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.Native Son

In his latest book, Oakland writer Keenan Norris journeys to the Windy City in search of his roots

Bay Area-based novelist, essayist and scholar Keenan Norris’ new book, Chi Boy: Native Sons and Chicago Reckonings, tells the story of multiple migrations. Among the most poignant and personal odyssey is that of his own heart as it travels through stages of grief and longing following his father’s death in 2011. 

Relatedly, there is author Richard Wright’s lifelong journey, the movements of Black people in the Great Migration, Barack Obama’s climb from mixed-race kid in Hawaii to president of the United States, the evolving definition of drill music and “Chi-Raq” terminology, and massive shifts in urban populations in Chicago and other cities during the 20th and 21st centuries. 

There are “migrations“ or enormous swings told in social, political and cultural response to problems such as land ownership and drug epidemics—often according to what race is most highly impacted—and historic and contemporary workplace or union movements and other forces that sweep, disrupt or disappear across the country. Reading the slim 230-page volume, the themes and the book’s scale are surprisingly complex—with each pocket explored, the insights invite more investigation, possibly infinitely.

EBX sat down with Norris to talk about Chi-Boy and more broadly, its themes:

EBX: You say this book is not Butch Norris’ biography in a traditional sense, but instead stitches together disparate Black men’s histories to find self-identity and serve as a “makeshift memorial” to your father’s history in and out of Chicago.

Norris: When I was in Chicago in 2017 doing research for the book, I spent time talking with a formerly incarcerated brother, a former gang member, who was working on behalf of at-risk South Side youth. He asked me why I, a Californian, had chosen Chicago to research and write about. I tried to answer his question, and then he interrupted me and said, “It makes sense. You’re looking for your father.” 

I think he melted me down to my essence there: The Great Migration, Richard Wright, the Vice Lords, Frank Marshall Davis, Fred Hampton, Harold Washington, Barack Obama, Yummy Sandifer, Hadiya Pendleton; I was trying to reconstruct him through them. I don’t so much see myself in any of these people or movements, but I do see that I’ve come a long way in searching for my father’s memory in that cold city and writing this book one painstaking word at a time.

EBX: Chi-Boy thematically links movements/migrations. When you began the book, was the connectivity anticipated or something discovered in the process?

Norris: This is a great analysis. Yes, I did see this connectivity. Having grown up in the southern California suburbs in the 1990s, lived in East Oakland in the 2000s, watched Oakland’s gentrification in the 2010s and having known of Chicago’s centrifugal role in the history of Black urbanization for much of my life, I was definitely aware of these patterns. Studying Chicago only deepened this sense that these American population shifts were predictable and interrelated.

EBX: Among the dynamic concepts explored is one from Wright’s autobiography, which you write as, “the tension between Southern horrors and Northern dreams and Southern institutionalized racial hierarchy and capricious Northern racial oppression.” Do you believe that same tension exists today?

Norris: It’s difficult to compare our racial situation in America today to the situation that Black people faced nearly a hundred years ago. Things are better than they were. Mass incarceration and its impacts upon Black families are probably the most significant outliers from what is, generally speaking, a more equal America. There certainly isn’t the same North/South divide as there was in Richard Wright’s time. Jim Crow was dissolved by the Civil Rights Movement. 

For the last 20 or so years, the Black population shift has actually been away from super-expensive coastal areas like the Bay Area and back to the South, where Black people own far more land and exercise far more institutional agency than we probably ever will in, for instance, San Francisco. Meanwhile, the complex of social customs and policies I characterize as “James Crow,” a kind of de facto version of Jim Crow practiced in the North and on the West Coast, persisted far longer and, to some extent, still persists today. 

That’s why Chicago is significantly more segregated than the cities in the South, and it’s why Black people are so marginalized in San Francisco. The nation shamed the South out of Jim Crow. The North and the West Coast were largely let off the hook for red-lining, explicit targeting of Black neighborhoods for gentrification and profoundly anti-Black policing practices.

EBX: Housing segregation and its connection to poverty plays out in Chicago and most large American cities. If asked to study Oakland and Bay Area cities, what directions would you find interesting?

Norris: This is connected to the reversal of population flows that we’ve seen in cities and across American regions. In population level terms, more people of color have been moving to the suburbs and more white people have been returning to the city. The coupled gentrification and ex-urbanization of America is a remarkable dual-phenomenon that nobody, to my knowledge, has fully historicized and explained. Samuel Kye and others are doing some great research on these issues. 

