Novelist Sandra Jackson-Opoku carried a stack of her books to the balcony outside her apartment, where we sat at a table facing Nichols Park. Describing herself, she said, “I’m a Chicago writer, born and raised, but I write about the world.”
It is an apt summary of a life in letters that began on the far South Side, in the CHA’s Trumbull Park housing complex, rose up in the radical politics of the Black Arts Movement, advanced through every continent except Antarctica through a career as a travel writer, and which continues today with a new novel project, “Black Rice,” covering the cross-continental history of Black-Chinese families in the American South.
The recipient of the inaugural City of Chicago esteemed artist award in 2020, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a recently retired professor of literature and creative writing at Chicago State University, Jackson-Opoku has written two novels, “The River Where Blood is Born” and “Hot Johnny and the Women who Loved Him,” as well as numerous works of short fiction and travel writing.
She began writing as a little girl: “I was about ten or twelve years old, and wrote very badly rhymed poetry. I’d write little stories I made up about various friends and family, and add on extra parts to the ends of books I liked,” she said.
Her family was among the first Black families to integrate the Chicago Housing Authority’s Trumbull Park Homes in South Deering, a series of low-rise buildings completed in 1938 as part of the New Deal.
Race riots ensued when the first black families moved in, with white families throwing rocks and lobbing homemade bombs at their Black neighbors. Jackson-Opoku, whose family came after the first wave of integrators, recalled how a white neighbor shoved fireworks through her family’s mail slot and how a white boy chased her while brandishing a snake.
She said, “Integration was such an issue there that some people would have to get police escorts just to leave for work and when they were coming back home, just to keep them from running afoul of mobs.”
But here it was that Jackson-Opoku encountered her first writer. “I had a neighbor named Frank London Brown. Mr. Brown wrote an autobiographical novel called Trumbull Park, about integration. He was a steelworker, you know, he was a regular working guy — but also a writer. So it was at a very young age that I knew it was possible. Everybody knew that Mr. Brown was a writer and it was a source of pride and for me a source of possibility.”
Jackson-Opoku said her father was also an excellent storyteller, who enjoyed telling his children about Shine, the Black folk hero and trickster storied to have survived the Titanic.
Jackson-Opoku went on to write for the high school paper at the now non-existent Harrison Technical High School on the West Side, and later attended Columbia College in Chicago. On Wednesday evenings, she attended a writers group affiliated with the Black Arts Movement (BAM) called OBAC (The Organization of Black American Culture), in Bronzeville.
As cultural adjuncts of the Black Power movement, both BAM and OBAC influenced generations of Chicago artists and writers, whose shared legacy includes several influential murals, including the Wall of Respect, musical innovations, such as those pioneered by Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and a multitude of significant poems and novels.
“OBAC writer meetings happened at a storefront on 35th Street,” said Jackson. “Anybody could come in so long as they were Black, and respectful. It was in the heart of the ghetto, so sometimes we had people wander in off the street. Writers would share their work and have it criticized by the group and taken seriously.”
Hoyt Fuller, editor of Black World, formerly Negro Digest, presided over the meetings that Jackson-Opoku attended. She recalled him as a "worldly and urbane man”, who helped “re-direct conversations to a place of reason.” Now–Illinois poet laureate Angela Jackson and poet Haki Madhubuti both overlapped with Jackson-Opoku while at OBAC, and other notable alumni of the group, which lasted over 30 years, include writers Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Cecil Brown and Sam Greenlee, as well as poets Johari Amini, Carolyn Rodgers, Sterling Plumpp, and D. L. Crockett-Smith.
Fuller and others in the group discussed "The Black aesthetic”, which Jackson-Opoku explained as the thought that “European and American standards were insufficient for judging Black arts.” Through the group, Jackson-Opoku said, she was exposed to the idea that “there should be an opportunity for Black artists to appreciate and utilize the traditions of our culture, the blues and jazz, the call and response of gospel, the talking drum, all these kinds of things that were devalued.”
Commenting on the writing of some writers in the group, and in the larger movement of which it was a part, Jackson-Opoku said, “When I look back at it, I think it could be narrow and didactic at times. Some of it could be very propagandistic, though the political poems and writing at the time also addressed issues that were very real and urgent.
“I think it was an important and necessary moment that nowadays allows Black artists to have more freedom of expression and have the option of drawing from these traditions.
“I would have been a very different writer had I not gone through OBAC,” she added. “It gave me an appreciation for the music of Black language.”
Two years into her education at Columbia College, Jackson-Opoku transferred to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she majored in Afro-American studies and communications. In her senior year, she participated in an exchange program at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, an experience that was to shape much of her later thinking, and the trajectory of her life.
