Dawn Turner, Author of “Three Girls From Bronzeville,” Tours Her Neighborhood and Remembers Lives That Have Followed Which Paths – Or Have Jumped From The Ledge | Books


CHICAGO – Dawn Turner describes the Bronzeville of the 1970s as neither here nor there, as an electric and crumbling link, that rare Chicago neighborhood where circumstances and fate could go one way or the other. She grew up here, in this “cradle” of the Great Migration, once the home of Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright, arguably still “the epicenter of black business and culture” in Chicago, a crossroads where the future is not always predetermined and the past not always obvious. As she writes in her evocative new memoir, “Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Story of Race, Fate and Sisterhood,” here’s a Chicago “where all good and bad are simultaneously within reach”, drug dealers alongside surgeons, prostitutes alongside academics.

Standing on the sidewalk of his old neighborhood on a hot summer day, Turner, decades later, now in his fifties, gazes across the open field between high-rise apartment buildings.

“The three buildings over there, across the 35th, is Lawless Gardens,” she said. “My family lived in the most remote. The mall in between is modernized, but otherwise it all looks a lot like it was then. Bronzeville, however, is a different place today.

Later, if you moved into the neighborhood and brought in wealth or professional status, you were considered here as an urban pioneer. Today, neighborhood condos cost over $ 600,000. Once, when Turner was a child and his mother was learning to drive, they would search the neighborhood and his mother would remind them of the story: a black surgeon who did the first successful open heart surgery), he lived there. The first black insurance company here. Provident Hospital (the first black hospital), right there. Of course, part of that dynamic was made up of restrictive housing covenants. Everyone black had to live in the same place, regardless of their social class. You were confined to the area because of race. The benefit was so much history in a small area – but naturally when you’re a young kid you don’t always appreciate that.

We were standing in front of a long, tall blue tiled wall.

In Dawn Turner’s story, there is a lot more emotion here than in the house where Louis Armstrong lived. (On East 44th Street, for the record.) She calls it “The Ledge,” although it sounds more important in her story than it looks when you stand in front of it.

The Ledge runs away from an apartment complex and winds its way briefly through a small park. It overlooks the apartments along South Rhodes Avenue and East 32nd Place. He is around 12 feet tall, but at 10 or 11 he would appear taller. She wrote and rewrote “Three Girls From Bronzeville” several times, but always found herself from here. The book tells the story of herself, her younger sister Kim, and her best friend Debra Trice. The trio would come here, lean back, watch the sky and the overhanging leaves. “It was a perch,” she said. “We watched everything go by. We felt invisible.

For Turner, metaphorically, the Ledge also came to define who they became. It became the pivot from which three girls from Bronzeville looked to very different futures.

“I open (the book) with Debra asking me to jump and I’m like ‘No way!’ but that’s who she was. It’s not very high and I wouldn’t do it now but Debra was the boldest. When security came and told us to go, I was getting ready to go, but Debra and Kim, they were more like, “You can’t tell us what to do!” Then they would leave. But for me the rules were scaffolding. I liked the structure and not them. It has never been more important to them.

“Three Girls From Bronzeville,” which released Sept. 7 (Simon & Schuster) and spans five decades, follows their very divergent paths. Turner went on to become an author and Harvard Fellow and, for more than two decades, a popular reporter for the Chicago Tribune. But Kim would become an alcoholic and die young. Meanwhile, Trice, whose story is most important, is said to be serving 21 years for murder. The book does not sermonize, moralize, or cry generously, but rather considers three lives and the significant points in those lives where the promise gets stuck, improves, or goes south.

Indeed, full disclosure: Although Turner and I are not close and we have never worked together on the Tribune, she has already said a good word to me that has led to a prestigious journalism scholarship – to a certain extent. measure, Turner has played a central role in my own life. “We all have these moments,” she said. “I missed my first year of college. How did it happen to someone desperate to go to college? What would life have happened to if I never came back?

She did not miss turning points. In 2015 alone, Turner got a divorce, her daughter went to college, sold her house, and left the Tribune to write books full-time.

