Ahhh...#SummertimeChi. Nothing better—or blacker.
Photo: Maiysha Kai
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.  

On the northeast corner of the bridge that joins the southern stretch of Michigan Avenue to the northern portion known as “The Magnificent Mile,” there stands an elegant, life-sized bronze bust of a black man.

The man? Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, the Haitian-born fur trader who was the area’s first non-indigenous settler and is widely recognized as the founder of Chicago. The bridge, while spanning the city’s most famous street, bears his name—as does a school, a harbor, a park, and the world-renowned DuSable Museum, which sits on Chicago’s famed South Side, and until 2016 was the largest curator and caretaker of African-American culture in the United States.

In other words, the DuSable Museum stood so the “Blacksonian” could be built. (And it’s so renowned, it’s now affiliated with the Smithsonian, so there’s that.)

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We could stop there in our bid to be called America’s Blackest City (because it’s easy as A-B-C—and yes, we can see Gary, Indiana from here), but also built in Chicago? The careers and legacies of Oprah, Michael Jordan, beloved Chicago mayor Harold Washington, and the Ebony/Jet publishing empire—the fruits of which graced the coffee tables of black homes across America for generations.

And then, there’s that grassroots “community organizer” Barack Obama, who became the first black American president. While not born in Chicago, he still considers the city home and chose it as the site of both his 2008 victory speech and 2017 farewell address. (*sniff*) Chicago will also be the site of Obama’s presidential library, which will soon break ground on the city’s South Side, not far from where his wife, beloved icon, bestselling author and forever first lady Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama was raised.

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Speaking of organizing, Chicago has always been a nexus for black-centered movements. When Memphis became too dangerous, Ida B. Wells resettled in Chicago, where she continued her anti-lynching activism while raising a family that remains based in the city to this day (the city’s Congress Parkway was recently renamed for her). Jesse Jackson based Operation PUSH and the National Rainbow Coalition in his adopted home city, while Marva Collins based her game-changing educational programs here. The Nation of Islam has been headquartered in Chicago since the late 1960s—in fact, for more than a decade, boxer and activist Muhammad Ali lived in several homes in close proximity to late NOI leader Elijah Muhammad’s.

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And who can forget the power of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party—a chapter so effective in its activism that BPP Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were targeted and executed by Chicago Police in 1969? Today, activist and author Charlene Carruthers is currently one of many carrying on that black radical tradition, raising the game by including feminism and queerness in her work to advance anti-violence and liberation.

U.S. Representative Bobby Rush and Reverend Jesse Jackson link arms as they march with demonstrators protesting the shooting of Laquan McDonald along the Magnificent Mile November 27, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo: Joshua Lott (Getty Images)

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And then there’s the long history of black arts in Chicago. Bestselling authors/bloggers Samantha Irby (Meaty, Bitches Gotta Eat) and Luvvie Ajayi (I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual) may be two of the current names most closely identified with the Chicago literary scene, but the over 50-year-old Third World Press was co-founded by Black Arts Movement pioneers and Chicago residents Haki Madhubuti, Carolyn Rodgers and Johari Amini. Still headquartered in Chicago, it is now the largest black-owned independent press in the country.

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was a Chicago native, as was playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who centered the plot of A Raisin in the Sun here. Similarly, Native Son was set on Chicago’s streets by former resident Richard Wright. And Nella Larsen’s seminal work, Passing, also begins in her birthplace of Chicago. Famed painter Archibald Motley may be a NOLA native, but he was raised in Chicago and studied at the city’s Art Institute before joining a community of fellow visual artists that included Eldzier Cortor and Gus Nall.

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Currently, black art remains a core component of Chicago life. Kerry James Marshall, Torkwase Dyson and Amanda Williams are among the many acclaimed artists who were born and/or reside here. Internationally known Chicago-born multimedia artist Theaster Gates has purchased and revitalized entire city blocks through his Rebuild Foundation, which includes the renovation and creation of the Black Cinema House and Stony Island Arts Bank, which serves as both a largely black-focused art gallery and archive.

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And of course, there’s the music. Aside from boasting its own styles of jazz and blues (and hosting annual festivals for each), Chicago is the birthplace of house music, as well as the dance crazes known as “footwork,” “steppin’” (not to be confused with black Greek “step shows”), and the wedding staple “The Cha-Cha Slide.”

And while R. Kelly and Kanye West may be most readily identified with Chicago (much to the chagrin of many residents), one would be wise to remember the other incredible talents that hail from the third largest city in America. Quincy Jones, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan and Rufus, Buddy Guy, The Staples Singers, The Chi-Lites, Common, Chance the Rapper, Jennifer Hudson, Soulja Boy, Lupe Fiasco, Abbey Lincoln, Ramsey Lewis, Koko Taylor, Carl Thomas, Felix Da Housecat, Rhymefest, Da Brat and Lou Rawls were all born in—you guessed it—Chicago.

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So was Don Cornelius, so you can thank us for “Soul Train,” too.

GIF: Giphy

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(Seriously. Can you just give us the prize now? We’re so black, it took two black Chicago natives to write this post.)

If that’s not enough, consider the black musicians who also chose to call Chicago home at points in their lives and careers: Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and “The Godfather of House Music” Frankie Knuckles all made their mark here.

