The impact of Black Chicago is both incredible and undeniable; from individuals like Curtis Mayfield and Minnie Riperton to institutions like Soul Train and of course, The Chicago Defender, the culture has sustained worldwide significance.
“Black Chicago is defined by self-determination,” writes Ayana Contreras in “Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism & Creativity in Chicago,” her new book that explores the prominence of Black Chicago’s culture and the ambition, creativity, and “hustle spirit” that helped frame it.
The Chicago Defender spoke with Contreras about the book, the audacity to dream, and the importance of fighting for the cultural legacy of Black Chicago.
Chicago Defender: When you decided to write this book, what did the big picture look like for you?
Ayana Contreras: It wasn’t even so much that I thought of it immediately as a book. In my life, I encounter folks from the sixties and seventies post-civil rights generation and I encounter creative people today and it struck me that not only are they saying a lot of the same things but they’re also on this continuum even though they may not be speaking to each other. To my vantage point, being able to be connected to these different generations is unique and I think that folks could benefit from that. That was the impetus and as I’ve done my own personal research and building of archives, the things I’ve uncovered have made me feel affirmed and energized and I wanted to add that to the conversation.
Chicago Defender: In your book, you address the perception of Black Chicago as only being “soulless and lawless”; how does this viewpoint impact Afro-optimism?
Ayana Contreras: I think that is really complicated because what you don’t want to do is turn it into this la-la land, but at the same time, Afro-optimism is about having the audacity to believe that there is something bigger and better. The possibility [of that] is something that I think our culture sometimes takes away from young people and that’s part of what’s causing a lot of this lawlessness and disconnect from people’s heritage. They don’t understand that they are also part of the continuum of this heritage of black cultural production and innovation. That’s another reason why I want young people, in particular, to read the book so they can see themselves and be affirmed.
Chicago Defender: You touch on the “two Chicagos” ideology and its adverse effect on Black Chicago’s arts and culture scene, particularly when it comes to cultural preservation. How does Afro-optimism survive despite these challenges?
Ayana Contreras: The art scene of Chicago goes into some of these “mainstream” arts organizations, where a lot of our [Black Chicago] legacy organizations are struggling to be seen on the same level as those other spaces even though you might argue that their cultural contributions are actually on par. It’s not as though these smaller spaces are not doing important work, but maybe they haven’t been able to capture some of the means and modes of distribution that the Museum of Contemporary Art [for example] has been able to do because they don’t have the scale.
Chicago Defender: It is noteworthy that you feature the West Side, especially since many cultural references to Black Chicago lean heavily toward the South Side. Given the city’s long-standing South Side/West Side dichotomy, it seems that would have a profound effect on Afro-optimism.
Ayana Contreras: A lot of the time when we’re talking about this “South Side/West Side” thing, what we’re really talking about is respectability politics. We’re trying to take the “Southern” out of us. I arguably say in the book that some of the very best parts of Black Chicago’s cultural creation are rooted in what we brought with us from the South so when you distance yourself from that, you’re distancing yourself from some of the very best parts of us. It is definitely obvious to me when people use the term “South Side” that it’s synonymous with the Black community of Chicago and they’re doing a disservice because they’re leaving out some of that richness.
Chicago Defender: What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
Ayana Contreras: A lot of the stories started out with me just having a conversation with somebody and they bring things up as a point of pride. It’s not super deep or academic; it’s just that if you walk away with a belief that the improbable is possible here in Chicago and that despite outside pressures and oppression, it has happened time and time again, I think that’s a good thing to walk away with.
LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and arts and entertainment enthusiast. Find her on social media @MsWilliamsWorld.