Kim, three years younger, was not as worried as her sister about having their family’s approval. When teenage Kim got pregnant and then lost the baby, “it seemed like a turning point,” Turner said, “and what my mom always regrets is that no one knew how to deal with it. that she was going to cry and eventually get over it. And we had long-time alcoholics in the family. It was another time. “Kim, whose drinking got worse, died of chronic alcoholism at age 24. For years, the family have reported that Kim died of a heart attack.

As for Trice – although they lived two floors apart in Lawless Gardens, she and Turner started their friendship at school. “At first I was watching her there because she stood out,” Turner said. “She was beautiful and so smart and has a mouth and she behaved badly, and when you’re not that kind of person, who isn’t attracted to that person?”

As an adult, Trice fell into a crack addiction. In 1998, she shot dead a man she used to take drugs with and was later sentenced to 50 years in prison in Indiana. In 2019, after reconciling with the victim’s family, earning a bachelor’s degree from a prison school (run by Oakland City University), and participating in numerous programs, her sentence was flayed and Trice was scrapped. been released. She has just completed her parole.

During a telephone interview, she told me that she did not remember a single turning point in her life but rather: “I was in a spiral because I had tried several times to clean myself and I was giving up a bit. , I was suicidal. “She remembers when she took the man she later killed to her neighborhood.” A car rolled over and said get on, they were going to so and so. I wanted to leave. I remember putting my hand in my hand. on the doorknob. I was ready to give it up. I looked back and it looked like: Really, are you going to leave me? I took my hand off the doorknob and said to them I should have gotten into that car.

From where we stand, surrounded by the manicured greens of the Lake Meadows development, cicadas hum, cyclists peddle, high school soccer players carry their gear across a field. Turner remembers a tennis court here, ice skating, short walks to the lake in the summer, all just minutes from the Lawless Gates. It’s almost idyllic.

“I look at this community and think of my great-grandparents who came during the Great Migration, looking for a second chance, hoping for a promised land,” Turner said. “Which wasn’t quite, then certainly not. But what does it mean to have an opportunity, to miss that opportunity and then hope to receive another bite of the apple? While working on the book for a decade, it turned out that she was writing about second chances, who gets them, who doesn’t. She had already written several plays on Debra and prison for the Tribune. “When it comes to black people, we often don’t get a second chance,” she said. “I walk into a room and I’m clearly a black human being, but what does that mean to the viewer?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that I look like Michelle Obama – aren’t there so many great black women? “

In particular, for black women, she said, the stakes and pressures to succeed are often only outweighed by the even narrower margin available to make mistakes. Trice had told Turner that she didn’t think she would become addicted to crack cocaine. Kim believed that the child she was carrying would help her “get her life back on track at a time when she was floundering.” She thought that would make her responsible. But she also didn’t want to be a single mom and when she lost the baby I saw it as her second chance and told her – and I regret it. She thought the baby would change her, which he did, but not in the way she expected.

Turner received her own second chance after being kicked out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for poor grades. “I wasn’t partying, I was protesting apartheid (in South Africa), I was doing a lot of things, but I also thought I could study like I did in high school, in a superficial way.” He was asked to take a year off, attend community college, show commitment. Which she did, and was allowed to come back after only a semester.

Of course, circumstances matter.

A teacher once told Turner she was smart. Who stayed with her. Her parents “let me know where my limits were and it became important.” Her grandmother reminded her that “low income people don’t have to be low income people.” Her mother gave her the Gwendolyn Brooks novel “Maud Martha,” which told the story of a kid in her neighborhood who “also lived like me,” Turner said. She had encouragement and temperament. On the other hand, who knows? People are easily defined. Just south of Lawless was the deteriorating Ida B. Wells housing project, surrounded by an iron fence, a kind of reminder that the future is also how you see yourself. Her family was “working class with middle class aspirations.” It is our parents’ dream.

But then, nothing is so easy.

Debra Trice, who now works at a medical warehouse in Indianapolis, remembers a childhood full of books, decent grades for a while, being the teacher’s pet for a while. She remembers that she was expected to get good grades. “But I didn’t know why. There was no diaper. There was no ‘You have to do this to get to this point.’ Having South African American parents, they were not education oriented. They brought me books. But no, I was never told I was smart. I didn’t hear it and I certainly didn’t know it.

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