Leanita McClain, “How Chicago taught me to hate white people”

31 Aug

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In my continuing effort to deal with and bring to the forefront depression in Black people, I offer Leanita McClain and her battle with this evil illness. Though she lost her battle with depression in 1984 with a overdose of medication, her words live on.

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 Chicago — I’d be a liar if I did not admit to mv own hellish confusion. How has a purebred moderate like me—the first black editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune — turned into a hate-filled spewer of invective in such little time?

    Even today, the vicious, psychotic events leading up to and following Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago leave me torn as never before. I’ve become a two-headed, two-hearted creature. The sides are in continual conflict, by turns pitying, then vilifying the other, sometimes with little reason, never with tranquility.

    In one day my mind has sped from the naive thought that everything would be all right in the world if people would just intermarry, to the naive thought that we should establish a black homeland where we would never have to see a white face again.

    The campaign was a race war. So is the continuing feud between Harold Washington and the white aldermen usurping his authority. Even black and white secretaries in City Hall are not speaking to each other. But why am so readily doubting and shutting out whites I thought of as friends?

    I am not one of those, despite a comfortable life, who have forgotten my origins. It is just that I had not been so rudely reminded of them in so long.

    Through 10 years working my way to my present position at the Tribune, I have resided in a “gentrified,” predominantly white, North Side lakefront liberal neighborhood where high rents are the chief social measure. In neither place have I forgotten the understood but unspoken fact of my “difference” — my blackness.

    Yet I have been unprepared for the silence with which my white colleagues greeted Washington’s nomination. I’ve been crushed by their inability to share the excitement of one of “us” making it into power. I’ve built walls against whites who I once thought of as my lunch and vacation friends. And I’ve wrapped myself in rage as this sick, twisted city besieged the newspaper with letters wishing acts of filth by “black baboons” on the daughters of its employees. Just because it endorsed this black man.

    An evilness still possesses this town and it continues to weigh down my heart. During my morning ritual in the bathroom mirror, my radio tuned to the news-talk station that is as much a part of my routine as shaping my eyebrows, I’ve heard the voice of this evil. In what would become a standard “bigot-on-the-street” interview, the voice was going on about “the blacks.” “The blacks” this, “the blacks” that, “the blacks, the blacks, the blacks.” My eyes fogged, but not from the bathroom steam.

    “The blacks.” It is the article that offends. The words are held out like a foul-smelling sock transported two-fingered at the end of an outstretched arm to the hamper while the nose is pinched shut.

    “The blacks.” It would make me feel like machine-gunning every white face on the bus. Why couldn’t these people just say “blacks,” letting it roll from the tongue?

    “The blacks.” These people were talking about me, as I stood in my bathroom mirror neatly outlining my lips, about to put on a dress-for-success suit and silk blouse. These were the people who dislike welfare recipients for fitting their stereotypes and who despise me because I do not. The users of “the blacks” make no distinction, unlike the liberals who in their weaker moments will say: “Well, I wouldn’t mind having you next door. You’re different, you know.” Leanita McClain. “The black.” Just another nigger.

    The tears returned when Jane Byrne, soundly defeated in the primary, announced a write-in campaign to save the city from the brash black man and his opponent, the avuncular Jew. My editorial-writer colleagues were probably left in as much disbelief by the obscenity I spat at the television as by anything that little snow queen had just said. With my back to the closed door of my office, seemingly focused on my word processor, I cried anger. My God, I implored. What do these white people want of us? 


    My transformation began the morning after Washington’s primary victory. Everyone in Chicago stayed up until 2 am. when Washington aimed victory. Horrified white Chicago turned in for a fitful night. But no one black slept either, though there were never so many bright black eyes as there were the next morning. That morning black people had a step a beat that was more than the old joked-about “natural rhythm.” Smiles shown as brilliant as the blue Washington buttons that a white political editor astutely interpreted as “blue buttons of hope.” Those buttons would become a badge of courage, of oneness. Even now many blacks continue to wear them.

    Black strangers exchanged sly smiles on the streets. A jubilant scream went up, but it was a silent one, something like the high-pitched tones only animals can discern. The black man won! We did it! It rose to the stratosphere, crystalized and sprinkled every one of us like sugared rain. We had a feeling, and above all we had power.

    No one in this town had talked about anything but the election for weeks. But suddenly the morning after the primary, whites could not find enough other things to talk about if they talked at all. Not just the most bigoted of bigots, but all whites, even the more open-minded of my fellow journalists. Even the standard niceties took on a different quality. Their “good mornings” had the tenor of death rattles, not just the usual pre-coffee hoarseness. There was that forced quality, an awkwardness, an end to spontaneity, even fear in the eyes of people who had never thought about me one way or the other before.

