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Local Lit: Can Tyehimba Jess wake up the world?

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Tyehimba Jess's 1992 poem "when niggas love Revolution like they love the bulls" challenged Chicago fans to think about issues more substantive than their team's NBA championships. If the promise of the poem's title is fulfilled, he wrote, "We will know cia stats / fbi stats, / infant mortality stats, / police brutality stats, / and literacy training techniques like we know / paxson's shoe size, / pippen's rebounds, / grant's salary, / and all the intimate details of michael's last gambling spree."

Jess read the poem at Spices, Navy Pier, the Guild Complex, and other venues, tightly clutching the text and raging at the audience. "How was it possible for so many people to be motivated by someone who was so remote from their lives and by issues that were so remote from their lives versus issues that affected them every day?" he says. "Political prisoners were still in jail at the time. Geronimo Pratt was still in jail. The Puerto Rican political prisoners that Clinton set free in 1999 were still in jail. Mumia Abu-Jamal was still on death row. I felt that and I still feel it's critical to understand why those people were still in jail."

He self-published a chapbook the following year, using "when niggas" as the title piece and giving away a third of the 700 copies. The chapbook, for which University of Illinois at Chicago professor Sterling Plumpp penned a blurb, boosted his reputation. Two years later the poem was included in the anthology Soul Fires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence, and circulated widely via E-mail.

The poet, who lives in Austin, was born Jesse S. Goodwin and grew up in Detroit. His father worked for the city's department of health and was the first vice president of Detroit's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His mother founded a nursing school at Wayne County Community College in 1972.

Jess started writing poetry at 16 and won second prize for poetry at an NAACP academic competition two years later. After graduating from high school in 1984, he enrolled at the University of Chicago--partly because he had attended the same elementary and high schools as his brother and didn't want to follow him to the University of Michigan. Jess started out as an English major but abandoned poetry for public policy after one of his papers earned only a C+ after two rewrites. "At this point, I can work with a white instructor about creative writing," he says. "I was not at that point at that particular time."

Despite changing his major, he still felt out of place; the university had few black professors, and he felt that many of the other black students weren't concerned about social issues. "The cats were like, 'What's apartheid?' That was sad."

Jess dropped out in 1987 and worked as an intern at South Shore Bank, an organizer for Designs for Change, and a substitute teacher in the public schools. He returned to the U. of C. in 1989, staying with public policy--which he says has helped him understand the complexities of capitalism and city government. He "faded in and out" of the school while studying texts like Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa with local chapters of the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and New African People's Organization and working as a clerk at now-defunct Freedom Found Books in Hyde Park. He also took a class with Plumpp at UIC that focused on literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s. Inspired, Jess returned to poetry.

In 1991 he received his degree and started reading poems at the Guild Complex's old South Loop location and Freedom Found, and over the past ten years he's evolved into a polished performer who can vary his delivery depending on the poem and the audience. Three years ago he legally changed his name, adopting a first name from the Tiv people in Nigeria that means "we stand as a nation." Now a veteran of the Chicago poetry scene and an established teacher, he competed on the Green Mill's team in the 2000 and 2001 National Poetry Slams, won a 2000 Illinois Arts Council fellowship, and last year took first prize in the Chicago Sun-Times poetry contest.

Recently his "retired, ronald reagan sits in his dayroom and wonders" was included in Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, published by Third World Press. The poem, a surrealistic protest against Reagan's policies in Central America, continues: "where she comes from, this little salvadoran girl, the one with the missing / hands and the hole in her head that perches her frame on the bedspread. why / is she always there pointing a bloody stump at his face?"

Jess, who will start an MFA program at New York University in the fall, says he now writes more nuanced poems. His work is "more concerned with the human struggle that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, like how we relate to our children, the question of whether or not we will have children, the romantic relationships we have as a people," he says. "Those issues are just as important as the issues I brought up in 'when niggas love Revolution like they love the bulls.'"

On Friday, June 7, Jess will participate in a free celebration honoring the life of Gwendolyn Brooks and the 35th anniversary of Third World Press at the Institute of Positive Education, 7825 S. Ellis, from 6 to 9 PM. Other Role Call contributors, including Gwendolyn Mitchell, Arthur Ade Amaker, and two of the editors, Tony Medina and Quraysh Ali Lansana, will also appear. For more information call 773-651-0700. On Sunday, June 9, Jess will perform as part of the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, at 7. There's a $5 cover; for more information call 773-878-5552.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.

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