Kotlowitz, Alex. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2019.
Reviewed by Sara Paretsky
The demonstrations that swept America in the wake of George Floyd’s murder seemed to show that the country had reached a tipping point: centuries after the enslavement of Africans arrived in the New World, a majority of white people realized that Black Lives Matter. Over two thousand towns, even those with few or no residents of color, held marches to protest not just Floyd’s murder, but the many thousands of lynchings during these four hundred years.
The demonstrations stirred intense feelings: hope, that the country might be ready to dig down and undo the economic injustices perpetrated against Black Americans throughout their history in America. Shame, on the part of white Americans at the breadth and depth of injustices we’d never paid enough attention to. Outrage, at the way in which the criminal justice system—from laws and public policy, to police on the ground, to the courts and the prisons—operates to humiliate, isolate and punish Black Americans.
And then, twelve days after Floyd’s murder, Chicago experienced its most violent weekend in six decades: sixty shot, thirteen killed, all Black or Latinx, some as young as twenty months old. The violence in Chicago has continued at a high level so far this summer.
Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer is an essential book for understanding how rage and despair overwhelm hope in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Kotlowitz, best known for There Are No Children Here, spent five years in conversation with people on Chicago’s South and West sides. They recounted their experience with violence—as victims, perpetrators, witnesses, families. He distilled these conversations into a kind of journal of the terrible fracturing that poverty and gun violence inflict on individuals and on their communities. It is beautifully written, deeply thought-out, and extremely timely.
Chicago is notorious for its murders. Although both in absolute numbers and in its murder rate, the city doesn’t rank in America’s top ten, Kotlowitz writes that the city’s extreme racial segregation, and the high level of Black poverty, make Chicago “a symbol of the personal and collective wreckage…of the nation’s most impoverished and segregated neighborhoods. Citizens killing citizens, children killing children, police killing young black men. A carnage so long-lasting, so stubborn, so persistent, that it’s…virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in the country [or]…about race.”
In 1945, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton published Black Metropolis: A Study of Black Life in a Northern City; the northern city was Chicago. In 1945, ninety percent of Black Chicagoans were packed into a strip of the city’s South Side, the “Black Belt,” about 60 blocks long and ten blocks wide. Although the boundaries of the Black Belt have stretched longer and wider since 1945, the extreme nature of Chicago’s segregation hasn’t changed.
Black Metropolis was a study by two Black University of Chicago sociologists. In clear, unemotional language they detail the policies of both the city and the nation which were designed to keep Chicago’s Black population separate and unequal. Restrictive housing covenants, covering about 75 percent of Chicago’s residential housing, allowed realtors to decide when and how to open an area to rental or purchase by African Americans.
Various federal programs, starting in 1934, which offered mortgage loan guarantees to homebuyers, specifically excluded Black neighborhoods; those neighborhoods were outlined in red on federal housing maps. While home ownership created a robust white middle class, Black Americans were excluded from this economic gift, along with access to better paying jobs, leading to the extremes of poverty in Chicago’s Black Belt.
Chicago has been my home since I arrived in 1966 as a volunteer in the Civil Rights movement. Local activists had been seeking to overturn the real estate covenants for three decades; they thought bringing Dr. Martin Luther King to the city would turn an international spotlight on the city’s segregationist policies, and they wanted volunteers like me in the neighborhoods to do anything asked of us in the struggle.
That summer, Marquette Park, near where I was working, was the scene of terrifying white riots. On August 5, thousands of my mostly white Catholic neighbors beat up cops and nuns for protecting or standing with Black demonstrators, torched cars, and hurled insults at the Catholic archbishop of Chicago, who stood with Dr. King—and had sent a pastoral letter to all Catholic parishes telling them that supporting open housing was Christ-like behavior.
At the end of the day, Dr. King said, “I have never in my life seen such hate, not in Mississippi or Alabama. This is a terrible thing.”