    So many whites unconsciously had never considered that blacks could do much of anything, least of all get a black candidate this close to being mayor of Chicago. My colleagues looked up and realized, perhaps or the first time, that I was one of “them.” I was suddenly threatening. The difference that everybody had tried to cover up was there in the open. It leaked right out and stared at us and defied us to try and put it away. Whites were out of their wits with plain wet-your-pants fear. Happy black people can only mean unhappy white people in this town. (I never realized how far I had strayed.)

    I would begin that morning to build my defenses brick by brick, to shut out people I had cried with, people I had never felt more akin to than when we traveled to foreign lands, touting our shared Americanism. I would begin to discern the full frontal view of the evil. It is the evil that caused white coworkers to stop talking when blacks strolled by. It is the evil that led blacks to caucus and revert to the old days of talking about “whitey.” It is the evil of protesters, their faces red hot with hate, at a Catholic church where former Vice President Walter Mondale and Washington were jeered.

    The theme of these ensuing months was set and hardening. So intense and oppressive was the atmosphere here that black and white Tribune colleagues sought refuge in my office from the foulness. A white colleague came in to explain away why he could not vote for Harold Washington, as if what I thought of him was really important, as if my office were a confessional. One black female on the staff was thrown into a fit of anxiety one day, troubled by suddenly not even wanting to go to lunch with one of the white women on the staff with whom she is close.

    The lone black Tribune reporter on the campaign trail, Monroe Anderson, was so beaten down by what he was seeing in the streets that he came into my office-turned-retreat, enfolded himself in a chair and just stared at the floor. Anderson is indisputably one of the most devil-may-care persons on the staff—the one with the slightly bawdy joke, the one who keeps the party lively, the one with the quick line. I-his exceptional sense of humor keeps everyone going. But during this elect ion it failed even him. As the hate campaign against Washington got meaner, I began to realize I had not been overreacting. I had been playing it safe, as each day up to the election would verify.


    The Chicago Tribune endorsed Harold Washington in a long and eloquent Sunday editorial. It was intended to persuade the bigots. It would have caused any sensible person at least to think. It failed. The mail and calls besieged the staff. The middle range of letters had the words “LIES” and ‘NIGGER LOVERS” scratched across the editorial.

    Hoping to shame these people, make them look at themselves, the newspaper printed a full page of these rantings. But when the mirror was presented to them, the bigots reveled before it. The page only gave them aid and comfort in knowing their numbers. That is what is wrong with this town; being a racist is as respectable and expected as going to church.

    Filthy literature littered the city streets like the propaganda air blitzes of World War II. The subway would be renamed “Soul Train.” The elevators in City Hall would be removed because blacks would prefer to change floors by swinging from the cables. (Anderson, temporarily regaining his jocularity, plastered the flyers like art posters all over his work cubicle. Most black staffers knew it was laughing to keep from crying. Whites grew more silent.) In the police stations, reports were whispered about fights between longtime black arid white squad-car partners. Flyers proclaiming the new city of “Chicongo,” with crossed drumsticks as the city seal, side tacked to police station bulletin boards. The schools actually formulated plans to deal with racial violence, just in case.

    I brought the madness from the streets into work with me.

    I dissected why some people had cultivated my friendship, why I was so quick to offer it unconditionally, straining as hard as they to prove a point —to say, see how easy it is if we all just smile and pretend?

    I had put so much effort into belonging, and the whites in my professional and social circles had put so much effort into making me feel as if I belonged, that we all deceived ourselves. There is always joking about “it ” — those matchings of suntans against black skin, or the exchange of dialect or finding common ground on the evils of racism. But none of us had ever dealt with the deeper inhibitions, myths and misperceptions that this society has force-fed us. The issue is there, no matter the social strata.

    Now I know solving the racial problem will take more than living, marrying and going to school together and all of those other laudable but naive goals I defend. This episode made even these first steps so far from reach. 


    What is there, then, to believe in? Who was I to trust? How was I to know which whites were good and which were bad? How many of my coworkers wouldn’t even want me next door? After all of these years of lunch dates and the familial togetherness that comes naturally from working next to someone 40 hours a week, how could I know who was on the level? If I was feeling this way, what were my brothers and sisters in the street feeling? Could this town be razed in a deranged moment?

