There are no chairs in the reading room at Guild Books in Lincoln Park, so the mourners will have to stand.
They should not be mourning, actually. They’re here to celebrate A Foot in Each World, a collection of newspaper essays recently published to much critical acclaim by Northwestern University Press. Indeed, they might be jubilant, except that Leanita McClain, the young black journalist who wrote the essays, overdosed on sleeping pills a little more than two years ago.
“So, good of you to come,” Clarence Page tells a small group of well-wishers. He’s a Chicago Tribune columnist and editorial board member. McClain and he were married once. They remained close friends until the day she died. It was Page who sifted through the thousands of words McClain wrote in her ten-year career as a Tribune writer and member of the editorial board. He edited the book and wrote the introduction. And today he is promoting the book with a Saturday afternoon reading.
He looks at his watch. The room is filled, about 50 people. It’s time to get started. He nods toward Richard Bray, the store’s owner, who introduces Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett.
“I can see Leanita now, walking down Michigan Avenue in her nice suit and coat, so pretty and proud,” says Jarrett, who had worked with McClain at the Tribune.
“She was listed as one of the top ten young professionals by a national magazine. She had a job that most white women would like to have. There was Leanita McClain, from the Ida B. Wells housing project on the south side, in the editorial board room of the Chicago Tribune.
“I was filled with hurt and pain when she died. There’s nothing I could do to bring her back.”
He pauses. A few people stir. One listener looks down at the photo of McClain on the inside jacket of the book. Staring back from the pictures is a light-skinned black woman with fluffy brownish, almost blond hair. She looks like an intellectual, peering out from behind her glasses. She is young. She was only 32 years old when she died.
The listener opens the book, and while Jarrett talks, starts to read Page’s introduction. It’s a sad story, this tale of Leanita McClain. The book’s title comes from one of her most controversial essays, one she wrote for Newsweek magazine.
“I am a member of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success,” McClain wrote in that article.
Angry words, they were defiant and controversial as well. McClain never expected the response she got, Page recalls. The essay provoked hundreds of letters—some hostile, most sympathetic—and it introduced Leanita McClain to the rest of the world.
McClain was hired in 1973, fresh out of graduate school: a 21-year-old kit, a bit naive and painfully shy. She was a general assignment reporter, sent out on the typically goofy kid-reporter stories. Like the circus. They made her go to the circus and ride an elephant. Give us a breezy, ha-ha-ha account, they told her.
Only Leanita did not like the elephant. She hated riding it. The story she turned in made the whole experience out to be a painful, mournful, miserable moment.
After a while, they moved her to the photo desk. She was as talented as any reporter on the staff, everyone at the paper agreed on that. But, Page wrote, she did not like having to “prod and cajole strangers into revealing intimate details of their lives.” As a photo editor, she could do her job in relative peace and quiet.
And that’s where she was when the Newsweek essay was published. The Tribune managers could hardly believe their luck. Here was an undiscovered talent already aboard. They promoted her to assistant editor of the Perspective page.
“It was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life,” Page recalls. He explained that she had to help supervise layout and budgets and to manage writers. Her fights with Jarrett over style and deadlines were legendary.
The listener looks up. Jarrett is chuckling about it even today.
“She was my editor, that’s right, my editor. One day I looked up and she was giving me the orders. ‘This word isn’t right.’ ‘Change this sentence.’ We’d have a little discussion. ‘What do you know about journalism?’ I’d tell her all the time. ‘What do you know about writing.’ I’d say. Man, what she knew. She did a job.”
It was hard on McClain, though. She did not want to be a boss. When she was promoted to the editorial board and given a twice weekly column in 1983, it was a major break and a grand distinction. She was the first black and only the second woman ever named to the Tribune editorial board. Stripped of most of her bureaucratic duties, she was left alone to write.
She should have been happy. Most people figured she was. But there was a sad side to McClain that most people never saw. She liked Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, Page says. Often she’d sit alone listening to the most haunting and sad songs of Barbra Streisand. And she expressed her depression in poetry recorded in notebooks and kept hidden in her room.
“WHAT BECOMES OF THE LONELY
What will become of me?
Shall I burn in flames of fire,
Or drown within the sea?
WHAT BECOMES OF THE LONELY?
What will become of me?
Shall I pick the flower of life
Or be stung by its bee?
WHAT DOES BECOME OF THE LONELY?
What will become of me?”
She wrote that poem in 1963, Page says, when she was only 11 years old.
At the podium now, Jarrett is winding up. He turns to Page and introduces him. He steps back a few feet and leans against the wall. The audience claps and Page steps forward to the podium.
Page looks for a moment. And then he takes a deep breath.
