Alderman Toni Preckwinkle has put the kibosh on a street honoring Saul Bellow in Hyde Park (great lede: “In a city whose streets commemorate fascist pilots and other controversial figures, it should have been a rubber-stamped request . . .”), because Bellow had an uncomfortable relationship to blacks and Latinos that sometimes expressed itself in his works and comments. The Tribune article quotes Studs Terkel summing it up quite reasonably: “I don’t think he was a racist; I think he was a bit more scared of black-skinned people than he should have been.”
A richer version of Terkel’s take was described by the journalist Brent Staples in his memoir Parallel Time, which is excerpted as “Mr. Bellow’s Planet” in the outstanding anthology Literary Journalism. Staples–a former Reader contributor and Sun-Times reporter–was, like Bellow, once a young, gifted intellectual at the University of Chicago, but Staples was a black grad student in Hyde Park, a neighborhood with a long and unpleasant history of racial tension.
Some of the essay is simply a moving account of living in Hyde Park, to which I returned recently: “By nightfall I was crazed with cabin fever. I decided to go to the movies. This meant taking the el to the North Side, to the Biograph Theatre. The trip was punishing, especially with the Jackson Park el on its Sunday schedule. A wait of forty minutes was not uncommon. Some el platforms offered the mercy of enclosed waiting areas. But mainly you stood in the open while the guillotine winds cut you to pieces.”
Staples fell in love with Bellow’s work during his time at the U. of C., in part because of its portrait of the neighborhood. “Dangling Man captured it all. The chrysalis character of graduate school. The idleness and sterility of Hyde Park. The vast emptiness of the wintertime streets. The ice clinging to the gutters into spring, and the desperate longing for warmth. This novel was ground beneath my feet.”
Inevitably, Staples stumbled across the palpable racial fear in Hyde Park, both on its streets and in Bellow’s words. “Crazy buffaloes populate the slums that surrounded Hyde Park. A pork chop chases Charlie down the middle of his street, presumably at night. These passages made me angry. It was the same anger I felt when white people cowered past me on the street.” He tried to act friendly, and people would run; he tried to be invisible, and people would cross the street. (Whistling Vivaldi or the Beatles put people at ease, however.)
My resident head, also a black PhD student, encountered the same response. Which makes sense, given that the university discourages students from taking the Red Line alone at night, going so far as to create a private, late-night shuttle from the Garfield stop for students returning from north side carousing. I’ve never found the area to be appreciably more dangerous than Lakeview, Logan Square, or many other haunts, but after missing my stop on the bus last night and walking back to the neighborhood at midnight from 67th Street, anxiously scanning the sidewalks, I can’t say that I don’t fall victim to its reputation.
Rather than live in terror of their terror, Staples began to take a perverse pleasure when people fled his presence, and started to plan his strategy for Hyde Park’s eminence grise. “Perhaps I’d corner him on the stairs and take up questions about ‘pork chops’ and ‘crazy buffaloes’ and barbarous black pickpockets. I wanted to trophy his fear.”
Was Bellow a racist? Probably not, but he was probably more scared of black-skinned people than he should have been.
Anyway–“Mr. Bellow’s Planet” is an overlooked masterpiece of Chicago writing; look it up.