Dawn Turner Looks Back on Her ’70s Girlhood, and Those Who Got Left Behind

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tags: African American history, Chicago, 1970s, urban history

Publishing is littered with timeworn tales of resilience and redemption — stories of exceptional people who, with grit and pluck, good luck and supportive mentors, clawed their way out of poverty to reach the heights of mainstream success. From tragedy to triumph, homelessness to Harvard.

Dawn Turner’s wholehearted memoir, “Three Girls From Bronzeville,” is not one of those tales. Turner, a former columnist for The Chicago Tribune and the author of two novels, interrupts the monolithic narrative of Black Chicago as ruined and broken, as well as the one-note stereotypes about growing up in public housing. In their place she offers a textured portrait of a moment in time in a particular place: the 1970s in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that was the landing place for most of the city’s hundreds of thousands of new Black residents who’d fled the terrorism of the Jim Crow South beginning in the early 20th century. There, according to Turner’s grandmother — who came up from Mississippi in the first wave of the Great Migration — they did what Black people have always done: “We took a bunch of scraps and stitched together a world.”

In episodic chapters that read like self-contained short stories woven together into a whole, Turner seeks to understand how three Black girls with very similar aspirations ended up with wildly divergent fates. Turner, her younger sister, Kim, and her best friend, Debra, were raised in the same environment, a land of milk and honey soured by neglect both benign and intentional — redlining, contract buying and other policies that extracted Black wealth, opportunity and hope. Bronzeville “specialized in the broken, the halved,” Turner writes, “a walled-off world away.”

But as this book shows, it wasn’t only that. In the clotheslines that stretched between buildings one could see the full spectrum of economic circumstances in the community: “The steel-mill workers’ jumpsuits scarred by flames. The bloodstained slaughterhouse workers’ aprons. The medical students’ monogrammed lab coats. The print blouses and A-line skirts of schoolteachers and social workers. All spirited by the wind, swaying and dancing on the lines.”

Driving Turner’s narrative is a vexing question that continues to haunt her: How did she manage to accumulate the signifiers of success — a college degree, a career, a husband, a home outside the city — while Kim lost a baby as a teenager, sank into alcoholism and died of a heart attack at 23; and Debra battled drug addiction and eventually shot a man to death?

Turner’s suspension between two worlds provides an ideal vantage for the book. Even when she leaves Bronzeville, she never leaves it behind. Like the poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, she is a native daughter of Black Chicago with a bone-deep knowledge of the place and its people. Rather than judge her friend and sister for their choices, she holds fast to her through line: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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