Chicago musician and actor Clarence Goodman led listeners through Chicago's African American history at the Forest Park Public Library Feb. 23. (Courtesy Clarence Goodman)

Every student at the Forest Park Middle School knows from their African American history that Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable was the first resident of Chicago. They are also familiar with names like Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, and perhaps even know that those two celebrities were responsible for the economic revitalization along Madison Street just west of the Loop.

But how many of those students, or their parents for that matter, know that an African American named Ferdinand Barnett founded the first black newspaper called the Chicago Conservator way back in 1878, or that a black doctor named Daniel Hale Williams founded Provident Hospital in 1891 because at the time black doctors weren’t allowed to work in Chicago hospitals? 

 “I didn’t know that!” was what folks who gathered at the Forest Park Library Sunday afternoon kept exclaiming as they listened to Clarence Goodman’s presentation Chicago’s Black History: from Emancipation to Inauguration. In rapid fire fashion Goodman told the stories of a virtual who’s who in the history of black folk in Chicago from Harriet Tubman to Barack Obama. 

Like the History Detectives on TV, Goodman provided the back stories to many major events. For example, he said that the spark that ignited the race riots in Chicago in 1919 was a black boy unintentionally swimming across an invisible segregation line at the 31st Street beach and dying after being hit in the head by a brick thrown by white bathers, a story similar to the Emmett Till tragedy.

He explained that the Great Migration, documented in the recent best seller The Warmth of Other Suns, was triggered in large part by an insect called the boll weevil which decimated the cotton crop in the South. That, the oppression of Jim Crow and the news that jobs were available in Chicago motivated black people to pull up their roots and start new lives on the south side of Chicago.

Goodman cast new light on the images of Aunt Jemima on bags of pancake mix and Uncle Ben on boxes of rice. He explained that up until the turn of the century, African Americans were portrayed as lazy or stupid or worse. At least, he pointed out, these two images, although they were stereotypical caricatures in one sense, in another sense were used by white people as positive pictures to promote their products.

After being reminded of the long history of black culture in Chicago—from the activism of Ida B. Wells to the Gospel music of Thomas Dorsey to the political success of Harold Washington—one of the people in the audience asked Goodman, “How do you feel about the black community today as opposed to the richness culture that we had decades? What happened?” The woman, herself an African American, was implying that black culture in Chicago had lost at least a little bit of its “soul.”

“I think,” replied Goodman, “it’s because of the systemic use of internalized racism. We in the black community have been taught to hate ourselves.” He pointed to Michael Jackson as exhibit A. “The message we’ve been getting for a long time is that our natural beauty is not beautiful. Something is wrong with our hair so we dyed it, fried it and laid it to the side. Let’s bleach our skin. The biggest black popular singer of all time was Michael Jackson. What message did he send? It was a sin to be a black person with a wide nose and big lips.”

“If you are growing up a black boy,” he continued, “you’re worried about making it to your 20th birthday, and you’re hearing those messages of not being worth much. If you are a black boy with no father figure what do you do? You hang out with the guys and try to be accepted. Peer pressure.”

Indeed, changing how African Americans view themselves has been a major theme of black writers for over a century. Ferdinand Barnett started the Chicago Conservator newspaper in 1878 in part to show that there were many voices in the black community. Robert Sengstacke Abbot began publishing the Chicago Defender in 1905 in large part to influence black folk in the South to migrate north in search of a better life. Ebony Magazine, first published by John Johnson in 1945, has shared the stories of successful African Americans with millions of readers.

The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the big personalities of boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, the election of Harold Washington and then of Barak Obama—each was used by Goodman as evidence that the image—and more specifically the self-image—of African Americans in this country is changing.

“If Chicago is a quilt composed of many pieces,” Goodman declared, “the African American experience is one of the essential ones.”