Years ago, I sat in my public-policy journalism class when a professor circulated a 25-year-old essay that ran in the Washington Post. None of my mostly white peers could read beyond the provocative headline: “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.”
Only I, the lone black student in the classroom at Northwestern in the late 1990s, defended the writer, Chicago journalist Leanita McClain, who had also graduated from our program. A racist, my classmates called her. She’s so angry, they remarked as they screwed their faces.
McClain, then an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, was describing her reactions to the 1983 mayoral race in which Harold Washington emerged as Chicago’s first black mayor. In response to Washington’s victory—just as in the more recent case of a Chicago politician elected “the first”—euphoria had swept over the city as it made history. Initially.
It wasn’t long, though, before embittered white Chicagoans started a racial backlash. In the Washington Post essay, McClain voiced her reaction to the swift and sudden fall from kumbaya: “So many whites unconsciously had never considered that blacks could do much of anything, least of all get a black candidate this close to being mayor of Chicago,” she wrote. “My colleagues looked up and realized, perhaps for the first time, that I was one of ‘them.’ I was suddenly threatening.”
She continued: “Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist’s acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness.”
The sullenness and cynicism that McClain expressed were apparently unshakeable. She killed herself in May 1984, less than a year after the controversial Post essay was published. She was 32 years old.
Twenty five years later, Chicago is still a place of de facto segregation, despite the sea of change represented by the election of Barack Obama. I am the same age that McClain was when she wrote that essay working as a black journalist in Chicago. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced the kind of backlash she described. But in many ways, the segregated picture she painted isn’t much different today.
As I navigate my journalism career, I remain gripped by her experience.
McClain was the first black person to serve on the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, and the youngest, at age 32. In 1984, Glamour magazine named McClain one of the nation’s top 10 career women. In 1980, she wrote a piece for Newsweek magazine about the burden of the black middle class, the awkward dance of basking in achievement while not forgetting her roots in public housing on Chicago’s South Side. McClain struggled with that precarious balance the rest of her too-short life.
Her oversized schoolmarm glasses concealed a lovely face. Her fiery prose contrasted starkly with her petite, almost demur stature. Born on Chicago’s South Side, McClain grew up in the Ida B. Wells projects, a massive public housing development that has been torn down by city officials. She attended graduate school at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on a full scholarship.
When she took her first job at the Tribune in 1973, McClain joined the first wave of post-civil rights black professionals. The burden and privilege weighed heavy on her mind, as she sat perched on the fence between the projects and middle-class mobility. It chafed both sides as she clearly observed the class barrier, and it troubled her greatly—even as her career took off.
In a 1980 “My Turn” Newsweek column, McClain had this to say about that weight: “My life abounds in incongruities. Fresh from a vacation in Paris, I may, a week later, be on the milk-run Trailways bus in Deep South backcountry attending the funeral of an ancient uncle whose world stretched only 50 miles and never learned to read. Sometimes when I wait at the bus stop with my attaché case, I meet my aunt getting off the bus with other cleaning ladies on their way to do my neighbors’ floors.”
“I have made it, but where?” she wrote. “Racism still dogs my people.”
In 1986, Tribune journalist Clarence Page, McClain’s ex-husband, captured her fraught experiences in a collection of her essays titled, A Foot in Each World.
“Material comfort and worldly honors could not lighten the burden she placed upon herself, a cross she felt she had to bear for her people. From her vantage point, it became difficult to distinguish between the world’s problems and her own. But through the magnifying glass of her own troubled soul she brought important issues into focus so that the rest of us could see a little more clearly,” Page writes in the introduction.
McClain kept guarded in her personal relationships and looking back more than two decades later, friends gather that she struggled with depression. Just before the Post essay came in the aftermath of those turbulent, early days of Harold Washington’s administration, when letters to the editor laced with racial epithets arrived at newspapers. Friends say McClain perceived the anti-Harold contingency as anti-black. She saw the affronts as sinister, not simply the cost of doing political business.
“She was a sad person,” says Grayson Mitchell, a former journalist and press secretary to Harold Washington who met McClain in the early ‘70s when both were young black journalists forging ahead in a newly integrated profession.
In the days before McClain took her life, 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. Her mother called the newspaper looking for her. The editorial board thought maybe she took a day off. But alarm had already set in. They checked her calendar and saw appointments written down.
As a precaution, the boss sent a friend to McClain’s house, Wille says. The super let him in. The colleague found her in bed, her hair combed, make-up applied. The lights were on. Barbra Streisand played. She looked beautiful. An overdose of pills took her life.
My friend, Lolly Bowean, a Tribune metro reporter, keeps a copy of A Foot in Each World on her desk. Like McClain—and so many of us—Bowean says she sometimes feels like an imposter in the professional world she inhabits.
“There are more black women than ever in newsrooms at every level. But like McClain we are still burdened by our journeys. We are so far from where we started, but not close to where we'd like to be,” Bowean says.
Today, at 32, I am still working to process McClain’s story and the lessons in it for me. I don’t struggle with issues of depression as Leanita clearly did. But I do struggle with balancing two worlds. I chose journalism as a profession because I saw my black communities alternatively neglected and misrepresented in the news media. I remain acutely aware that McClain wrote for black people rather than simply about them in a mainstream, daily publication.
The distinction is crucial, and one that allowed her to write with such passion and force, regardless of how uncomfortable it made some people.
Each day, as I work the Chicago beat, I know Leanita’s story is one I can’t afford to forget.
Natalie Y. Moore is a public affairs reporter for Chicago Public Radio.