    What litmus test could I devise? I distanced myself from everyone white, watching, listening, for hints of latent prejudice. But there were no formulas to follow. Even an expression of support for Washington would not convince me, so certain was I of everyone’s dissemblance. I drew up a mental list of those whites who could and could not be trusted. Revelation after revelation, doubt after doubt assaulted me.

    First on the list was Kay—bouncy, smiley Kay. (No real names are used.) How she had used me all of these years, like a black pet, to prove her liberalism. I was safe; she could show me off without ever having to deal wit hi the real issue. The next time she came skipping in to show me the “neat” pair of shoes she had found during her lunch hour or to talk about the “neat” movie she had seen or the “neat” restaurant we should try, I would throw my dictionary at her and advise her that having one black person—me—on her Christmas card list did not make her socially aware.

    What about Clark? He always said the right things about race, viewed injustice with the proper alarm. But suddenly I questioned his sincerity. The next time he showed up at my office door, I would make him halt at the threshold. I would deny entry to my neighborhood on the ground that he was white. Then ask how it felt to be discriminated against to make the point that his talk was just that. What did he know? He had not lived in this skin.

    What about Ken, kind-eyed, sensitive, cultured, thoughtful, cerebral Ken? No, he couldn’t be a racist. Or could he?

    What about Nan, with whom I had traveled? She headed the boards of church agencies in the poorest black neighborhoods. Now there was an exception. We had talked about race matters, about matters of the heart, about the differences that somehow did not alter those things that made us the same.

    What about Lydia in Michigan, who had shared all my life’s secrets? She too, passed.

    It would be so easy just to dismiss everyone white. Why was it so easy for whites to classify me—”the     blacks,” or you exceptional blacks and the rest of “the blacks”—but riot so easy for me to classify them?

    When white friends begin to initiate conversation with, “Well, I’m no racist, but—,” I no longer had to worry about my test. Everyone was suspect.


    Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist’s acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness. It has made me weld on a mask, censor every word, rethink every thought. It has put a face on the evil that no one wants to acknowledge is within them. It has made me mistrust people, white and black. This battle has made me hate. And that hate does not discriminate.

    I’ve abhorred the gaggles of smug, giggly little white kids, out spending daddy’s money, who start life a thousand yards ahead of black kids. I’ve detested my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune, whose antiseptic suburban worlds are just as narrow, who pretend to have immense racial concerns and knowledge but who don’t know blacks other than me and who haven’t even come in touch with ordinary whites in decades.

    I’ve been repulsed by the scruffy black kids with their shoeshine kits on glitzy Michigan Avenue, all too real a reminder of the station to which some would like to remand blacks and the limits that I’ve tried to overcome. I’ve detested the pin-striped white junior executives who make their contribution to race relations in the quarters they flick to these kids. (Fortunately, I’ve noticed no rubs of the kids’ heads for good luck.)

    And of course, I’ve despised the bigots, the only group toward whom I do not continually have to re-examine my emotions.

    The election has come and gone. Washington won, but to look at the -battlefield, the rebuilding that must be done is defeating.

    I have resumed lunching with some of the white colleagues I avoided for weeks, though the conversation will stay forever circumscribed. Some have fallen away, failures of my litmus test. New ones have been found. But no white will ever be trusted so readily again with the innermost me. It is difficult to have the same confidence in my judgment about whites that I used to have. It is difficult to say “friend.”

    Is that saying I have become a bigot? Let’s just say I have returned to the fold, have become “integration shy.” At least I tried once to extend my hand, which is more than most whites can say; they do not encounter enough blacks in their lifetime to try.

    Why is Chicago this way? Why my beloved city, so vital, so prosperous, so exhilarating? I do not have an answer. I wish I did.

    So here I am, blacker than I’ve ever been. But above all, human—a condition I share with everyone of every hue. I feel. I mistrust. I cry. And I now know that I can hate.

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For more on Ms. McClain please visit these links:

http://scottholleran.com/culture/the-suicide-of-leanita-mcclain/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leanita_McClain

http://www.beachwoodreporter.com/books/mcclains_pain.php

here you can listen to the audio of an essay by Natalie Moore on Ms. McClain: http://www.wbez.org/story/news/local/journalist-leanita-mcclain-wrote-about-racism-newsroom

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21 Responses to “Leanita McClain, “How Chicago taught me to hate white people””

  1. diaryofanegress August 31, 2012 at 12:19 PM #

    First thing Jesus…this article could have been my life to a tee. I understand EVERY word she said. I too paid the ultimate price of having white “friends”, only to learn a dire lesson.
    I’m so sad that she lost her battle here on Earth. But as you know, The Most High works in ways that we cannot fathom sometimes.

