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McClain's Pain

Chicago famously taught the late Tribune editorial writer Leanita McClain, the first African American to serve in that function at the paper, to hate white people, as she told the nation in the pages of the Washington Post in 1983.

McClain, who had suffered from depression through much of her life, committed suicide a year later.

The 25th anniversary of her death just passed us on May 30th. Here are a few links and comments that appeared around town, followed by excerpts from Gary Rivlin's indispensable Fire On The Prairie about McClain's frustrations inside (and out of) the Trib newsroom.

*

- "Twenty five years ago today, I discovered that Leanita McClain, my friend and colleague, was dead," writes former Trib colleague Monroe Anderson. "It was a suicide that came as no surprise to me. For more hours than I care to remember, I sat in her office at the Chicago Tribune joking, cajoling and questioning her repeated proclamation that she was going to kill herself.

"During these discussions, I'd asked why. 'There are black women who'd give their right arm to be where you are,' I'd argue.

"'But, I'm not happy,' she'd counter."

- "This prolific columnist struggled with racism in the newsroom, and it's an issue that resonated with WBEZ's South Side reporter Natalie Moore."

- See also Moore's "Who Was Leanita McClain? Why An Old Chicago Story of Race, Reporting And Suicide Remain Important Today" at The Root.

- And from Rivlin . . .

In the days before McClain took her life, [Lois] Wille, one of McClain's white colleagues on the Tribune editorial board, says she saw her friend working late in her office with the lights off. She asked if there was anything she could do.

"Don't worry about me. I'm fine," McClain replied, her hands cupping her face.

Then McClain didn't come to work.

*

On Palm Sunday, [Harold] Washington was scheduled to attend services at a northwest side church. He arrived to find a mob of around two hundred whites, their faces flushed with anger, blocking the church's entrance. The words NIGGER DIE were freshly painted across a set of church doors. The crowd taunted and jeered Washington, successfully turning him away. Chicago, the Tribune's Leanita McClain wrote, was becoming "positively antebellum."

*

Leanita McClain walked into the Tribune the morning after Washington's primary victory expecting a noisy newsroom alive with talk. She looked forward to teasing the colleagues with whom she had been jousting for weeks - colleagues who couldn't believe Washington might actually win. If nothing else, McClain, the first black to sit on the paper's editorial board, expected congratulations. The one thing she didn't figure on was the silence that would begin the seven most agonizing weeks of her life.

*

For weeks no one could talk about anything else. The cliche about Chicago was true: its citizen follow local politics with the same fervor they do the Cubs and Bears. Despite the great upset the city had witnessed the night before, the newsroom that morning was quite and sullen, as if someone had just died. "Like attending a wake," said Tribune reporter Monroe Anderson. No white, McClain said, could look her in the eye. "There was that forced quality, an awkwardness, an end to spontaneity, even fear," she said. She overheard cracks about declining property values and white flight, jokes she found "unforgivably insensitive." Even "the more open-minded of my fellow journalists" failed me, McClain wrote.

McClain dressed in silk blouses and vacationed in Europe with black and white friends. She was raised in the Ida B. Wells projects, named for a crusading black journalist, but she now lived in a lakefront high rise in a trendy north side neighborhood. She had survived the inner city and made it in the white world, yet she was constantly hustled by old acquaintances from her childhood. Occasionally she bumped into an aunt who worked as a cleaning lady for a white couple who lived nearby. A girl she had shared her dolls with was trapped on welfare with five children; a boy she had been sweet on way back when was in prison for murder. Black militants occasionally accused her of forgetting her roots. "A foot in each world," McClain once described it in an essay appearing in Newsweek magazine. "I am a member of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success."

McClain shook her head at liberal acquaintances who sought her out as a friend, as if she were some sort of personal affirmative action statistic. She mocked those who believed the world was racially enlightened "because they were the first on their block to discuss crabgrass with the new black family." Yet she wasn't the sort to get into a white person's face. By nature she resided safely in the middle between conflicting points of view. One of her Tribune confidants, Monroe Anderson, invariably gave the same feedback whenever McClain asked for it on one of her columns. "You're equivocating, Lee," he would tell her. "Choose one side or the other." But it was as if her unique perspective as someone who understood both sides of urban life prevented her from slighting one world for the other.

She viewed herself as a bridge between disparate worlds. "Whites must stop thinking that every black teenager . . . is a thug," McClain had written during the primary, "and blacks might accept that more than a few whites genuinely understand and sympathize with them. Whites might think deeper about historic an socioeconomic reasons - not excuses - for black shortcomings and not brush aside a race of people as hopeless and hopelessly all the same, with the exception of a few mutant achievers."

The primary had been difficult for McClain. She laughed bitterly over the Tribune's Daley endorsement - and endorsement for which McClain, as one of seven sitting on the Tribune's editorial board, was in part responsible, though she had pushed for Washington. "When death finally took the mayor's office away from one Richard Daley in 1976 after twenty-one years," the Tribune editorial began, "It was impossible to imagine a set of circumstances under which this newspaper would recommend that the people give it back to a second Richard Daley." "Same old Trib," she would say.

