:: Article

The Great American Obsession

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book was The Great Divide.]

In two big ways, Race is a bookend on what Studs had done up until then. When he was starting work on it, his longtime transcriber, Cathy Zmuda, passed away. She had transcribed all of his interviews since Division Street. The book is dedicated to her, and her work would be continued here on by Sydney Lewis.

As the book was being finished, Studs’ publisher, André Schiffrin was forced to resigned from Pantheon after he refused to reduce the number of titles Pantheon put out and to cut his staff. Schiffrin would found The New Press after he left, and when they were up and running, Studs submitted Race. Studs stayed with Schiffrin out of loyalty – “he gave me my career,” he said. All of Studs’ later books would be published by The New Press, while his old ones – with the exception of Chicago and The Great Divide would be reissued.

The issue of race had been something Studs had wanted to tackle since Division Street, ever since things were brought up in that book that he wanted to confront head on. Lucy Jefferson, the woman at the Hull House who had talked how it is important to have a “feeling tone,” had brought up a son and daughter, and later a grandson, all of whom Studs stayed in touch with and interviewed for the book. Lucy Jefferson, who died in 1984, is the second interview in the book, a reprint of the one she did for Division Street.

Kid Pharaoh’s interview from Division Street also appears, partially. Now, he describes himself as “pro-black,” because he drives African-Americans in his building to school and helps them out. He also liked Harold Washington and voted for him against all odds. He ends the interview saying that whites, who mistreated blacks for hundreds of years, are starting to be punished by becoming a minority. “I love it,” he says.

The first interview in the book is with Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till. Till was a black teenager from Chicago murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. Both of his accused killers were acquitted. Till’s death was one of the catalysts that ignited the civil rights movement, another being Rosa Parks’ arrest a few months later.

Also included in the book are interviews with participants in the 1965 Selma march, which Studs participated in, and people who boarded the Peace Train, one of the special trains that went from Chicago to Washington on the occasion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Many of the interviews are with people who have changed their views on race. Kid Pharaoh, partially, but also people like June Schroeder and her husband Jim. June had been raised by anti-Semitic racist folks and she had grown out of it – she wonders allowed how some kids can forget what they’ve been carefully taught and some cannot.

Studs also interviews Jim Capraro, a community organizer and resident of the working-class neighborhood of Marquette Park on the southwest side of Chicago. In 1966, Martin Luther King marched through the park and was met by violent protests. Capraro was in the crowd, but wasn’t violent, he knew it was wrong. He said up until then, he thought anyone could make it in America, regardless of race. He had never seen the racial hatred exhibited that day. Capraro decided that day to become an activist in the civil rights movement, against the war in Vietnam and later to empower the poorer people in his neighborhood.

Frank Chin, the novelist and playwright is also interviewed in the book about the Asian-American experience, and how the civil rights movement helped them realize that their portrayal in American society was not flattering. Chinatown schools opposed integration of schools because they didn’t want to be associated with blacks.

The book is subtitled ‘How whites and blacks feel about the great American obsession.’ Despite it being an obsession, many of the problems brought about by racism are still around. Clarence Page, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune tells of when he was a young reporter and it was hard to sell stories about poor blacks on the south side to the white editorial board.

Studs was honored in his lifetime for his helping to progress race relations. He began listening to “race records” when he was at the University of Chicago – he would commute from the north side to Hyde Park, and one of the stopping points was in Bronzeville where he would find these records. Through them he discovered his good friends Big Bill Broonzy and Mahalia Jackson. When he got his own TV show, Studs’s Place, he originally had Fletcher Butler on the cast as a pianist – he said in a later interview it was the first time a black and white man appeared together as equals. Butler made his living playing for wealthy families and left the show soon after it started. He was replaced by guitarist Win Stracke and pianist Chet Roble. Mahalia Jackson appeared on the show as herself.

Studs is the only white writer to be included in the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. The hall of fame’s founder, the poet Haki Madhubuti, was asked about this and he said “He is spiritually one of ours.”

[Next time: Studs talks about growing old in Coming of Age.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 10th, 2012.