According to Agate Publishing president, Doug Seibold, Chicago has always been the center of African American publishing. Now, with Agate's release of Dempsey Travis’ dynamic "Autobiography of a Black Chicago," one specific African American Chicagoan’s life is rendered in intimate detail. Our Town spoke with Doug about the impassioned endeavor.
Our Town What made you interested in acquiring An Autobiography of a Black Chicago?
Agate has an imprint devoted solely to African-American writers, called Bolden Books. Our most successful books have always been novels that explore the diversity of African-American life. I decided to create a line of memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, which I'm calling "Bolden Lives," that do in personal nonfiction form what the great novels we've published here do in fiction--tell a wide range of stories about the diverse lives of African-American people. I thought that this book was a great way to start this new line.
OT What makes this book unique?
Travis's own remarkable story, and the very distinctive way in which he tells it. He has an irrepressible literary voice. You can see how he became so successful--nothing seems to slow him down, no matter how steep the obstacles.
OT What enabled Dempsey Travis to write so intimately about the African American experience in Chicago?
He lived it, to the hilt. His father came to Chicago in 1900, right at the beginning of what became the Great Migration. As a teenager, Travis became a professional pianist and bandleader, and thus part of the dazzling jazz music scene of the 1930s. His military service during WWII was scarred by the kind of institutional racism endemic at the time--in many ways, the experiences of black soldiers during and after the war became a spur for the civil rights movement. He played a significant role in that movement, leading the Chicago branch of the NAACP and, in that capacity, bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to Chicago for the first time in 1960. And when Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor, Travis was a leading supporter--the two men had known each other since they were students at DuSable High School.
OT What was your experience editing like?
Engrossing, and for the most part, fairly straightforward. The terrific black and white photos used in the book's first edition were mainly lost, so we were unable to include those. I made the decision to streamline the book by removing the brief biographical vignettes Travis wrote about other prominent black Chicagoans, to focus the book chiefly on Travis's own story.
OT What moments in the book do you find most striking?
There are many striking moments in this book, but the one I found most emotionally affecting comes when Travis, struggling with college entrance exams after completing his military service, comes to the slow realization that his literacy skills are inadequate for doing college-level reading. He essentially has to re-learn how to read. At great effort, he does so, then gains admission to Roosevelt University and embarks on his successful business career. But as difficult as that challenge must have been, you know it can't possibly stop him from achieving his larger goals.
OT What are your hopes for the book?
I think it's a classic work of Chicago personal history, and I hope it's recognized as such. It would be wonderful to see this book taught in schools.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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