Veronica Hendrix

*It is on the skirt hem of one African-American woman whose voice blazed the trail for African-American female columnists, such as myself, that I subsist.  

And since the inception of Veronica’s View, I have given homage to her as my predecessor, a woman whose weekly voice inspired me.

Unfortunately her voice has faded into obscurity and her light no longer shines. However, her voice remains as one of the crowing moments in our history.  I hope you enjoy this annual tribute to one of the most extraordinary voices of our time.

Leanita McClain was a nationally recognized columnist. I remember reading a piece she wrote for Newsweek entitled “The Middle-Class Black’s Burden” when I was a journalism student.  It was a personal account of the   isolation she grappled with as a result of her success. To Leanita, her hard work and good fortune came with a hefty price tag – the alienation from her people whom she loved and felt deeply estranged to. “I run the gauntlet between two worlds, and I am cursed by both . . .” Leanita wrote in her account. “Whites won’t believe I remain culturally different; blacks won’t believe I remain culturally the same.”

Leanita began her career as a full time general assignment writer for the Chicago Tribune Newspaper.  Hard work and perseverance resulted in her becoming the first black member of the Tribune’s editorial board, and the second black staff columnist in the newspaper’s 137-year history.  She married Tribune columnist Clarence Page and they lived in Chicago’s upscale and predominately white Belmont Harbor area. This was an inarguable departure from the Ida B. Wells public housing project she grew up in on Chicago’s South Side.

Leanita wrote with an uncanny eloquence juxtaposed with a stinging bluntness. You were either left speechless or spurred after reading her words.   Pieces like “When Blacks Journey Abroad, Green is Beautiful,” “The Black Quarterback Syndrome,” and the most controversial piece that drew a barrage of nationwide criticism, “How Chicago Taught Me How to Hate Whites.” They were brilliantly crafted.

However, two things were clear from her editorials.   She was outraged by the inequities of racism and tormented by the guilt of her success. “I am burdened daily with showing whites that blacks are people. I am, in the old vernacular, a credit to my race,” she wrote. “I am my brothers’ keeper and my sisters’ keeper – though many of them have abandoned me because they think I have abandoned them.”

The bitter and racially charged 1983 mayoral primary elections in Chicago was a turning point in Leanita’s life.  Harold Washington, a black Congress member from the South Side of Chicago managed to win the democratic primary against incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and State Attorney Richard M. Daley, son of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

A massive campaign based on bigotry and hatred was then launched to ensure the next mayor of Chicago was not a black man.  The city was in a full on race war.  It deeply troubled Leanita and she expressed her unrest in a scathing and blistering editorial entitled, “How Chicago Taught Me How to Hate Whites,” which was published in the Washington Post. “An evilness still possesses this town  . . .” she wrote with pointed anger. “This battle has made me hate . . . no white will ever be trusted so readily again with the inner most me.”

Leanita was ill prepared for the onslaught of viciousness that followed after her piece ran. Hundreds of letters flooded the Tribune and Post. Radio commentaries blasted her, and a resolution was even introduced in City Council calling for her to apologize to the people of Chicago.  The pressure was insurmountable. The torment was more than she could bear.

On Tuesday, May 29, 1984, a light went out in Chicago.  Leanita McClain, 32, took her life. She overdosed on pills that were prescribed for her ongoing battle with depression. Her friends believed she was literally overwhelmed by the strain of being what she called “a credit to her race,” and the guilt of “being uncomfortably middle class.” Others believed that the private hell she endured as a result of the “How Chicago Taught Me How to Hate Whites” editorial caused the inner demons that tormented her to finally take her life.

Twenty-six years after her death, I am still moved by her work and  her life. Her former husband, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribute, immortalized her voice in a book called A Foot In Each World, which is no longer in print.  Her writings reveal why she felt like the lone voice for those who struggle in what she called  “the battle of the upwardly mobile.” She assumed the role of champion for the under accomplished and it is clear that she carried the weight of their plight on her shoulders. She said, “In as much as we all suffer for everyone left behind, we gain for everyone who conquers the hurdle.”

In her final words, Leanita lamented that happiness was a private club that would not let her enter. I wish she could have found a way to lighten the burden she carried. She was an extraordinary talent. I wonder how she would have weighed in on President Obama’s ascent and presidency and the mobilization of his dissenters had she survived the war that raged inside her.   

I will keep sounding the drum and this running this annual tribute in honor of our fallen star, lest we forget. Maybe one day we will see her life’s story portrayed on the big screen. Her time really has come.

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