Her paper's coverage of Ed Vrdolyak's "it's a racial thing" speech was another sore point. Incredibly, the Democratic party chairman's declaration that the election represented a battle between the races was buried on page eighteen, in the last three paragraphs in an article the Daley campaign. ("This account ranks as the scoop of the election," wrote journalism professor Ralph Whitehead, Jr., in the Columbia Journalism Review, "and there is no reference to it in the headline.") McClain used humor as a shield, those who knew her said, but in February 1983 her armaments were wearing thin.

"My transformation began the morning after Washington's primary victory," McClain would write. Suddenly, Chicago seemed a "sick, twisted" place, oppressive and harsh. She was especially angry at herself for only now realizing how far she had strayed. "I'd be a liar if I did not admit to my own hellish confusion. How has a purebred moderate like me - the first black editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune - turned into a hate-filled spewer of invective in such little time?"

*

McClain renamed the man-in-the-street interviews that reporters conducted to get a feel for the electorate "bigot-in-the-street interviews," for these exchanges revealed the preeminence of race on the minds of many white voters. ("That is what is wrong with this town," McClain wrote. "Being a racist is as respectable and expected as going to church.")

*

Something was up for Leanita - even acquaintances could see the change. Everyone knew she was a woman with a dark side, but she seemed suddenly aloof and distant. And what about that time she and the rest of the Tribune editorial board were watching the television news on the day Jane Byrne announced her write-in candidacy? McClain spat out a curse and abruptly left the room. That wasn't the Leanita McClain people had come to know.

They could understand how hard it must be for a black woman to listen to this election garbage; they didn't broach the subject that was so unpleasant, and besides, the wall that she had erected around herself made it nearly impossible. But some colleagues felt resentful. She avoiding eating lunch with them, avoided chats in the corridors. It was as if she was blaming them.

McClain's colleagues would wonder no longer after a piece appeared under her byline in the Washington Post. The headline seemed to say it all: How Chicago Taught Me To Hate Whites.

Yeah, something was definitely up with Leanita.

*

The force of the Post piece was its intimacy. She wrote of the bouts of sullenness the election provoked. She would stare at her word processor pretending to write as she silently cried. Maybe it was anger, maybe frustration; probably it was both. What do these white people want from us? she felt like screaming. She commiserated with Monroe Anderson, the only black Tribune reporter covering the campaign. Anderson was the buoyant sort, McClain explained to her Post readers, a devil-may-care type whose sense of humor rarely failed him. Yet Anderson would return from the grim realities of the outside world, slouch in a chair in McClain's office, and just stare at the floor. McClain wrote of another black colleague and the anxiety she felt when she realized she could not bring herself to eat lunch with a white colleague with whom she was close. If the campaign had become a race war, their relationship was one of its casualties.

The reaction of those around her brought about an epiphany in McClain. I'm threatening, she told herself in disbelief. Jesse Jackson, Renault Robinson, Lu Palmer - and also Leanita McClain, moderate but also ecstatic about Harold Washington's victory. And that makes me threatening. She wrote of white co-workers cutting off their conversation when a black reporter happened by. "I'm not racist, but . . . " If she heard that one more time, she thought she would explode. She confessed that she suddenly detested the "antiseptic suburban worlds" enjoyed by her editorial board colleagues, narrow and privileged, ignorant and naive, yet considering themselves informed and progressive on matters of race. There was the white colleague who stopped by to tell her why he could not vote for Washington, as if her office was a confessional.

Worse still were those who equated the white backlash against Washington with black pride. Under different circumstances she might have pointed out the innumerable times blacks supported a white candidate over a serious black challenger, and how rare it was fo rthe opposite to occur. But she didn't feel like playing the mediator who patiently bridges the gaps of racial misunderstanding.

She could not pretend that everything was okay. She wondered why in the past she had been so quick to offer a strained smile and play along with those who she suspected had cultivated her friendship to prove that blacks and whites could get along. Everyone but the bigots confused her. "I distanced myself from everyone white, watching, listening, for hints of latent prejudice," she wrote. She contemplated each long and hard before inviting a person back into her life - or banishing him or her forever.

There was "Kay" - bouncy, smiling Kay who, McClain wrote, "had used me all these years, like a black pet, to prove her liberalism." She wrote that she would explain to Kay "that having one black person - me - on her Christmas card list did not make her socially aware." And "Clark" - she concluded that Clark was disingenuous. Clark she would bar form her office for no other reason than his white skin. Maybe then he would know a taste of what it was like.

"Nan" - McClain contemplated Nan only a moment before concluding that Nan was sincere. Nan gave of herself to help the poor, and the two always spoke intimately about race. Most whites at work avoided even mentioning race, as if avoiding the topic altogether was somehow progressive minded. "Lydia" also passed, but "Ken" - sensitive, cultured, cerebral Ken . . . she could not make up her mind.

