Acclaimed poet Angela Jackson’s first novel, years in the making, is about an African American student coming of age in post–Civil Rights Act America.
by Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
Video: Where She Must Go — Northwestern alumnus Angela Jackson reads from her debut novel, Where I Must Go, during a visit to campus in the fall. See more videos from Northwestern magazine.
There was a moment, a very scary moment, when Angela Jackson (WCAS77) thought she'd lost her novel. She'd been working on the book for close to 30 years and had poured her soul into the rewrites. Yet somehow she had lost the disks that contained her entire manuscript. She only possessed printouts from previous drafts; each chapter tucked into a different place in the rambling two-story house she shares with family members on Chicago's South Side.
The dining room table became ground zero when Jackson decided to piece her novel together again. New papers and old papers were laid out until every inch of the wood was covered in the printed word. A bit of Chapter 1 was here. Chapter 12 was there.
"My book had disappeared," says Jackson, now in her 50s. "I took all those versions and laid out all those different chapters until I had it. I had to go into a Zen state of reconstructing my novel."
That was in 1999. This fall TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, published Jackson's first novel, Where I Must Go. The New York Times, among others, immediately took interest in the historically fictionalized tale of Magdalena Grace, an African American college student in the late 1960s who attends an elite, predominantly white college that resembles Northwestern at the time.
"It is a coming-of-age tale with combustible questions about identity that still loom large," according to the New York Times' review of Jackson's book.
This media attention was nice but not new. Already a well-known, well-awarded poet, Jackson has a lengthy list of prizes that includes the 1994 Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award for poetry from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the Pushcart Prize for poetry in 1989.
Yet, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Jackson excitedly searched for her first novel in the African American fiction section of the Borders bookstore in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. One wall was full of Zane's blushingly sexy romance novels. Another held the work of old familiars, such as Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, both of whom are Jackson's longtime friends.
"It should be here," she says, still searching for her own title among the masses of the highly popular but not terribly stimulating urban street literature. Finally she finds her book. She grabs it. Feels the smooth cover.
"Oh I should buy this," she says, smiling. She's giddy, excited. "Wait. I should call my sister and tell her it's here."
She decides she'll call her sister later and opts against buying the book, instead leaving it to potential buyers. Jackson's work is nestled next to a Zora Neale Hurston title, a bit of good luck that makes the author smile.
Novels garner a kind of attention that poetry never sees, explains Jackson, who is a Hurston aficionado. She thinks back to a Hurston dream she once had. "I had a vision of a black girl-woman reaching upon a library shelf and plucking down my novel the same way I reached up and got a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God."
Jackson grew up on the eastern edge of the Englewood neighborhood. Her home is on Wentworth Avenue, a street that once was the community's core until the city of Chicago put a highway right down the middle of the neighborhood, "the Damn Ryan" Expressway, as her father called it. On her block is a church and swaths of now-empty land. It used to be a lively, jumping area until the 14-lane interstate came.
"The highway killed my neighborhood," says Jackson, whose family is struggling to find new digs for her mom, who lives on the second floor, and the nieces and nephews who live on the first floor. "It used to be so nice ... "
These neighborhood memories inform Jackson's work — both poetry and fiction. She is known for her 1974 book of poetry, Voo Doo/Love Magic (Third World Press). Northwestern University Press nominated her 1998 collection of poems, AndAll These Roads Be Luminous: Poems Selected and New (TriQuarterly Books), for several literary awards. Her 1980 play Shango Diaspora: An African-American Myth of Womanhood and Love was performed at Chicago's ETA Creative Arts Foundation theater, a professional, popular performance space on Chicago's South Side that celebrates and showcases plays and other productions by, about or including African Americans. Her colorful language speaks directly to the diversity of the black experience in America, from playing hide-and-go-seek in the 'hood to learning how to deal with white professors who made racial jokes.
A "cradle Catholic," Jackson was born in Greenville, Miss., and as a child she moved with her family to Chicago, where she attended Catholic elementary school. In high school she graduated third in her Loretto Academy class, earning a scholarship to Northwestern. Her mother, a housekeeper, cook and teacher's aide, and her father, who worked for the postal service, were glad for her to get an education.
