Dawn Turner Goes Back to the Maiden of the ’70s and What’s Left Behind

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THREE GIRLS FROM BRONZEVILE
A Uniquely American Memoir, Race, Fate, and Brotherhood
by Dawn Turner

Publishing is filled with tales of stamina and redemption – stories of extraordinary people who, with patience and courage, good luck and supportive mentors, scrambled their way out of poverty to reach the heights of mainstream success. From tragedy to glory, from homelessness to Harvard.

“Three Girls from Bronneville,” written wholeheartedly by Dawn Turner, is not one of those stories. A former columnist for The Chicago Tribune and the author of two novels, Turner interrupts the monolithic narrative of Black Chicago as ruined and broken, as well as the one-note stereotypes about growing up in public housing. Instead, it offers a textured portrait of a moment in a particular place: 1970s Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and the home of hundreds of thousands of new Black residents of the city. He escaped the terrorism of the Jim Crow South in the early 20th century. According to Turner’s grandmother, who came from Mississippi in the first wave of the Great Migration, there they did what Blacks always do: “We took a lot of scrap and sewed a world.”

In episodic chapters that read like stand-alone short stories woven into one whole, Turner tries to understand how three Black girls with very similar aspirations end up with wildly different destinies. Turner, her younger sister Kim, and her best friend Debra grew up in the same environment, a land of milk and honey where both well-intentioned and willful neglect turn sour—red line, contract buying, and Black wealth, opportunity, and other policies. hope. Turner writes that Bronzeville “specializes in the broken, split in half”, “a walled world away.”

But as this book shows, it wasn’t just that. On the clotheslines running between the buildings, he could see the full spectrum of economic conditions in the community: “Steel mill workers’ overalls in flames. The aprons of the bloody slaughterhouse workers. Medical students’ lab coats with monograms. Printed blouses and A-line skirts of school teachers and social workers. They all move with the wind, sway and dance on the ropes.”

Driving Turner’s narrative is a vexing question that continues to haunt him: How did Kim manage to accumulate markers of success—a college degree, a career, a husband, a home in the country, while sinking into the loss of a baby as a teenager? alcoholism and died of a heart attack at the age of 23; and Debra battled drug addiction and eventually shot and killed a man?

Turner’s suspension between two worlds provides an ideal perspective for the book. Even when he leaves Bronzeville, he never leaves her behind. Like the poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, she is the native girl of Black Chicago and has a deep knowledge of the place and its people. Instead of judging her friend and sister for their choices, she hugs him tightly: “There but I go for the grace of God

Recalling their youth, Turner describes in careful detail the girls wandering unattended across the paved landscape, hitting all the familiar milestones of black youth of the ’70s: Noxzema, training bras, hot combs on the stove. On the Commodore’s “Brick House” playlist – “36, 24, 36, oh what a winning hand” – “Good Times”, “The Jeffersons” and “Roots” on television.

Dawn, Debra, and Kim had one foot in life as the so-called dream children: the first generation of the civil rights movement to realize their hard-won liberties. But in the first wave of the positive movement, only Turner could reap the benefits by entering the University of Illinois at Urbana as one of just one thousand African American students in a sea of ​​34,500 people. “All I knew about my white peers was the stuff I collected from ‘Brady Brunch,'” he writes. “I was sure what they knew about blacks they saw on the nightly news.”

Turner’s book began as a series of Tribune columns about Debra who killed a man she smoked with in 1998. He was convicted of murder in 2000 and served 19 years. When Turner told the story about his close friend to his editor at The Tribune, comparing Debra’s background to his own, he frankly told her, “It could never have been you.” He remembers how wrong he felt was to “act as if the right combination of anger, desperation, hopelessness, and drugs couldn’t get you to a place you never imagined.”

There but for the grace of God.

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