Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Chicago State loss is Depaul's gain

He's swapping one iconic black heroine for another. Haki Madhubuti, the founder
and director emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University,
has been named DePaul University's new Ida B. Wells-Barnett university professor.
This fall he will teach two classes, lecture and conduct faculty workshops on race
at DePaul.

The Brooks and Wells-Barnett legacies are precious cargo. Brooks succeeded the
poet Carl Sandburg as Illinois' poet laureate. In 1950 she became the first African
American to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her book Annie Allen.

Wells-Barnett was a fearless firebrand, a journalist-activist who deployed investigative
reporting to expose the scourge of lynching in the American South.

These ladies did not play.

Madhubuti knows. The career poet, publisher, editor and educator was a mentee and
member of Brooks' "extended family." Before her death in 2000, Brooks entrusted
Madhubuti with her literary memory.

Madhubuti is departing his longtime stint at Chicago State in the wake of fierce controversy.
He was pushed out after 26 years after he criticized the appointment of Wayne Watson
as the new president at the beleaguered and struggling South Side school.

Madhubuti is moving on, but his voice was edged with bitterness over the battle with Watson.
"The president was making it uncomfortable for me," he said last week over the phone.
"I've done what I can do."

If there's one thing you'll do at DePaul, I asked, what would it be?

"To make clear that even though we have elected a black president, race is still the untold
issue and metaphor in this country, and at some point we have to deal with it."

More than a century ago, Ida B. Wells was dealing with it. Born in 1872 to former slaves
in Holly Springs, Miss., she rose to become a black educator-turned-journalist-turned-women's
suffragist-turned-supreme agitator.

One of my favorite Wells quotes still resonates today: "The appeal to the white man's pocket
has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience."

Wells spearheaded more causes than I can count. She teamed up with Susan B. Anthony
and Jane Addams to push for women's suffrage. She was a co-founder of the NAACP (much
to the chagrin of her male competitors). Her keynote skill was brilliantly biting investigative
reporting that exposed the trumped-up lynchings of hundreds of black men. She published
her prolific chronicles of the racist bloodletting in a pamphlet, aptly named "A Red Record."
Her reporting on the barbarism led to the establishment of anti-lynching laws.

And she was so Chicago. Wells moved here and launched a crusade to open up the
1893 World's Columbian Exposition to black participation.

She married Frederick Barnett in her adopted city, had four children and continued her
activism from her Bronzeville home until she died in 1931 at 68.

I am especially keen on Madhubuti's new gig, since I was honored to hold the Wells-Barnett
chair from 2003 to 2009. While at DePaul, I strived to elevate and emulate Wells' fight
for racial justice. It wasn't easy.

Tragically, most know Wells-Barnett only for her namesake -- the Ida B. Wells Homes
on Chicago's South Side. The public housing development opened in 1941 as a vessel
of hope -- to provide decent homes for thousands of low-income black families transitioning
from poverty to sustainability. But the development and its families eventually spiraled
into disgrace, the victims of official neglect, rampant crime and abject poverty.
It was demolished several years ago.

Wells-Barnett's memory must stand. African-American legacies are fragile, but priceless.
Good luck to Madhubuti. Kudos to DePaul for continuing the professorship.

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