It was 1968. She was 17. She thought she would be premed, but math classes kicked her butt. She learned how to co-exist with white students, many of whom made her feel that blacks shouldn't be allowed at Northwestern. She joined For Members Only, the black student alliance, changed majors and took every African or African American studies class she could.
That's how she met the man who changed her life: Hoyt Fuller, an editor, critic and leading figure of the Black Arts Movement. He was a visiting professor at Northwestern and the editor of Negro Digest/Black World, a Johnson Publishing Co. magazine that preceded today's Ebony magazine. Fuller, after reading some of Jackson's poems, invited Jackson to showcase her talents among her peers of color at OBAC (pronounced O-bah-Cee), or Organization of Black American Culture, on the South Side.
"We were creating literature about, by and for black people," says Jackson, who while at Northwestern worked the graveyard shift as a blood analyst at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital (Rush University Medical Center today) and pilfered the hospital's old, perforated computer paper to handwrite her early works. Jackson earned $25 for her first published poem, which ran in Black World in 1971.
"There was a great freedom in that purpose," Jackson says of writing with the OBAC cohort, "and I felt free to be myself, and that was a contrast to what it was like being a black student at Northwestern. I went to the University in '68, and that was the beginning of black students going to predominantly white schools in anything but ones and twos. It was a very alien culture to me."
Haki R. Madhubuti, owner of Chicago's Third World Press and author of several celebrated books and essays, witnessed Jackson blossom with other writers, such as poets Carolyn Rodgers and Sterling Plumpp, in OBAC. Madhubuti, now a professor of English and director-emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University, worked with OBAC in its early years.
"Hoyt Fuller was probably the first black intellectual that many of us had ever been in contact with," says Madhubuti. "As a student, as a young person coming into the midst of Mr. Fuller and myself and others, Angela was able to always hold her own. She was exceptional in many ways, but her poetry was extraordinary for her age."
Madhubuti, a poet himself, later went on to publish one of Jackson's collections of poetry. He also offered to publish Jackson's latest book. It's not easy switching from poetry to fiction, he says.
"When you look at the poetry community, very seldom do you see poets make that jump into fiction," he says. "She's in for the long haul, and she'll be with us forever. She's a major force in literature — period — and a great force in African American literature."
Jackson writes her books the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. She prefers rollerball ink. Sometimes she'll use legal notebooks. Other times she'll use scrap paper. Once it's finished, she'll transfer it to a computer.
She lives simply, with no car, no fancy digs, no text messages, no high-falutin' house and a horribly unreliable computer with sporadic Internet connection. She's not married, has no kids and gleefully calls herself a "spinster." She uses colorful language to describe mundane things, such as a thin-lipped white businessman as having lips like thin-sliced roast beef. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is why she decided to become a writer, "mainly because the heroine Jo wants to be a writer, and I loved to read."
At Northwestern she took classes with literary giants such as African American writer and poet Margaret Walker (WCAS35, H70), a visiting professor in 1969 (see "Required Reading," fall 1999). Jackson graduated with a degree in English and American literature.
"Poetry is easier for me than fiction," says Jackson, who reserves Friday nights and Saturday mornings for writing and won a 2008 American Book Award for Where I Must Go. "I'm a poet. As for fiction, I have to work very hard at it. That's why I had to do all these rewrites."
Northwestern English professor Reginald Gibbons helped with some of those rewrites. "I've known Angela since the early '80s, and I've seen her work. I've read everything she's published since then, saw one of her plays once at ETA," says Gibbons, who also runs Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts. "I know her work as well as I know the work of any of my contemporaries. I have to say it's just some of the most interesting stuff I know. It's really large. She can take everyday experience and show you how it has all these other things implied in it."
Jackson will be writing and rewriting for some time yet, as there are two more novels in the making to complete the trilogy. This time, she says, it won't take another 40 years.
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs (J99) of Chicago is senior editor at Ebony.