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Racial Matters

Books About Chicago's South Shore Neighborhood Are All the Rage

Over the last 15 months, three other books besides Gouster Girl have come out about  the South Side of Chicago neighborhood of South Shore and its longstanding racial and economic difficulties, i

 

There is a novel about police brutality and gangs by a young black man, Gabriel Bump (Everywhere You Don't Belong). It officially goes on sale next week, but initial readers at Goodreads and other places have given it pretty good reviews.

 

There's a kind of memoir and economic assessment of South Shore as a community by a man who grew up in South Shore, Carlo Rotella. Published by the University of Chicago Press, it came out last spring, and is an intriguing read about his conversations and meanderings around the neighborhood trying to make sense of the wide economic disparities he observes. 

 

And then there is the hugely popular bestseller by MichelIe Obama (Becoming), which devotes its opening 60 pages or so to her growing-up years in South Shore.  She laments, at times, the exodus of whites and middle class blacks from the neighborhood, and the doom that has meant..

 

Each author has a different story to tell, a different time frame, and a different perspective to offer, based on their life experiences and/or research. The volume of literature is testimony to the big impact South Shore has on the people who grow up there. Indeed, there's a Facebook page as well: "I grew up in Chicago (South Shore), which has more than 2,000 members. 

 

By the way, each of the authors I mentioned here, including myself, now lives somewhere other than South Shore. Bump lives in Buffalo, Rotella and I live in the Boston area, and Michelle Obama is mainly in Washington. 

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Here Is What Some Initial Readers Are Saying About Gouster Girl

If you grew up in Chicago, you'll find Gouster Girl enchanting, evocative, and difficult to put down. Here's what some initial readers are saying on Amazon:
 
-For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago…. It's a must for anyone who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s.
 
-I so enjoyed all of the descriptions of places I of course remembered as a South Sider!
 
-One of those difficult to put down books even though you know it's time to go to sleep.
 
-Gumpert is unflinchingly honest in his description of a lost world, which makes this novel not only a moving personal story, but a portrait of a bygone age with lessons for today.
 
It's available in digital at a ridiculously low introductory price, and in paperback, all via the home page of this site. 

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Can Gouster Girl Be Appreciated by non-Chicagoans?

Gouster Girl is a historical novel set on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, a time of incredible racial tension in Chicago and around the country.  One concern I had about the novel from early on was whether it would be of interest to people who had little knowledge or connection to Chicago.
 
Yesterday, I received two comments that shed light on that question. The first was a comment on Amazon from a reader who wonders about that exact question--if Gouster Girl has appeal outside of Chicago:
 
For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago. Like Jeff, the book's protagonist, I too grew up in South Shore in the 1960s and lived through the racial tensions and violence. Much of what Jeff experienced I also experienced a few years later at South Shore High School.
 
My experiences growing up were instrumental in shaping who I am today, and it was interesting to see my feelings corroborated in this book.

 

Nevertheless, I wonder whether this book will appeal to those who did not grow up in South Shore in the 1960s. Dear readers, I challenge you to find out.
 
So I took the challenge, or shall I say, by coincidence I received a second comment yesterday from a psychologist I know, who grew up in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, and was captivated by Gouster Girl:
 
Our divisions growing up were very much related to social class - blue collar vs. white collar. But we didn't have the intense racial and religious divides you describe  in Gouster Girl. For me, the story brought back some of the angst and general visceral discomfort about identity and social connections of those year and multiplied it by 100!
 
The intense stress and confusion and hatred described in your book is so painfully moving. Somehow the general context of the age group plus the racial and religious divides that existed — and which were actually enhanced by the government, police, cultural, real estate practices, etc.-- felt almost unbearable to me. You did a wonderful job of fostering this strong emotional experience that I had in the reading of the book.
 
So the initial feedback is encouraging. Gouster Girl may well have life beyond Chicago.

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Only Eddie Murphy Could Make Inner-City Racial Conflict So Funny

Black comedian Eddie Murphy made a triumphal return to Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and revived some of the characters he played when he was last on 35 years ago, including Buckwheat and Gumby.
 
But it was his reincarnation of "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," the takeoff on Mr. Rogers, that probably drew the most laughs, especially this monolog within the sketch: 

 
Mister Robinson (Eddie Murphy) tying his shoes: "My neighborhood has gone through so much. It's going through something called 'gentrification.' Can you say, 'gentrification,' boys and girls?  
 
"It's like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money and, poof, all the black people are gone." 
 
"You know where the black people go?" Pause, as Murphy looks wide-eyed, and prepares to deliver his punch line. 
 
"They all go to Atlanta!!!"
 
The crowd loved it, in large part because the joke is over in less than 30 seconds, which is about as much time as most whites want to think about such unpleasantness as poor blacks being displaced by well-to-do whites in old city areas of New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Washington, DC, and others. 
 
Back in the early 1980s, when Murphy launched his takeoff on Mr. Rogers, he was doing jokes about "white flight," which in a sense is the flip side of gentrification. Instead of whites moving back into the city to displace blacks, back then blacks were crowding into white neighborhoods, and whites were fleeing, often to the suburbs. 
 
It all began in the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks who were part of the Second Great Migration from the South, were pouring into northern big cities. Whites felt threatened with the prospect of not just living among blacks, but living among poor blacks. While the whites feared crime, they also feared their property values would decline. The South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, where Michelle Obama grew up, saw some two-thirds of its white folks flee during the decade 1960-70.
 
In Chicago, the mass exodus of whites, and eventually of middle-class blacks, led to the rise of mostly black street gangs that to this day continue to raise havoc via shootouts that claim young blacks kids and teens as victims. 
 
My novel, Gouster Girl, is about the trauma of racial conflict and the white flight that took place in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1960s. It's told through the eyes of an interracial teenage couple in love, and when you read it, you'll begin to understand why so many whites and blacks don't want to spend much longer than the few seconds Eddie Murphy devoted to the subject of inner-city racial turnover in "Mister Robinson's neighborhood." 

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