    Jesus, may I say with utmost brutality that whites are without a doubt the biggest problem the WORLD has ever known. Everything they touch…dies. That includes humans, trees, the atmosphere and the earth itself.

    Their need to control and dominate even God himself is truly a sickness. A deep perversion that they deny over and over again to keep from going insane. While I don’t pretend to like them on any level, I can’t help it…I’m a woman of my grandmothers soul, I feel pity for them. I wish we could form a Black Planet and just leave them here to destroy themselves and leave us alone once and for all.

    They lack the most rudimentary form of human compassion. Not just for us but for each
    other. Perhaps having a calcified pineal gland is the culprit? Or made lack of awareness with the Most High? Or maybe being born of Cain? I don’t know anymore. Truthfully, I don’t know how white people were created / born / made.

    What I DO know is we blacks need to do for self and keep these “people” away from us. Their vibe and chakra is poisonous to our soul. They infect us with doubt, fear, anxiety and self-hate.

    Is it a wonder why they live 8 years longer than we do?

    *sigh*

    Sorry to rant but I feel for this sister. I really do. I could have become her. I’m praying for black folks. We haven’t got a prayer if we can’t get it together.

    • hunglikejesus August 31, 2012 at 1:01 PM #

      Thank you for reading her article and feeling her pain. Of course most Black people feel this pain and the ones that don’t stay high, drunk, busy, fronting or dead already.

      I must say that this aspect of her life is really foreign to me, as I have never been in this position. I never worked that high up were I had to deal with white folk like this. Thank the Most High for that because I’m sure it would have surely killed me as well.

      The thing I want Black people/my people to know is that we CANNOT play around with depression. When mentally ill and you step out into the world and have to deal with that shit on top of your own private struggles……GOOD LUCK!! This system is designed to take us down and not as prisoners, but down.

      And please, please, please, please know who your friends are and more importantly know who your friends aren’t. If it means being alone from now until the sun collapses, then be alone and heal. Also, if you are depressed you must seek help, like I always say, “untreated depression will kill you just as fast as any untreated cancer”.

      • diaryofanegress August 31, 2012 at 1:04 PM #

        Yes. That’s why I stay away form them and keep to myself. Healing is what I’m about nowadays.

        • hunglikejesus August 31, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

          Very good then, we are well on our way to some better days and better places.

    • Gena August 26, 2014 at 9:12 PM #

      I’m a white person and Chicago has taught me to hate white people too. White, black, brown, or yellow, Chicago has taught me to hate or blame anything that isn’t me or my immediate family in the haste towards aimless competition and suspicion of others, segregated neighborhoods with invisible, superficial lines. I have to focus to rise above the unnecessary lie of misery. I’ve never seen a more hesitant bunch of strangers, lacking empathy, fear teaching them to focus on the surface qualities of others. I called 911 when a homeless man slit his wrists as people walking on the street carelessly stepped over him. I feel uncomfortable everywhere I go here and shamed when I have happiness, pride, or a smile for a stranger. I was born in Flint, and that place has it’s fair share of problems, but we ALL dance when motown comes on the radio.

  2. mary burrell September 3, 2012 at 4:14 PM #

    I too was once in a dark abyss of depression. I even sought to a therapist. An unsympathetic white woman who said I was just looking for sympathy. I gave her the middle finger and told her to go boink herself got my purse wand walked out. Only through prayer and meditation did I find a way to healing.

    • hunglikejesus September 3, 2012 at 6:00 PM #

      Thank you Sista for sharing that with us. I TOO suffer to this very second with depression and I also had a white lady doctor, non-traditional and she saved me. YES!! can you believe it? She told me that I was the worst case she had ever seen in a person still able to function. That should have been hospitalized last week (at that time). It’s been several years now and I found another doctor who looks like me and though we just started it looks promising.

      I don’t suggest Black people go to white doctors, but if it’s all you got and it will save your life, then go and allow them to help you, to help yourself. Atleast until you can find someone you’re more comfortable with. Ms. McClain didn’t find her doctor in time and she is no longer with us, let’s try to save the next one. We got enough against us from the can’t see in the morning til can’t see at night. And believe this: it’s only a few of us.

      Again, thank you Ms. Mary for your support and may the Most High continue to shine light on your path.

  3. mary burrell September 3, 2012 at 4:22 PM #

    What I wanted to say was the efects of racisim from racist classmates and coworkers made me ill. Every night I would come home consumed with anger and confusion. You can’t explin this to white people they don’t understand. All they can say is “Why are you so angry”? I refuse to give them that kind of power over me. I refuse to let white people define me.

