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Kevin Coval Gives Chicago’s History Back To The People

This year’s anniversary of Chicago’s incorporation as a city landed on a Saturday. That same day hundreds of people were lined up around two blocks in the heart of the city for an unusual celebration. Confounded passersby wondered out loud what particular event had enticed all these individuals to gather on State Street in early March and the answer was met with even more bemusement. That night, outside the Harold Washington Library, there was no sold-out show or movie premiere to be shown, but rather the release of a new book.

Kevin Coval is a poet, teacher, and a passionate advocate for Chicago’s arts programs. His love for the city and the creatives that inhabit it inspired him to write A People’s History of Chicago, a compilation of poems that celebrate its history from the perspective of those whose stories often go unheard of yet have left a profound impact on its shaping.

“With all the education work I’m able to do, I really wanted to provide something for the classrooms, CPS, and colleges that would be this counter-narrative to the dominant tropes of history.”

Kevin Coval

Now, a few days removed from the book launch, Coval is having coffee at a local cafe in Wicker Park while candidly speaking. “I was surprised” he recalls of the weekend’s success, “there are almost 400 seats in that space, and to ‘sell-out’ a book launch is great.”

This is Coval’s seventh book, but it’s accompanied by one of his most ambitious roll-out plans to date. In addition to the packed event held at Harold Washington, he also expects to do “180 readings in 365 days –at least one reading in every neighborhood–and build an archive that is incorporating voices of the people’s history of Chicago” from those who attend these readings.

The tour is a daunting task by itself. To say Coval is a busy man would be an understatement taking into consideration that he is also the director of the Young Chicago Authors program and the co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth festival in America. He attributes his ability to manage all these events to the “great team YCA is building,” expanding later on “everybody in the organization is doing, especially in this month of March, so much to make this space open and what it is to young people, their parents, teachers, and siblings from across the city.”

March has been an increasingly hectic month for Coval ever since Louder Than A Bomb was founded in 2000. As the festival has grown, its finals have moved to bigger venues and held around the beginning of spring. Nonetheless, as he explains how LTAB inspires his writing, it is abundantly clear that he relishes helping give the youth a platform that wouldn’t necessarily be there for them otherwise and greatly admires them.

“In a lot of ways, when I’m writing, I’m thinking about them as my audience. I feel that if it works with young people in Louder Than A Bomb it’s going to work with everybody because they have the best ear and are also the best critics at sussing out bullshit. They will let you know, if it’s not hot, they will let you know.”

He also credits his “non-traditional teachers” for the singular approach to his work. Mentioning public figures such as KRS-One, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Bill Ayers as mentors, alongside family members and Mr. Clay (his one “good high school teacher), even before he was able to meet them. He’s a perpetual student and is proud to claim “I’ve learned from people who I have not met.” One of those people was Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks,  who passed away the same year LTAB was conceived. The legendary poet is now the inspiration behind the current festival’s competition and also featured in A People’s History of Chicago in a poem as well as one of the illustrations done by Hebru Brantley, Paul Branton, Runsy and Max Sansing exclusively for the book.


Illustration by Runsy.

The book relates in chronological order the stories of crucial Chicagoans –whose efforts have been minimized or completely erased from regular textbooks–in a passionate yet ambiguous manner that incites the reader to look up and find out more about these characters. This is by design. “The book is at one time a mirror as well as it is a portal,” Coval explains. “The same way hip-hop sent me to the library to begin to research, [the book’s purpose is to] propel you forward to your own interests into your own interests, into your own experience.”

Being a self-described student of hip-hop, the book also touches on the rich history the genre has had in Chicago and its importance as “it continues to unveil these incredibly important truths about how we should interact with one another, sets up counter social engagement strategies and be in a community.”

Common, Kanye West, King Louie and Chief Keef all symbolically represent their respective global movements rooted in the city within the pages of the book and Chance The Rapper, a former student of Coval’s, volunteered to write a personal foreword. It’s through hip-hop that Coval was able to realize that “we are the best documentaries of our own experience” and A People’s History of Chicago is driven by that very ethos. Shortly after finishing his coffee, Coval heads to the YCA offices located a block away, running past blinking pedestrian stop signs in order to return to his work as quickly as possible during an extremely windy day that only a city like Chicago could produce. A unique environment that raised the Gwendolyn Brooks of the past, the Kevin Covals of the present and the Chance The Rappers of the future.


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