Catholic faith a touchstone for Illinois poet laureate

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Angela Jackson, Illinois’ new poet laureate. (Photo provided by Northwestern University)

Angela Jackson, Illinois’ new poet laureate, wrote her first poem when she was in third grade at St. Anne School, located at Garfield Boulevard and Wentworth Avenue.

“That was a poem about my mother and it said, ‘My mother jumps for joy!’ And I remember when I read it to her. She was sitting on the radiator in the kitchen and she looked at me, and the thing is the poem was accurate because when my mother was excited and happy, she would give a little jump, so I knew what I was talking about as a poet,” Jackson said.

Jackson grew up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood and attended Catholic school through high school. She has published several books of poetry and a biography on Gwendolyn Brooks.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Jackson’s appointment in November. There have only been four other Illinois poet laureates: The first Illinois poet laureate, Howard B. Austin, was named in 1936. The three other poets who have held the title are Carl Sandburg (1962-67), Gwendolyn Brooks (1968-2000) and Kevin Stein (2003-2017). In June, Gov. Pritzker posthumously named John Prine an honorary poet laureate.

Jackson will give public readings of her poetry each year and hopes to sponsor other readings. The position doesn’t come with a salary or budget, so she has to raise funds to support her projects.

One thing she hopes to do is send four young poets to do residencies at schools to share poetry with the students and guide them in writing their own poems.

She also wants to reach out to older poets.

“What I want to establish is prizes for senior citizens, five of them. And also one large one for college students, undergraduate to graduate students, for $1,000 that will be underwritten by my sister Rosemary Lawson, that is called the Lawson-Jackson award, and then there will be a third prize,” Jackson said. “The only thing I have money for right now is the Lawson-Jackson award. I have to write grants and stuff and have help.”

Her love of poetry was fostered during her time in Catholic school.

“I became interested in poetry the first time I heard a poem in first grade at St. Anne School,” Jackson said. “There was a poem that went ‘Once there was an elephant who tried to use the telephant. No! I mean use an elephone who tried to use the telephone.’”

What she heard was a poem titled “Eletelephony” by Laura Elizabeth Richards.

“I was enchanted by the sounds of the play of that. I still remember that poem,” said Jackson, a member of St. Basil Visitation Parish.

A pivotal moment in Jackson’s formation as a poet came when Sister St. Arthur at St. Anne School showed the class a film on Gwendolyn Brooks.

“I remember thinking, ‘She’s a negro like me and she lives in Chicago.’ That made a deep impression on me,’” she said. “In high school, I wanted to be a doctor, but I continued to write poetry and in my diary. I kept a diary and it was called ‘Letters to Jesus’ because Jesus was my best friend.”

Jackson also considered religious life, which is not surprising since religious women continued to have an impact on Jackson’s life choices.

When she was in high school, she wanted to go on to St. Xavier University, which was a women’s college at the time, and where her sister was enrolled. A religious sister told her she needed to go to Northwestern University instead where she was offered a scholarship.

“She said ‘You should go to Northwestern so you can compete with the guys.’ That’s why I went to Northwestern, because Sister Mary encouraged me to go that way,” Jackson said. “Now I think she wanted to urge me out to compete with wealthy white men, to put it bluntly.”

At Northwestern, she took courses on Black studies and literature and continued to write. Through a professor at the university, she was introduced to Organization of Black American Culture on Chicago’s South Side, which was a hub for Black writers, artists, historians, educators, intellectuals, community activists and others. Called OBAC (pronounced Oh-bah-see), the organization further fostered her work as a poet.

“We were committed to creating a literature for a people who were not stereotypes,” she said. “We are not stereotypes. We are human beings and are Black. We have a history. We have a uniqueness just like other people do.”

She has never doubted that God gave her the gift to write.

“It’s exactly what God gave me to do,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing what God wants me to do when I’m doing it.”

Her mother, who worked as a cook and housekeeper in local parishes and as a teacher’s aide, instilled the faith into Jackson and her nine siblings.

Jackson’s faith comes through in everything she writes, whether poetry, fiction or non-fiction.

“I like to say I’m a Catholic writer with a small c, but that’s not always the truth because my Catholicism is very much in my writing as well,” Jackson said. “The church’s teachings on social justice mean everything to me. They are at the core of my person and of my work as a writer.”

After all, it’s all for Jesus, she said.

“When I was a little girl, we used to have to put the sign of the cross on the top of our page. I think perhaps there’s an invisible sign of the cross at the top of every page I write.”

Father David Jones, pastor of St. Benedict the African Parish in Englewood, has known Jackson most of his life. They both come from large families in the neighborhood. They weren’t friends because Jackson is one of her family’s oldest children while Jones is the youngest of his, but their families knew each other and both of their mothers were matriarchs in the community when they were growing up.

Both families were and continue to be very rooted in church, he said.

“Everybody went to school with a Jones or a Jackson,” Jones said. “Everybody knew Mrs. Jackson at St. Anne’s and everybody knew Mrs. Jones at St. Cecilia. … They are these grand elders for everybody.”

When St. Anne closed and Jackson’s mother became a teacher’s aide at St. Charles Lawanga School, she taught Jones when he attended school there. Their families all mixed, but it wasn’t until Jones became an adult that a friendship formed between him and Jackson.

Jackson is helping Jones run a new ministry at St. Benedict the African started during the pandemic in which people share their Catholic origin stories.

“I knew Angela. I knew her family,” Jones said. “I certainly knew she existed, but our friendship, I would say, once I reached adulthood then there’s a connection that’s not driven by the natural divisions of age.”

Jones also encountered Jackson outside of church through OBAC and says no matter what setting she’s in, Jackson brings her faith with her.

“Angela is always Catholic,” he said. “Even when she’s around people who consider themselves radical thinkers addressing cultural issues and the impact of racism, sexism and poverty, she’s always doing it from a Catholic lens. I know that because when I meet her at church or when I bump into her in the community, I don’t need an interpreter. I know exactly what she’s saying. She’s blending those two things, blending what is hers from birth and what is hers from baptism.”



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