My book speaks briefly to gentrification in Chicago, particularly on the West Side. But there’s much, much more to say about this, just as there is a great deal to say about the dismissal of Black populations in California to certain inland regions (think, San Bernardino, Antioch). I would certainly find such an invitation to investigate interesting.

Housing segregation certainly still exists, and our cities from Oakland to Chicago are profoundly shaped by the legacies of Jim Crow and James Crow.

EBX: As a writer, what did this book teach you about your relationship to language and the writing craft?

Norris: The different pitches, registers, cadences an essayist can summon are just wonderful. You can do this in fiction, too, but third person fiction often has the task of affecting a certain objective, moderated tone. First person fiction can get hemmed in by the reader’s sense that your character speaks in “this way,” thus cordoning off other styles of expression. 

When you’re writing essays from your point of view, the voice is whatever you make it. After writing a slangy novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, where I had to do a lot of narrative work to get to the beautiful parts, it was nice to be able to write with more flourishes.

EBX: You write that Chicago wasn’t able to offer “American bounty” because it wasn’t ready to reinvent itself and its relationship to Black citizens. Is Chicago ready now, in 2023?

Norris: In the book, I also speak to the deep and intimate split in Black destiny in Chicago and across the nation. Social commentators have long cautioned against monolithic appraisals of Black America and, indeed, there is no singular Black relationship to America today. I see at least three answers to this question, one stemming from the Black middle-class experience, one from the experience of being poor and Black, and yet another from Black African immigrant experience. 

I think the American government and the white American majority views Black people more complexly than they did 30 or 50 or 100 years ago. In part due to desegregation and the interracial bonds that have formed from that, in part due to the rise of Barack Obama, whose Kenyan background made people aware of other African-American experiences and in part because of the last 30 years of hip-hop, breakthrough Black films and Black literature, more white people are aware of Black people as people. 

But the deep, intimate and increasingly bitter split in white America, which basically runs along a Left-Right political binary, dictates that some number less than half of white Americans have really crossed this bridge.

EBX: In conversations about American militarism and street violence and what many people say historically and presently shows a disregard for Black bodies sacrificed, what is not being discussed?

Norris: The Left has stopped talking about street crime and violence because the politicians think it’s a losing issue for them. Maybe it is, but people in places like Chicago and Oakland that tend to vote Democrat and where there is a significant amount of violence do need to have deep, wide-ranging discussions about this social problem, even if it entails arguing with each other and drawing lines. I think the whole political Left, from activists, BLM, all the way to Center-Left politicians like the ones sitting in the Oval Office, need to address these issues in non-ideological, dialogic ways.

While Leftist policies are typically blamed for urban blight in all its forms, we can’t discuss public safety in a country of 335 million souls and approximately 400 million guns without talking about guns. There are simply too many guns floating around for many of them not to end up, often illegally, in the wrong people’s hands. David Yamane of Wake Forest has shown decisively that this century’s spike in gun-buying began in the direct wake of the invasion of Iraq.

Other ill effects of American militarism are not hard to find: After the war in Vietnam, there was an upsurge in weapons trafficking, which, along with other factors, led to the crime wave of the 1980s. Meanwhile, rootless young men, displaced by an American-fomented civil war in El Salvador, founded the infamous MS-13 gang in Los Angeles. I’m not saying that the American military is responsible for street crime here. What I am saying is that there is a linkage there that is both psychological and material.

EBX: You are an associate professor at San Jose State University and mentioned having interest in addressing the conflicts over Black studies.

Norris: I wrote about my father’s connection to the protest over Black studies curriculum at Fresno State in 1970 to historicize for readers a conflict that is headline news today.
As we can see from the push-back against Black history in Florida and elsewhere, there remains rock-solid resistance to any acknowledgement of America’s real racial history. To be clear, these suppression tactics are different in degree but not kind from the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian genocide and similar repressions in Cambodia, Spain and elsewhere.

EBX: In Chi-Boy’s epilogue, you say truth-telling between perpetrators and the communities they have violated is a necessary conversation. 

Norris: I think active spaces of truth and reconciliation are important for families and for communities torn apart by street violence.

EBX: Beyond that and other conversations, where do you find future hope?

Norris: I find hope in creativity, art and unbound spirits. A couple weeks ago, The New Yorker published a long article about declining enrollments of English majors at colleges and universities across the country. What the article didn’t mention was that creative writing enrollments have steadily increased in recent years. There’s tremendous interest in literature, screenwriting, podcasting and all the other arts. There’s just understandable impatience with the ways that traditional academia has reduced the arts to a bunch of stuffy criticism that has nothing to do with what we all love about the creative world. Maybe it’ll cost me my job, but I’m all for the upheaval.

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