Crossroads

A native son of Chicago’s West Side, John Wesley Fountain is an award-winning columnist, journalist, professor, publisher and the author of five books. A recent Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, he has won numerous journalism awards over a nearly 40-year career and is a frequent guest commentator on radio and television.

Read his full bio at the Conversations page.

John at an orphanage in Ghana – pic from his journal Africa Calling

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Steve – It’s the off-season, so we aren’t at a game; but if we were, where would we be? What’s your favorite venue to watch baseball, or, indeed, any sporting event?

John If we were at a game, we would be at the Friendly Confines, where the vines return to emerald green come baseball season and the smell of fresh beer wafts through the stands. Wrigley Field is timeless. It is a time machine. It is the place where I first witnessed Major League Baseball live and where I got to witness childhood heroes like Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkins.

Baseball back then, in the sixties and seventies, was God in my neighborhood. The fact that I could see Black players who looked like me living their dream as baseball superstars was almost as good as seeing Muhammad Ali shimmering in his glory on the small black-and-white television in our apartment on Chicago’s West Side. Wrigley has never lost its aura or its effect on me.

Every time I enter the ballpark, I am transported back to being a kid again. I grab a hotdog and trim it with mustard and relish (because ketchup on a hotdog is sacrilege in Chicago). But unlike when I was a kid, I also grab at least one icy cold beer, which the adults back then seemed to relish as much as we kids loved a box of Cracker Jack. The only venue that comes even remotely close to Wrigley is Notre Dame Stadium, where, watching the fighting Irish play a few years ago, I found myself caught up in the majesty, magic and nostalgia of it all. Watching Baseball at Wrigley is like that to the tenth power. It’s baseball heaven. And the Cubs were me and Mama’s team.

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Steve – What was the first baseball game you went to and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? What do you think have been the most significant changes in both institutions since then?

John My first baseball game was definitely at Wrigley Field. My best recollection is that I attended the game with my Boy Scout troop. I was in awe of the splendor of the stadium, the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the sound of the announcer, the giant green scoreboard, and all the men dressed in business suits. I wondered back then how they were able to attend a game in the middle of the day. And I knew that no matter how they did it I wanted to be able to do the same someday. To take a break from business to take in baseball.

I am a National League man. I grew up listening to the Cubs games and watching on WGN TV. If I ran home from school, I could catch the last few innings of the game. And if I was really lucky, the Cubs would hit a homerun, and Jack Brickhouse would yell, “Hey-Hey!” Baseball was as sweet as my Aunt Mary’s sugary Kool-Aid. And although there were two teams in Chicago, in my heart there has only ever been one.

I must have voted in the 1980 presidential election and likely for Jimmy Carter rather than Ronald Reagan. But the first election I remember most is voting for Harold Washington in 1983, as he became Chicago’s first Black mayor. I remember the pride and joy of that election night as Washington defeated candidate Bernard Epton, a white Republican. The Black community exploded with joy. But I also remember the glaring divide that became obvious between Black and white in Chicago, even as I rode the bus to school that next day. It was as if whites on the bus were mum with animus and we were gleeful, though suppressing that joy and yet undeniable perhaps in the way we walked with head erect, shoulders square, and with a little more bounce in our step, having ushered a Black man to the mayor’s office in a city settled by a Black man.

April 15 will mark the 40th anniversary of Harold Washington’s Mayoral victoryChicago Sun-Times

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Since my first game, the Cubs have come under new ownership. There is also night baseball at Wrigley. The Cubs have since won a World Series Championship. The hotdogs and beer are more expensive. There is a statue of Ernie Banks that stands proud and tall, outside Wrigley. And baseball players now have walk-up songs, which is really cool, and which often blare hip-hop music — ironic since there are far fewer Black baseball players than I remember growing up. In fact, I would be hard-pressed even as I write to name five African-American baseball players currently playing in the MLB.