“It was my first time visiting Africa,” said Jackson. "There were puzzling experiences, negative experiences, affirming experiences. In some ways it dispelled the idea I had of Africa as a paradise. But I saw people who looked like me ruling their own country and ruling their own lives.”
Her first night in Lagos, Jackson-Opoku saw street vendors selling candles outside of the airport. “There were no streetlights by the airport then,” said Jackson, “so it was very romantic, atmospheric.”
“The people on the street wore clothes I only wore on ceremonial occasions. I kept these clothes in plastic in the closet at all other times — they were just part of their daily lives here,” she said.
Jackson-Opoku joined the all-male cricket team of the University of Lagos as a scorekeeper, and with them toured the country and other neighboring states.
On one such trip she explained to a Cameroonian family how Black people had come to America via the transatlantic slave trade. Later she found out that the mother in the family had named her baby “Sandra” after her.
Jackson-Opoku kept a diary of her time in Nigeria, and, upon graduation, wrote travel essays for many different periodicals, including the Chicago Defender, Ms. Magazine, Caribbean Life and Travel, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and Essence Magazine. Jackson-Opoku said she visited 35 countries in the course of the work, including Jamaica, Haiti, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Liberia, Barbados and China. Everywhere she went she took notes, and over the years she wrote a number of fictional short stories chronicling the experiences of traveling women.
One such story, entitled “One Mother of a Mountain,” was published in the now-defunct feminist journal “Heresies,” and went on to win the /General Electric Award for Younger Writers in 1983. Jackson-Opoku, her ex-husband, and her newborn daughter, Adjoa, traveled to New York so that she could read the story at a public event at the New York Public Library.
Upon hearing the story, literary agent Susan Bergholz sitting in the audience asked if she would write a novel. Partially on the advice of Bergholz, Jackson-Opoku combined and re-invented her short stories and travelogues, forging many disparate characters together into a family, and weaving the family together across nine generations. The result was her first historical novel “The River Where Blood is Born,” published in 1997.
Set against a spiritual backdrop, it chronicles the enslavement of Ghanian women, their forced migration to the West Indies, and the life of their descendants in Montreal and Chicago.
“I started work on ‘The River Where Blood Is Born’ in college, but at that time it was a different form, a different animal. It was a travelogue from Nigeria. It evolved a lot over the course of 20 years,” said Jackson-Opoku.
Jackson-Opoku’s other novel, “Hot Johnny and the Women Who Loved Him,” published in 2001, has a similarly multi-perspectival structure, consisting of accounts of the titular Johnny (full name John the Baptist) told by 18 of his lovers.
Commenting on her affinity for this literary structure, Jackson-Opoku said, “I’ve accepted this about myself: I’ve written single-voice narrated works, but for the most part I’m interested in multiple perspectives. If someone came down and told me their wife left them, I’d want to know what the wife thought.” She said that the multi-perspectival writing of Julia Alvarez, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Toni Morrison have all influenced her approach to fiction.
It was her travels, Jackson-Opoku said, that really led to her concerns with history.
“In the early days of OBAC, I wasn’t writing with such a broad historical sweep. I was writing about African-American identity, the legacy of slavery, gender .... It was when I started traveling, and visiting African families, and African communities in Europe that my writing expanded.”
After publication of her first two novels, Jackson-Opoku taught writing at Chicago State University. Between family obligations and teaching, it was too difficult to write lengthy works of fiction — “I’m a slow writer , and most of my writing requires a lot of research,” said Jackson-Opoku. For the many years that she worked on “The River Where Blood is Born,” Jackson-Opoku made such frequent use of the Chicago Public Library’s pre-internet information helpline that the operators knew her by name.
Now that she is retired, Jackson-Opoku is undertaking research work for her third, historical, multi-perspectival novel. Entitled “Black Rice,” it covers a thousand years of Afro-Chinese history.
Jackson-Opoku has already done archival research in Key West, Florida, where immigrants were sometimes smuggled from Cuba during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act. She intended to undertake further research in Cuba and China, in order to flesh out her characters’ journeys from China to the Caribbean to the United States.
COVID-19 threw a wrench in her travel plans, but Jackson-Opoku seemed undeterred.
“I’m gonna have to figure out another way to do that research or wait until it’s safe,” she said. “It’s looking like I’ll get to finishing the book at the end of 2022.”
Correction: This article initially misidentified which of Jackson-Opoku's children was with her when she attended a 1983 award ceremony. It was her daughter Adjoa, not her son Kimathi. The Herald regrets the error.