Clemency, Corruption, and Blagojevich: 10 Crucial Chicago Reads


On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump announced he would be granting clemency to 11 individuals, including Bernard Kerik, ex-New York City police commissioner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, and Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois.

Convicted on 17 of 20 counts of public corruption (among them wire fraud and attempted extortion), Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison in December of 2011. He has since served eight of them.

Chicago— and Illinois’s—tumultuous, corrupt politics and policies, past and present, are no secret, and with both back in the spotlight, now is a crucial time to further examine the region we here at Booklist call home. For illuminating portraits of our city, state, and of course, that notorious Senate seat scandal, see below.

1919, by Eve L. Ewing

During her research for Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018), sociologist, educator, and versatile writer Ewing encountered a 1922 “government commissioned” report titled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. Ewing felt compelled to enter into a “conversation” with the report, after realizing, as did another Chicago writer, Claire Hartfield, author of the YA book, A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (2018), that the full story of the riot remains little known. She took up her poet’s pen and created exquisitely distilled lyrics. These clarion and haunting poems are sure to galvanize adults and teens alike.

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz

Kotlowitz set out to document how this tragic plague of street violence derails, burdens, and poisons lives for generations, choosing to chronicle the carnage of one summer in Chicago, that of 2013. Kotlowitz’s hard-hitting and powerfully clarifying dispatches bring into the light people who love their families and friends and who work hard to take care of others, yet who are undermined, betrayed, and brutalized by violence, racism, poverty, and an unconscionable lack of understanding, caring, resources, and social and political will. Kotlowitz writes, “It’s my hope that these stories will help upend what we think we know.” It is our hope that this book will be widely read and discussed. 

The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-Sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century, by Jim Elledge

In this fascinating history of Chicago’s queer past, Elledge (Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy, 2013) has created an eye-popping portrait of the inhabitants of Towertown, Bronzeville, West Madison Street, and other bohemian neighborhoods from Chicago’s incorporation in 1837 to the mid–1940s. These were the places where the city’s homosexual population lived, loved, and worked. Retrieving the lives of mostly unsung people, with the exceptions of homosexual rights activist Henry Gerber and pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Elledge presents a thoroughly researched, invaluable, and vastly entertaining tale of lost Chicago.

Chicago: A Biography, by Dominic A. Pacyga

Pacyga portrays Chicago with time-lapse velocity as it morphs from a swampy portage to a city of skyscrapers. Concentrating on Chicago’s ever-changing cultural diversity, notorious politics, and the crucial role technology played in the city’s rapid rise, Pacyga seeds the big picture with cameos of fascinating individuals. He begins with the first outsider to build a home along the brackish river, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, and moves on to the brash entrepreneurs whose names are immortalized on buildings and street signs. A vivid, superbly well-illustrated portrait of an essential American city.

The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, edited by Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval

This is no ordinary anthology. It’s a multigenre compilation, curated by Johnson, a professor of African American studies, and poet Coval (A People’s History of Chicago, 2017), cofounder of Chicago’s Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival, and it reflects the editors’ kaleidoscopic approach to literary work in one of the most diverse—and one of the most segregated—cities in the U.S. By turns academic and artistic, the collection includes interviews with community activists, essays on Black Lives Matter and against Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and an artists’ roundtable discussion on Afrofuturism. But at its heart are poems, and they are some of the most fiery, fiercely intelligent, wickedly funny verses brought together in one place. 

Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, by Eve L. Ewing

In 2013, Chicago closed 49 public schools, 90 percent of them majority black. The city declared these schools underutilized and failing. But when the closures were announced, teachers, students, parents, and community members protested. If these schools were as awful as the city said, then why the fight to keep them? This question drives Ghosts in the Schoolyard, and to answer it, Ewing examines stories of specific school closures and longer histories of segregation on Chicago’s South Side. Ewing’s varied approach to the closures suggests there may also be a variety of solutions—solutions that value local knowledge and real human experience.

Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself out of the Governor’s Office and into Prison, by Jeff Coen and John Chase

The story of the disgraced Illinois governor who sold the U.S. Senate seat of President Obama is well known, another fading chapter in the long history of corruption in the state. Chicago reporters Coen and Chase impart more inside knowledge than the national press has. Drawing on interviews and trial transcripts, Coen and Chase provide a fast-paced and probing recollection of the rise and fall of Blagojevich and the behind-the-scene deal making that brought him down. The authors go beyond Blagojevich to ask broader questions about how the system produces such people and why citizens elect them.

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago, by Roger Biles

The son of an attorney active in South Side Chicago politics, Washington grew up learning the ins-and-outs of politics long before he made history as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. Drawing on charisma, eloquence, and a history of progressive political positions, Washington triumphed after a long, hard campaign. But Washington then faced bitter opposition from white aldermen, leading to the notorious “Council Wars” and the blocking of much of his agenda. History professor Biles explores the intra- and inter-party political tensions in Chicago that helped cultivate Washington and redefined the city’s political and business landscape.

The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, by Natalie Y. Moore

A proud South Side native and South Side bureau reporter for Chicago’s NPR station, WBEZ, Moore seeks to dispel misconceptions about this large and diverse community, “the heart of black America” and a prime example of the consequences of persistent racial segregation. Moore vividly, even poetically, describes neighborhood scenes bright and bleak; cites intriguing studies; conducts telling interviews about Chicago’s public-housing debacle, struggling public schools, and the effort to eradicate food deserts; and critiques inaccurate, racialized media coverage. Ultimately, Moore refines our perception of the realities of segregation and the many possible paths to change.

The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, by Thomas Dyja

Dyja contends that “Understanding America requires understanding Chicago,” and he shows why in this robust, outspoken, zestfully knowledgeable, and seductively told synthesis of biography, culture, politics, and history. Writing with velocity, wry wit, and tough lyricism in sync with Chicago’s “ballsy” spirit, Dyja focuses on the years between the Great Depression and 1960, dissecting the city’s “three most powerful ­institutions––the Cook County Democratic Party, the Catholic Church, and the Mob.” Here is the frenetic simultaneity of an evolving city torn between its tragic crimes and failings and tensile strength and creativity.



About the Author:

Briana Shemroske is Booklist's Marketing Associate. She graduated with a BA from Lake Forest College where she studied English Writing and Art History. In her free time she can be found eating cheeseburgers, frolicking with her schnoodle, Moritz, and feebly attempting to play board games. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Briana.

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