    • hunglikejesus September 3, 2012 at 6:21 PM #

      Well, my tormentors were Black and believe me when I tell you, I was tortured. What those children shoot up schools for now…….PLEASE!! that was nothing compared to what I HAD to internalize. I swallowed some much shit it actually changed the chemistry in my brain, along with living with the pain of double hernias which someone made me realize just recently. The hernias were undiagnosed until I was in high school. I’m not trying to play “top this”, but just show that we are a people that have been “through the sun” and here we stand. If you’re lucky your abusers didn’t look like you, but if not then confusion is multiplied. Think The Bluest Eye.

      You are correct, don’t let ANYBODY define you. Know who you are and stand on that, if nothing else stand on who you are and what you are and how you wanna be treated. Put it out to the “universe” and I swear it will be answered. Be careful though cause it will be answered.

      A lesser people COULD NOT take what we take. Hell, a lesser people couldn’t take what we ignore. Every people on this planet hates Black people, but you know who hates us more than of them? US! We fell for it. The self-hate is in full bloom, look what’s happening in Chicago right now. I’ll stop, this mic don’t work anyway and my soapbox is rickety.

      Thank you again Ms. Mary and please know that you are far from alone.

      • sepultura13 September 4, 2012 at 3:46 PM #

        A lesser people COULD NOT take what we take. Hell, a lesser people couldn’t take what we ignore. Every people on this planet hates Black people, but you know who hates us more than of them? US! We fell for it. The self-hate is in full bloom…

        This is the truth. What happened to our unity and self-love? What happened to pooling our resources for our own communities? What happened to using our ‘village’ to raise our children and instill pride, respect, confidence, and a love of learning? We know that we can’t depend on, or demand, that whites do anything for us – we need to come together, but it seems that the divisions are almost too deep to be bridged.

        I have my own rickety soapbox…that’s why I don’t get on it much.

        • hunglikejesus September 4, 2012 at 5:33 PM #

          Very simple what happened to us. INTEGRATION!!! We know longer have to look out for each other because….well, we don’t have to. We can go almost anywhere and get taken care by people that hate to see us coming, but money is green.

  4. sepultura13 September 3, 2012 at 5:21 PM #

    Dealing with treatment like this nearly killed me, too. Fortunately, what didn’t kill me only made me stronger – but, I can’t say that I emerged unscathed.

    Thank you for sharing this – it’s vital.

    • hunglikejesus September 3, 2012 at 6:52 PM #

      You are of course welcomed Sista. No matter what they tried to do to us here we are…..not “unscathed”, but here none the less.

      Thank you for stopping by and also your kind word over at your own place. To kind, you are.

  5. Robyn September 15, 2012 at 8:08 AM #

    I have worked with white people in that capacity and it is interesting how one is treated. However sometimes the enemy is, unfortunately, nor one of them all of the time but one of us. Like she stated, you have to build a wall around yourself and never let them see you sweat. Hell many times I wasn’t even spoken to nor invited to lunch. Race elections are & will always be interesting to me 🙂 brings out the inner bigot in them.

  6. innerstanding isness September 27, 2012 at 7:20 AM #

    Reblogged this on Innerstanding Isness.

  7. blackgonegreen February 11, 2014 at 2:06 AM #

    Reblogged this on blackgonegreen and commented:
    This piece by the late Leanita McClain was written shortly after the election of Chicago’s first black mayor Harold Washington. It could have been written after the election of the nation’s first black president and it would still ring true.

  8. hunglikejesus October 6, 2013 at 4:07 PM #

    Glad it’s still around somewhere.

  9. ShelbyCourtland December 17, 2013 at 8:51 PM #

    Wow! Just wow! I am struck speechless! I just found this and I can in a way, relate to this lady who has passed. When I read such as what I just read, it tears MY heart to pieces! I can’t write right now, tears are in my eyes!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Black People: Not Taught Who You Are « Caught Green-Handed - August 31, 2012

    […] Leanita McClain, “How Chicago taught me to hate white people” (depressionmymuse.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Reblogged Post – Amazing Article « Random Ramblings; Myriad Musings - September 3, 2012

    […] Here’s the link:   https://depressionmymuse.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/leanita-mcclain-how-chicago-taught-me-to-hate-white… […]

  3. An evilness still possesses this town and it continues to weigh down my heart. | City Notes - October 6, 2013

    […] and Boss, and Studs Terkel’s work. The only website I could find with the full essay is here. More about Leanita McClain […]

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