Mr Cub (Wikimedia Commons)

Steve – Tragically, Black History Month began with America’s collective history repeating itself as another family lost a child to police violence. Tyre Nichols’ death led – again – to pressure for action on police reform. Are you hopeful that something meaningful might be done legislatively to make progress towards justice; or do you think change might be more likely at a local level (like recently in Memphis) rather than nationally, given how polarized our politics are right now?

John – Tyre Nichols’ death is a tragedy. Unfortunately, it is nothing new. There are a trail of names and bodies lost to police violence and brutality. And while most homicides against Blacks in America occur at the hands of Blacks in America, that does not negate the fact that Black men and women are brutalized and slain by rogue police, and that in most cases police essentially get off scot-free. That’s not conjecture. That’s fact. What can change this? It is a question I have wrestled with for years. And I am still not sure that I have an answer. I think we can begin by police, police departments, and police unions being more accountable, meaning prosecuting alleged wrongdoers and those who file false reports in efforts to shield rogue comrades.

I also think that all of the aforementioned parties should be civilly liable. If you hit people in their pocketbooks, it tends to have an astounding effect. Politics in America are extremely polarized right now. But this has always been the case, whether Democrat or Republican, Southern Dixiecrats and Lincoln Republicans, Blacks and whites… In fact, Trumpism simply manifested the unspoken subterranean turmoil that defines the state of American politics that are often bitter, hateful, divisive, and counterproductive to democracy. I wish I could be more optimistic. I choose to remain hopeful because of my faith and because I know that our fate is irrevocably tied to our willingness and ability to work together as one, or else to perish apart.

Steve – You wrote powerfully about the significance of the fact that most of the police officers involved were themselves Black – and the pain of what you call “the murder of us by us…” Assuming there might be enough political will to change the institutional structure of how we police ourselves, what do you think are the most urgent measures that could help deliver greater accountability?

John – We are in a state of emergency. Not just in Chicago but in urban centers across this country, even in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, Baltimore, Maryland and East St. Louis, Illinois, among others. Violent crime has spiked since the start of COVID-19, and no one seems to have answers. And yet, I am reminded of a dearly departed friend Dr. Carl Bell, a Chicago psychiatrist, who often said to me in interviews about how to quell violent crime that “we” know how to remedy violence. That we must teach conflict resolution; deal with systemic ills like poor public education systems; assist single-mother households and children who suffer fetal alcohol syndrome; and fix a broken child welfare system in order to repair broken children and prevent others from being irreparably damaged from birth.

The answer is not more police. This is not a policing problem alone. It is an issue of community brokenness in a country filled with systemic racism that was never designed for the betterment and uplift of African-Americans. We need financial resources, we need government responsibility, police accountability, and equal opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we also need parents, we need churches, we need community organizations, we need all hands on deck, we need fathers, and mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers. In my lifetime, I cannot remember my people being at a greater crossroads than we are today.

Steve – You’ve lived and worked for much of your life in Chicago, a beautiful city but also one that’s been scarred by gun violence. What did you make of Gov Pritzker’s recent sweeping assault weapons legislation – and some sheriffs saying they wouldn’t enforce it?

Is politics destined to always get in the way of public safety? How well do you think the people of Illinois are served by their elected representatives?

John – Gov. Pritzker’s legislation on assault weapons, in some ways, may be a step in the right direction. But the truth is, and this is unpopular to say, that legislation does not remove weapons from the hands of “bad guys” nor prevent them from obtaining them. Law-abiding citizens who might seek to purchase are the ones who are most affected. So you keep them from owning these guns. So what. The bad guys still have them. And based on the number of mass shootings each summer and the use of assault weapons during carjackings, it doesn’t measurably make Chicago’s streets any safer. 

I can’t say how well the state of Illinois is served by elected representatives. Probably about as good as residents of other states. The whole business of politics seems to be less about serving people and more self-serving these days with policies and the usual business of keeping government afloat and in reasonable working order, sort of par for the course. We are facing major issues, including public safety, poverty, and other social welfare issues, mass shootings at schools across the country, global warming and other environmental issues and public infrastructure concerns — big things that require more than politics as usual.

