Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 47-59
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Chicago as the Northernmost County of Mississippi
I was born August 27, 1960, in Saint Joseph's Hospital, a diocesan Catholic institution in Aurora, Illinois, where my mother was employed as a nurse's aide and therefore acquainted with most of the personnel, including a couple of dozen priests and nuns. This fact is noteworthy because it indicates that I was fussed
and prayed over more ferociously even than most newborns, which is to say, quite a bit. My mother was a staunch hard-shell black Baptist, but I'm sure she didn't mind all the extra spiritual armor. She had suffered a miscarriage before my birth, was worried about having children at all, and dearly wanted this child--me--to survive.
The town I was born in, Aurora, wasn't that unique a place in the northern, or say middle northern, Midwest of that time. It was, however, the sort of place that doesn't really exist anymore: a rugged industrial town of fifty- to sixty-thousand people, where a garden variety of ethnic whites--Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, Romanians and Greeks, Serbs and Croatians--vied with blacks and Hispanics for the good jobs in the mills and factories of the city. These were very good jobs, the kinds of jobs where an illiterate man with a strong back and a strong will could make twenty, thirty, even forty dollars an hour as he gained expertise and value to the company. These jobs are now in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama--if they are in the United States at all--and even more likely to be in Mexico if not the Dominican Republic or Ireland or India due to the ongoing process of downsizing and globalization, now twenty years old and continuing in the Midwest.
These ethnic groups, which made up a distinct working class, were overseen by a middle class of stolid midwesterners--Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans of mostly Anglo-American, Scandinavian, and Scottish (not Scots-Irish) stock, who were in turn superseded in authority and influence by an elite of a few wealthy Irish Catholics, a strong core of Swedish Lutherans, and, surprisingly, Christian Scientists, and the usual sprinkling of Anglo founders' descendents refusing to relinquish their advantage. O'Brien, Copley, Erickson. Those were the town names of consequence and weight, but it wasn't all tamped down. My father, a Mississippi migrant, was befriended by Mr. Erickson, one of the wealthy Scandinavian Christian Scientists from over on Downer Place. My father would go by Mr. Erickson's office after-hours at the bank on Saturdays and they'd talk about things--sports, their families, world affairs, the Masonic secrets of money. My father often credited this friendship and these talks with helping him find his way. He learned how things work, at least in that town, and he learned not to be intimidated by whites. This information he passed on to his children, to our great advantage as we grew up in the North and had to learn to decipher things, to read the writings on the wall, as it were.
The preceding description is, of course, a great simplification of a place and its [End Page 48] people, and even of my family. But I lay it out to offer a sort of genius loci, as the term is used by anthropologist Victor Witter Turner and literary critic Robert Stepto--"my site of generation," the place I sprang from--in the hopes of providing a larger context of the surrounding American culture of the 1960s and 1970s and attempting to live up to my slightly woofing title: "Chicago as the Northernmost County of Mississippi." The older I get, the more I am convinced that this is what happened, or what mostly happened, as my personality and psyche were formed and as I became the person who stands before you today, a resident of the resolutely Yankee state of Maine, born and raised in late-century Chicago (or Chicagoland, as we call it), yet allowed, with not...