Credit: Lloyd Degrane

Black student enrollment at Northwestern University was almost nil prior to the mid-1960s, when, thanks mostly to civil rights legislation, things abruptly changed. According to NU’s African American Student Affairs office, the freshman class of ’65 included only five blacks; by the fall of ’68, when Angela Jackson got there, that number had jumped to over 100. But the preppy, white-bread school wasn’t ready for them. The spring before Jackson arrived, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, black students waged a two-day takeover of the bursar’s office that ended when NU agreed, among other things, to establish a department of Afro-American studies. Those tumultuous years on the Evanston campus are the focus of Jackson’s debut novel, Where I Must Go.

Published by Northwestern University Press last fall, the book was a labor of love 40 years in the making. Jackson, 58, says it grew out of her desire to counter the distortion of black American life that began with the blaxploitation films of the 1970s and remains rampant in the media today. She’s seen too many movies and music videos peopled by “pimps and whores,” she says, and dominated by “violence and crude sex.”

“I felt they were lies about us,” she says. “I couldn’t relate to them. I wanted to push back and give authentic representations of my life and the lives of the people of my generation. . . . I wanted to bear witness to the generation that broke the mold. I think that generation of African American students helped transform the nature of universities, so now you have not just African-American studies, but women’s studies, Hispanic studies, Asian studies. It’s not as diverse as it could be or should be, but it is better.”

Working with editors Reginald Gibbons and Anne Gendler, Jackson extracted the 336-page Where I Must Go from a 1,000-page manuscript she’d written based on notes she’d begun making in 1969. It’s the first volume of a planned trilogy that’ll eventually move the book’s characters into the present time.

The coming-of-age story takes its first-person narrator, 17-year-old Magdalena Grace—like Jackson, the middle daughter of a black, working-class, south-side family—through her freshman year on the leafy campus of Eden University, which bears a striking resemblance to NU. Readers familiar with the NU campus are likely to find that resemblance especially fascinating. But Jackson emphasizes that Where I Must Go is a work of fiction. “What’s true about the book,” she says, is that it “captures the experience of African-American students at predominantly white universities across the board.” So while the characters were inspired by members of Jackson’s family and people she encountered at NU—including Negro Digest editor Hoyt Fuller, a visiting professor when she was there, and James Turner, a student leader who went on to found the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University—they’re not those people. At least, not exactly.

The plot, in which the bursar’s office sit-in begins before King’s murder, isn’t the most compelling thing about Where I Must Go. Jackson wrestled with the material for so long because she was convinced that it had to be told in novel form, with narrative shape, forward motion, and action—and that kind of writing doesn’t come naturally to her. What does come naturally is poetry. Jackson is the author of six volumes of verse and the recipient of an exhaustive list of awards for them, and the poetry that inhabits her prose is what makes the book extraordinary.

She’s also a playwright (her oeuvre includes three scripts) and a great reader of her own work: I first encountered Where I Must Go in Jackson’s own voice, spilling out of my tinny old portable radio one day last fall, during a segment on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight. It stopped me in my tracks.

Jackson grew up in the Englewood house she lives in now, with a big Catholic family headed by a storytelling father and a mother who read avidly. But in her book, where the bitter Chicago wind is known as the Hawk, the CHA projects are a powerful part of the local environment. When I turned on the radio, I heard this: “Families knocked against one another in the tall housing units thrown up by the City like dams to hold the deluge of Blacks who swelled past the limits of the town inside the City reserved for the darkest children of the American dream. The old Southern gestures mutated and the young men learned new walks that leaned against the Hawk. These young men dipped in their knees. Boys gritted their teeth at an earlier age. Much of the game went out of the flirt, and girls no older than me or my sisters raised their skirts, babies fell out, with gritted teeth and tears of ice.”

Jackson was in and out of NU for nine years before she graduated in 1977, switching from pre-med to English and joining the writers’ workshop of Chicago’s legendary Organization of Black American Culture, where she was influenced and nurtured by fellow members, including Sam Greenlee, author of the novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and the poets Haki Madhubuti (who quit his longtime teaching position at Chicago State University earlier this month, citing friction with the school’s president) and Carolyn Rodgers, who died of cancer April 2. Jackson earned an MA at the University of Chicago and has taught at Stephens and Columbia colleges and Howard University. She’s currently an adjunct professor at Kennedy-King College and mentors students in NU’s creative writing MFA program.

She’ll be working on the revisions for the second volume of the trilogy this year, and is expecting it to go faster, though she’ll be dealing with the same old challenges. The struggle puts her in mind of one of her teachers at NU—poet Peter Michelson, who, she recalls, told her that fiction moves things along, while poetry stops them. “A poet lingers in each moment—you get all the senses going and the language is heightened,” Jackson says. “To strike the right balance between my work as a poet and my job as a fiction writer, to tell the story, I have to be careful not to linger too long and not to fall too much in love with the language.”

But her language is what made me linger, and still does. Here, for example, is what happens when Maggie’s family delivers her to her Eden University dormitory: “Our arrival is an intrusion, and all the Whitepeople act tight and attentive to our movements. The eyes of fathers in sports jackets slide over my father’s attire: his Sunday-best suit. But it is not very expensive, and now I see the softest sheen on the pants’ bottom as Madaddy goes up the stairs ahead of me. Mothers twitter like scared larks. If they could jump up on one leg and take off they would. They try to now.”