Steve – What do you think about the assault on the teaching of African-American studies, a performative part of our exhausting culture wars that, sadly, only seems likely to escalate as we head into the 2024 presidential campaign?

John – I think it is imperative that it be made perfectly clear that African-American history is American history. It is important for historians, and educators to wage their own public campaign against those forces that oppose truth, fact, and historical accuracy and integrity. You cannot tell American history without simultaneously telling African-American history. And it is clear to me that the same old forces that were opposed to the abolition of slavery and also racial equality, freedom and justice are at work here. Their aim is to take us back, back to the time when Blacks could not vote, could not own property, could not marry, and had no right to an education.

This is an offshoot of Trumpism and is also espoused by hate groups in America who want to eradicate the truth about their hate, their lynching, their Tulsa bombing, which they would prefer to be labeled as The Tulsa Riot.

That said, as African-Americans we cannot focus all of our energy and attention on what is taught at public schools or even universities. And instead we must also focus more critically on what we teach our own children, on the history that we give them access to and ensure that they learn from not only the mouths of their ancestors but from the vast resources that exist in the palm of their hand via their smartphones. And if our children have more pairs of sneakers and more video games than they have books, that’s a damn shame, and it is our fault for focusing on frivolity rather than on our future, which can be ensured by fully knowing our past.

Steve – You recently resigned from the Chicago Sun-Times; and I wonder what you think about how our profession has changed over the course of your career, as well as the responsibility of journalism to educate as much as to inform or entertain? How important are things like the 1619 Project in reaching beyond traditional audiences?

John – I resigned from the Chicago Sun-Times, – where I had written a weekly freelance column for the last 13 years – because I refused to accept the executive editor’s changes to my column, which modified my words, voice, and perspective. My words must be my own. And that is at the heart of the integrity of being a journalist.

Journalism has changed, it is changing every day. I remember clearly some years ago as a reporter at The Washington Post when an editor while reviewing a piece I had written for The Post’s Sunday Outlook Section, which was a precursor to my memoir “True Vine,” remarked, “John, so many journalists today want to be celebrity journalists.”

I never forgot what he said. And it became clear to me in time that he was not only correct but prophetic. So many journalists today want to be the story or become the story, or think themselves to be bigger than the story. When the truth about journalism is: It should always be about the story, about the facts and the truth with our loyalty to the reader. Journalism today too often succumbs to infotainment and to interest polls about what readers think they want, to clickbait, and to the same old narrowly constructed paradigm of what news is.

Journalism misses the stories of everyday life, of life beyond the stereotype, the voices that crackle beneath viaducts and skid rows. It falls victim to celebrity gossip and to twitter trends that amount to minutia when compared to the real issues that Americans grapple with daily. It misses whole swaths of society and does not apologize. It purports to give us “all the news that’s fit to print” while lulling us into a state of complacency with its so-called “24-hour breaking news” and political theater that often adds very little needed and real information to our lives. I love journalism but I am damn near ashamed of what we have become.

The Kerner Report, 55 years ago this month, issued their report, citing American journalism as having failed to produce journalism that was fair, accurate and a true portrayal of the life of African Americans — a failure that the commission attributed to prevailing stereotypes and deep racial divisions that caused riots across the nation in 1967. The report recommended the hiring of Blacks not only as reporters but also in key editorial positions in hopes of creating a more wholesome, fair portrait of Black life. In 2023, it is clear to me that mainstream journalism has failed to mend its ways and, in fact, in Chicago, a majority minority city, when I resigned from the Sun-Times, I was the only local Black male journalist commentator. It is also clear to me that independent Black voices must rise and that Black publications must ratchet up their coverage of the Black community, understanding that their voices — our voices — have never been more critical.