“The other day,” he starts, “I was visiting a class at Chicago State University and the kids there wanted to know if they could make it.”
“And I said yes, you sure can make it. Leanita McClain was just like you, and she made it. She went straight to the top.
“If anyone has to receive credit, it’s her mom and dad. Her mother, Elizabeth McClain, is here today, and she has agreed to donate her proceeds from this book to a scholarship fund for minority journalists.
“Lea came from the public schools, and then Chicago State University. She went to Northwestern University. Her life is a remarkable story that combines the wonderful things about this country and some of the things it has to work on. She gave a voice to the voiceless, to quote the Reverend Jesse Jackson. We read a lot about the housing projects. But how often is it that we read it by people who grew up there?
“She was a wonderful role model for so many of us. It’s an understatement to say she made some people uncomfortable. Some people, like Clarence Pendleton,” he says, referring to one of President Reagan’s top black allies, “makes us comfortable with our prejudices. Lea made us all uncomfortable with them.”
She had this remarkable ability to express herself in prose, he explained. It must have been a source of relief, an outlet for frustration that helped divert her personal demons. She certainly had enough to write about. Race and racism. Chicago politics. Black middle class angst. These were all her favorite topics.
He mentions an essay McClain wrote for the Op-Ed section of the Washington Post, “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.” It was, perhaps, her most famous piece, coming out a few months after 1983’s racially divisive mayoral race between Harold Washington and Bernard Epton.
The bigotry exposed in that campaign, she wrote, “made me feel like machine-gunning every white face on the bus . . . Why is Chicago this way? Why my beloved city, so vital, so prosperous, so exhilarating? I do not have an answer. I wish I did. So here I am, blacker than I’ve ever been. But above all, human—a condition I share with everyone of every hue. I feel. I mistrust. I cry. And I now know that I can hate.”
A lot of people blasted her for that column, Page recalls. She really took some heat for that column. She told it like it is and they gave it to her good. From all sides. People just don’t like to hear the truth.
Most of the critics probably did not ever read the full essay, Page remarks. If they did, undoubtedly they missed its point.
One alderman—a former cop named Aloysius Majerczyk—introduced a resolution demanding that she be censored, whatever that meant. Radio commentator John Madigan likened her words to Mayor Daley’s orders that police “shoot to kill” black rioters during the wesr side riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King.
Now, Page is ready to have some fun with these two. “Alderman Majerczyk,” he says, “that great and distinguished statesman. And Madigan. John Madigan. Well . . .unlike a snake, Madigan hisses after he bites.”
The audience laughs, and Page smiles. It’s amazing what people will do to raise their spirits through hard times. During the 1983 campaign, Monroe Anderson, then a reporter on the Tribune, plastered his cubicle with racist literature released by Epton supporters. Most of the black staffers laughed at it, as though it were funny. But most “knew it was laughter to keep from crying,” McClain wrote.
And now Page looks as though he may cry himself. He opens the book to read, turning to an appropriate passage—the first few paragraphs of the Post piece.
“You know,” he says softly, “she never liked that headline. But she stood by it. She knew it was accurate.
“I just want you to listen to her words. Just listen to her command of language.” He pauses, smooths the page and starts to read a passage from the Post essay.
“‘Chicago—I’d be a liar if I did not admit to my own hellish confusion. How has a purebred moderator like me—the first black editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune—turned into a hate-filled spewer of invective in such little time? Even today, the vicious, psychotic events leading up to and following Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago leave me torn as never before. I’ve become a two-headed, two-hearted creature. The sides are in continual conflict, by turns pitying, then vilifying the other, sometimes with little reason, never with tranquility.’”
Page’s usually smooth voice cracks. He wipes tears from his eyes. His head is down and the audience cannot see his face, but he seems to be struggling. He swallows and pauses for a second to gain his composure. And then his voice, pocketed by the stillness of his audience, continues.
“‘I’ve built walls against whites who I once thought of as my lunch and vacation friends. And I’ve wrapped myself in rage as this sick, twisted city besieged the newspapers with letters wishing acts of filth by “black baboons” on the daughters of its employees. Just because it endorsed this black man.’“
He closes the book and looks up.
“I was working for Channel Two when I got the news that she had died. I got a call on my beeper and the fellow I talked to said that I had an important message. I knew it was bad.
“There are so many theories as to why Leanita killed herself,” he says. Job pressures, racism, guilt for having made it while other blacks, equally talented, failed. Page just shakes his head. None of these theories are conclusive. Life and death are never that simple.
“We will never know what it was that she took her life. We will never know why anyone takes their life. Many people will call it the ultimate escape. Some say that suicide is the ultimate form of criticism. Perhaps this time, for Lea, it was.”