Arionne Nettles details Black Chicago’s cultural influence

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Soul Train. The Chicago Bulls Three-Peats. Black silent films. Fashion Fair cosmetics.

These are just a handful of Black Chicago’s contributions to the world. This rich history is laid out in immaculate detail in We Are The Culture: Black Chicago’s Influence on Everything (Chicago Review Press), a new book by Chicago writer Arionne Nettles. In it, Nettles explains how the city has led pop culture in America for decades and gives insight into the ways culture spreads and shapes our lives.

We Are The Culture is the debut book by the journalist, pop culture commentator and native Chicagoan. WBEZ’s Reset talked with Nettles about how Black culture influenced Chicago, its culture and its journalism. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Arionne Nettles shines a light on the influence that Black Chicago has on pop culture and media history. Courtesy of Ajah Jolly

Sasha Ann-Simons: You write about being away at college in Florida, 900 miles from Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood where you grew up. You’re in a café, looking up at the TV with music videos on and, as you put it, “Here was Chicago – Black Chicago – right here in Tallahassee.” What did you see on the TV? What did that signal for you?

Arionne Nettles: I saw Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” video. This was 2003 — this was not the Kanye that we know today. But if you remember that video, it had shots throughout the city. It had shots of the Harold’s on 103rd and Houston, shots of people footworking at the Halsted Mall. I had actually just joined that dance team; we had just started a chapter of it at FAMU. We’re trying to break through and show Chicago culture down here in Florida. And I look up and it’s on the TV and all those homesick nerves flew away.

Your early chapters focus on the creation of The Chicago Defender newspaper and The [Chicago] Conservator. You tie in the stories of leading Black journalists of that time, like Ida B. Wells, Ferdinand L. Barnett and Robert Sengstacke Abbott. In your research, what are some things you learned that surprised you?

Today, we are taught that our lives have to be so separate from our careers as journalists. And I think that looking back at those times is a reminder of how much we can’t do that. Like, what goes on in the world, we are integrated into everything, and so many of the choices that they made to become journalists were because of what was happening, out of necessity.

As storytellers, they did those things, quite frankly, because there were issues happening and they wanted to expose things, or they wanted to give people information, or they wanted to help people become more self-reliant. All of those reasons were integrated into the world around them.

As journalists, we are a part of communities, we are a part of our world. We are not so separate that we are just doing this stuff for ourselves.

We are the Culture
Courtesy of Ajah Jolly
We are the Culture
Courtesy of Ajah Jolly

Tell us the story of Negro Digest and how that magazine sort of came about. I know this was before the birth of publications we know from Chicago like Ebony.

Negro Digest was actually [Ebony founder] John Johnson’s first publication. When you think about Reader’s Digest, and especially at this time, it was very white. Throughout the years, they started incorporating some Black writers, but there was not the Black perspective that John Johnson wanted to create. So he used his mother’s furniture on credit and went and started this magazine. He really was quite innovative in his approach to how he did it.

First of all, he was really good at marketing it. He would have friends and people he knew go around to newsstands and say stuff like “Hey, do you carry Negro Digest?” So the newsstands are like, “I don’t know, I guess we should be!”

And he had a really interesting column called “If I Were A Negro,” where famous white people would actually write columns. So Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a column where she talked about the war, and it really became quite popular.

Later on, as the word “negro” fell out of favor and as Black people, we turned towards the word “Black” and embraced Black power, it turned into more of a literary magazine called Black World. But by that point, we had Ebony and Jet, so it didn’t stay around as long. But it was the first one.

You dedicate this book to Chicago, your grandmothers, and to your son, Jackson. When he’s much older, what impression do you believe Chicago’s culture will have left on him?

I think a lot about this current generation and their future. I’m just really proud of them. I think not just about my son, but about my friends’ sons and daughters and non-binary kids and all the kids in this new generation. I am so impressed by them.

This is their city. I want them to know that they come from this long line of all this greatness so that they can feel comfortable going after what they want. Every generation is supposed to be freer.

I think about my grandma. My grandma and my grandpa had a tavern and a record label, but my grandma also worked as a maid, and she also did a lot of labor. She also picked cotton. And she did all that stuff for me to be able to be a professor, to be an author, to be all these things.

Editor’s note: Arionne Nettles is a former digital producer at WBEZ.

Sasha-Ann Simons is the host of WBEZ’s Reset. Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis is a digital producer for the Arts & Culture desk.

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