The election, she wrote, left "me torn as never before." The election turned her upside down, leaving her to wonder who she really was. The "double consciousness," W.E.B. DuBois called it, born of being both African and American. How far can an Afro-American venture into the heart of white society, DuBois asked without losing him or herself? After the election McClain moved to Hyde Park, closer to her south side roots. It was her silent protest against the hypocrisy of her north side neighbors. She dreamed black nationalist thoughts, contemplating the advantages of a "black homeland where we would never nave to see a white face again." The election left her confused, she wrote, but clear on one important fact: "I now know that I can hate."

*

Both Epton and Washington were blamed by the newspapers for ignoring the issues, though it was Epton who could talk about little else but Washington's misdeeds. It was as if objectivity meant nothing more than condemning both sides equally. Worse still was a Tribune editorial that declared, "Regardless of the outcome, there will be no cause for celebration . . . What has made this election such a sorry spectacle is that . . . two candidats [were] so unprepared to handle it." How much better it would have been, the Tribune opined, "if the first black . . . had been a widely known and respected community leader."

In conversations with McClain and also in print, colleagues complained that Washington wasn't doing enough to allay white fears. Why wasn't Washington appearing in the white community more? they asked. The columnists hammered at Washington and yet didn't chide Epton for ignoring the black community. Washington made countless more appearances on the northwest and southwest sides than Epton made in the black community. "He hasn't been invited," explained Epton's press secretary.

The local reporters were preoccupied with the national media's characterization of Chicago as the capital of hate and racism. Several columnists blasted these "suitcase journalists" whose views were - as one wrote - "skewed, flawed and more inciting than insightful." In her Post piece McClain parodied the jingoism of these Chicago boosters. "Curses on any outsider who would dare say Chicago has a race problem," she wrote. "What race problem?" The Sun-Times ran an election wrap-up piece under the headline HOW WHITE VOTE SPELLED VICTORY, and an op-ed column proclaiming that those white ethnics voting for Washington were the "unsung story" of the election. The powers-that-be were already busy trying to appear over the stain left by Chicago's election.

Not that McClain believed the national media worthy of praise. Time magazine in particular infuriated her. Time dismissed Washington as "an undistinguished congressman," despite his leadership role in the anti-Reagan fight. "And because there is otherwise so little to choose between the two lackluster candidates," the newsweekly continued, "the outcome will surely be . . . a litmus test on color." How little Time understood.

McClain also suffered the disappointment of Mike Royko. She loved reading Royko. "It would be wonderful," Royko wrote during the primary, "if Chicagoans put their prejudices aside and simply voted for the candidate who appeared to be the most intelligent, thoughtful, and forthright and who presented the best programs. If that ever happened, Washington probably could start planning his victory party." The day after Washington won the primary, Royko wrote, "Washington's credentials for this office exceed those of Byrne, Bilandic, Richard J. Daley . . . and most of the men who have held the office of mayor." He described him as a "smart, witty, politically savvy old pro . . . far more understanding of the fears and fantasies of Chicago whites than we are of the frustrations of Chicago's blacks." Of Epton, Royko wrote, "And, boy, if Epton is anything, he is the perfect example of 'any white candidate'."

Yet, incredibly, Royko led his April 12, election day, column this way: "If a pollster asked me how I was going to vote today, I'd have to tell him to list me in the undecided column." He lamented the choice between a "kook" and a "crook." The cranky and sardonic persona that McClain had always enjoyed suddenly struck her as callous, cold, and crude. In her mind she crossed a line through Royko's name.

-

Comments welcome.

-

1. From Kenan Heise 3/2013:

I was a reporter (actually the Action Line column editor) during Leanita McClain's tenure at the Chicago Tribune.

Even though my seniority with the Tribune in 1983 was already 20 years, she had an enormous impact on my career and the paper itself.

In 1981, she gave my career an extraordinary boost by publishing on her first day as editor of the Perspective section a full page-and-a-half group interview by myself with 15 poor people in Uptown. The paper's editor was so pleased that he gave me a column that afforded me the chance for two-and-a-half years to write a weekly column of interviewing groups of Chicagoans of my choice.

These eventually included women and men in Cook County Jail, mothers in the inner city Fifth City neighborhood, teenagers who sold drugs on the street, people in a soup kitchen line, garbage collectors, etc. A subsequent column included beggars on the bridges of Chicago. If she had not done what she did with that first interview, none of this could have happened.

I was told when the column ended that it had changed the newspaper. I was named the chief obituary writer of the paper in 1983 and, in this position, earned recognition for throughly integrating the obit page racially, economically, politically and gender-wise.

My recently published The Book Of The Book contains part of the interview column Leanita published and a number of the interview columns I wrote. My soon-to-be published He Writes About Us's title comes from an African-American novelist's comment about my writing obits about blacks.

Leanita was a friend but what she did through me was one of the many successful efforts she made in opening up the Chicago Tribune and Chicago journalism to people of color and women.

I am grateful to her and proud to have served beside her. I wished I had spelled this out for more clearly when she was alive.



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Posted on June 18, 2009


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