Steve – You recently spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship in Ghana. It sounded like it was a revelatory experience in many ways and you wrote that Ghana “almost loved you”. What were the most important things you brought home? And what was something you learned that you weren’t expecting?

John – During my Fulbright scholarship in Ghana, which was an incredible experience, I learned not only much about Africa but also about myself. I brought home with me a deeper sense of who I am, both as African and American. I returned with a deeper sense of tribalism—embodying and embracing the full power of the compound word, “African-American.” For I am undeniably African. And I am unapologetically American. I was not expecting to feel this way, to learn or to come fully into the knowledge of the Africans’ role in the slave trade nor of the lack of acceptance of African-Americans by many Africans as brothers.

And yet, I returned with a love for Ghana still and the belief that we must bridge the divide across the Black diaspora, seek healing and reconnection. My belief is that we can do that together, collectively, by getting to know each other, by shared goals, projects and interests in which we come to see our commonality and our connected legacy.

Steve – Finally, back to Baseball for our last inning, and coming back around to something you mentioned earlier – the most recent World Series had no US-born Black players on either roster for the first time since 1950, while the game has seen a declining number of Black players over recent years.

Given the importance of baseball to Black history, how important is it that the national pastime has Black sporting role models for the next generation?

John – I am aware that Major League Baseball is addressing the issue of the lack of African-American players in a number of ways, including supporting inner-city Little League baseball programs. I am not sure how successful it has been or will be ultimately, particularly given the glare and popularity of the NBA and the NFL.

When I grew up, everyone played baseball. We all loved baseball, lived for it, relished each summer sunrise when our own makeshift urban field of dreams awaited us. We played in a vacant lot, sometimes etching in white chalk a batter’s box on the wall of a brick building for a game of Strike Out with a Major League-sized rubber ball. We played all day, our prepubescent voices and the smack of the bat filling the sun-drenched summer afternoon, until my friends “Horse” or “Mercury” knocked a homer on someone’s rooftop.” I used to love to inhale the scent of rubber as we scrounged up the 32 cents to buy a ball at Mr. Penny’s grocery store on West 16th Street. Or sometimes we played in the narrow alley with a real baseball, dreaming of someday making it to the Majors. (My friend “Huckey” made it to a Triple A team.)

We knew about the great Satchel Paige, about the Negro Leagues, the story of Jackie Robinson. We watched Hank Aaron knock his historic 715th homer over the left-center-field wall at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, breaking Babe Ruth’s record 49 years ago next month.

Today kids in the city and suburbs dream of dunking like LeBron, of soaring like Ja Morant, of being great like Kobe. Or their sports dreams are of scoring touchdowns and landing million-dollar contracts and sneaker deals. The great American Pastime called baseball is generational among African-Americans. And it seems to have eluded so many Black boys with the acumen and talent to someday find their name and number etched in baseball glory in Cooperstown. I’m not sure baseball can or will ever live again in the hearts and dreams of little Black boys like it once lived in ours. But one can dream. 

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You can follow John’s writing on his Substack “50 Cent A Word” here and at his website here.

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You might also enjoy these other Conversations:

Carol Ott – Priorities

“The biggest problem, and the most frustrating thing about my work are the same thing: racism. It colors (pun intended) every single policy we’ve implemented in Baltimore, since the beginning of time – and that hasn’t changed. It’s just quieter now, and done in the shadows. Racism is a policy choice.”

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Myles Michelin – Talking Pictures

“If I had a magic wand to change just one thing, I would make more opportunities for young people to legally earn money while learning a skill they want to learn. When you add in desperation for money, plus young people being bored out of their minds because the city gives them nothing to do, you end up with young people doing whatever it takes to earn money, and sometimes that means committing crimes.”

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Rev Grey Maggiano – If You Build It…

“[Baseball] is always adapting and innovating around the margins — and that is how I see our reparations effort. It is not really about a whole new thing – it is just taking the basic teachings of Jesus and applying them to a context where the white church has been responsible for generations of segregation and financial disenfranchisement.”

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