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1980s Chicago and Politics

Let’s talk 1980s Chicago, the setting for 85A. In 1980s Chicago, kitchen table racism was the order of the day. 

In 1983, Mayor Jane Byrne, a liberal Democrat, was defeated in the Democratic primary by her African-American opponent and fellow liberal Democrat, Harold Washington.  1980s Chicago – already one of the most segregated cities and virulent political pressure-cookers in America – became even more sharply divided between black and white, in ways that are almost unimaginable today, the minute primary results came in. There was a horrific spike in incidents of racial violence and vandalism against African-American homes. In 1980s Chicago, many Jane Byrne supporters and the city’s “Daley Democrats” rushed out to canvass for former congressman Bernard Epton, who ran as Washington’s Republican opponent. All over my all-white grade school, kids chanted, “Epton! Epton! He’s our man! We don’t need no African!” Yet Washington pulled off a paper-thin victory in the spring of 1983, which led many white households to either call for white solidarity in their neighborhoods or panic-peddle their homes and flee to the suburbs. 

Four years later, when Washington died of a heart attack during a meeting with his press secretary, many white Chicagoans openly celebrated his death. The following summer, a white student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago protested Washington’s post-mortem lionization with a painting called Mirth and Girth, which depicted the late mayor’s corpse in women’s lingerie. Accompanied by Chicago police, African-American aldermen took the painting off the private student exhibition’s walls, which triggered a First Amendment controversy. The artist David K. Nelson, Jr., and the ACLU settled their federal lawsuit with the City of Chicago for $95,000.

85A takes place on January 23, 1989, the Monday after George Herbert Walker Bush’s inauguration and roughly two years after Harold Washington’s death. In the “Downtown-Bound” chapter, Seamus makes reference to another First Amendment Rights controversy that occurred at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago more than two years after Mirth and Girth. I that incident, one student’s installation featured an American flag on the floor, which he was encouraging spectators to step on. Incensed by Bush’s election and the mawkish jingoism of the day, Seamus says:

“To me, grease, gas, grime, trash, puddles and mud marring those [new] red, white, and blue [Chicago] buses is like stepping on the flag, like they did at the Art Institute last summer. Remember that? Every Republican asshole got all self-righteous and wanted the artist who put the flag on the floor arrested – the Art Institute got death threats. Fuckers never asked themselves why anyone would want to put the flag on the floor, and their ears sure as hell weren’t cocked to hear why.”

In this same chapter, Seamus goes on to count how he lost his virginity to his Caribbean-American friend Tressa – a moment that, for Seamus, was even more political than sexual.

Learn more about politics in 1980s Chicago by reading 85A today.