selzer in Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).
But that "world" is gone now. As someone once wrote, you can never go home again. Except, perhaps, in a work of fiction.

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