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Love black cinema? Chances are, one of your faves was set and/or filmed in the Windy City—or created by a native, like Melvin Van Peebles. Aside from the aforementioned A Raisin in the Sun and Native Son, other blackety-black films set in Chicago include Cooley High, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Mahogany, Candyman, Hoop Dreams, Soul Food, Mo’ Money, Roll Bounce, Barbershop (1,2 & 3) and Barack and Michelle’s love story, Southside with You. We even have our own black film festival called Black Harvest, now in its 25th year.

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Just one thing: despite any Trump propaganda to the contrary, Chicago residents know our vibe is still more Love Jones than Chi-Raq. (We’re still salty about that, Spike—and that’s some Chi slang, btw.)

On the small screen, it’s not just Chicago native Lena Waithe’s The Chi that celebrates the inherent blackness of our city; Good Times, Webster, Family Matters, Kenan & Kel, and currently, Rel are among the many shows that have been set here.

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Speaking of which: did you know Lil’ Rel Howery is from Chicago? So were Redd Foxx, Bernie Mac, Robin Harris and Michael Clarke Duncan. Craig Robinson and Sherri Shepard hail from black neighborhoods in Chicago, as do Clifton Davis, Marla Gibbs, Ella Joyce, Andre Braugher, Wood Harris, Terrence Howard, Lisa Raye, Larenz Tate, and Mr. T.

Nichelle Nichols? The history-making Star Trek actress was raised in Chicago—as was the “Oracle” of modern sci-fi classic The Matrix, Gloria Foster. And if you love “Shondaland,” you can thank Chicagoland, because that black girl magic was born and raised right here.

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And we can’t forget the countless black sports heroes Chicago has birthed. The Bulls’ three-peat legacy, the Bears’ winning “Super Bowl Shuffle” and the Cubs’ more recent World Series win (racist-ass Ricketts notwithstanding) may be imprinted on our local memory, but national icons Dwyane Wade, Derrick Carter, Doc Rivers, Derrick Rose, Kirby Puckett, Isaiah Thomas and Donovan McNabb are all natives of this sport-loving city.

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In fact, Chicago even made the food of “America’s favorite pastime” blacker with the Wiener’s Circle, the most famous hot dogs in our already famous city, made legendary by the unapologetically black staff serving them. And while our famed Maxwell St. Polish isn’t a black invention, it was made popular by the many black musicians who frequented Maxwell Street, otherwise known as the birthplace of Chicago Blues.

And if you really want to know what the biggest turf war is in Chicago, it’s whether Harold’s or Uncle Remus’ has the best fried chicken. That’s right: our biggest in-fights are over chicken. We told you: BLACK. Our second-biggest fights? Which Harold’s serves the best chicken (we won’t even get into our debates over ribs). And on the subject of chicken: Sorry to disappoint you, D.C, but your beloved Mumbo sauce is actually a Chicago creation. In fact, you could say our mild sauce is actually Mumbo’s daddy.

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Hell, even our regionally-born beauty industry is steeped in blackness. Grow up on Afro-Sheen? You can thank Chicago entrepreneur George Johnson, the first African American to have a company on the American Stock Exchange (shoutout to Johnson Products). Luster’s Pink products? Yeah, that’s us, too.

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But believe it or not, all of the above pales in comparison to the undeniably black culture of contemporary Chicago, which has gotten the bad rap of being the most dangerous city in America (fun fact: it barely made the top 10). But according to the 2010 Census, The “Second City” is second only to New York when it comes to its number of black residents (PDF).

Of course, black Chicagoans already know this (as likely do many of our non-black counterparts); it’s writ all over daily life in our traditionally segregated (though steadily gentrified) city. It’s evident in the “side wars” (not gang wars) about which of our countless black neighborhoods is the blackest—South Side vs. West Side, in particular. Chatham, Woodlawn, South Shore, Englewood, Roseland, Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and Bronzeville (yes, Bronzeville) are all black enclaves in the sprawling metropolis we call Chicagoland. Even diverse neighborhoods like Hyde Park boast an undeniable streak of black excellence that colors the local culture—just check out the annually packed block party thrown by black-owned neighborhood business The Silver Room, or the house music-based Chosen Few Picnic that takes over nearby Jackson Park each summer.

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And though gentrification destroyed the public housing once known as Cabrini Green (immortalized in both Good Times and Candyman), the Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells Homes, and the (Altgeld) Gardens, it didn’t destroy the blackness. Instead, it spread to surrounding suburbs, such as Riverdale and Calumet City, Il.—in fact, its residents are still so close to Chicago, the city has less lost its flavor than continued to expand it.

One need only look at the winding lines awaiting any of the many all-white, all-black people boat parties during #SummertimeChi (a popular black-created hashtag we begin using as soon as the temps rise above 50º) to know Chicago is as chocolate a city as they come. (No, really; parts of “The Loop” literally smell like chocolate.)

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Are we done yet? Nah...we’ve got too much blackness left. But we are feeling parched dinna mug (more Chicago slang) after detailing all the many ways our city takes the crown for American blackness. (I mean, what do you expect, when so much of the South migrated here?) We think we better go get some pop (never “soda”). “Red” pop, that is.