Fair housing acts and ordinances in the following decades were largely ignored, especially in Chicago. This further cemented the economic hardships created by redlining and restrictive covenants. These forces created a congested, segregated, economically deprived area: today unemployment in the Black Metropolis is three times the rate for the city as a whole.
The city has exhibited ongoing disdain for good schools or other social services in the Black Metropolis. The first Mayor Daley built the notorious giant public housing complexes, with deliberate shoddiness, as a dumping ground for the city’s African-American population. More recently, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed schools in poor Black neighborhoods. He had those children bused to underperforming schools in distant neighborhoods even when a majority white school was in walking distance from the closed Black school.
This is the milieu in which An American Summer takes place. Kotlowitz is not writing a policy prescription. The book is instead a witness to the grief and rage and confusion in which many of Chicago’s 800,000 African Americans live.
Kotlowitz says he wants these stories to “upend what we think we know. Trauma splinters memory… [Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien talks] about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for young and old…in certain neighborhoods in our cities.” By the time they are time they are five, many children in these neighborhoods have been exposed to so much gun violence that they are already exhibiting signs of PTSD.
In some ways, An American Summer stands as a rebuttal or a rebuke to the mostly white policymakers standing in judgment on the South and West sides. “Where were the parents?” is a frequent refrain when a child kills or is killed—including from former Mayor Emmanuel.
The parents were there, loving their children, doing the best they could under extreme circumstances. Kotlowitz writes about a woman named Lisa, whose son Darren was a murder victim in a drug deal gone bad. After the murder, a south suburban newspaper called Darren a thug who had brought his death on himself, another familiar refrain. His mother tried to protest that reading, culled only from a police blotter. In her letter to the paper, never published, Lisa said, “even after reading my words, many will…insist on believing that he was…a thug….The truth is that my son, just like many before him, has a mother who loved him (and misses him)…he was a brother, a father, a nephew…You have the right to own your perspective, but I have spoken my son’s truth.” Her son’s truth, someone else’s daughter’s or father’s or husband’s truths, these are what we learn from Kotlowitz.
Another of his rebuttals is aimed at the myth that a mafia-like code of silence keeps people in the neighborhoods from testifying against killers, when many people can identify them. The reality is that in communities where everyone knows everyone, it’s easy for killers to murder witnesses. Kotlowitz traces the life and death of Ramaine, who was shot, who decided to testify against his shooter, and—while doing all the things the larger society applauds like going to school, holding a steady job, looking after his family—was murdered in retaliation.
Kotlowitz listened to the social workers who try to patch together the traumatized children with whom they work. No child should endure a shooting, whether as victim or witness, but when this atrocity occurs in white neighborhoods, the community has a phalanx of counselors to work with the children. In Englewood, Lawndale and the other neighborhoods Kotlowitz visited, there is one social worker for an entire school, and yet every child in that school may well need help.
Social worker Anita visits her neediest students at home, tries to get them to finish classwork, to endure, survive. Thomas, one of her students, was ten when gunfire destroyed a friend: bullets ripped through the exterior walls and into the living room where the children were celebrating Nugget’s eleventh birthday. Thomas saw Nugget die. Six years later, another friend died in crossfire as they sat together on her front porch. It isn’t strange that Thomas has difficulty concentrating, speaking, staying in the present.
No one knows if white America’s current embrace of Black Lives Matter will translate into serious effort to reform four centuries of damage to Black Americans. But before jumping into policy discussions, before starting the long reading lists we’re all compiling, everyone should read An American Summer. You may leave it feeling a certain amount of trauma yourself. If so, that’s all to the good. If you can’t feel it, then change won’t be possible.
Chicago writer Sara Paretsky is best known for her detective novels featuring private eye VI Warshawski, most recently Dead Land (Morrow, 2020). Paretsky (and Warshawski) have a fierce attachment to their wounded city.
Featured image (at top): Chicago’s “Black Belt” in April, 1941. (Russell Lee, Apartment building in Negro section of Chicago, Illinois (1941), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)