Book Review: Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner

Released a year ago in September 2021, Three Girls from Bronzeville has been reviewed to great acclaim in the Washington Post, New York Times, and NPR. Dawn Turner has given interviews at the Chicago Humanities Festival, C-SPAN, and the Family Action Network. Still, after reading this poignant memoir, I had my own questions, which she graciously answered in an interview transcribed below.

In Three Girls from Bronzeville, Dawn Turner tells of her childhood in the historic Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville – the same neighborhood that was home to Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Ida B. Wells, Louis Armstrong, and Quincy Jones. Like a midwestern Harlem, Bronzeville has a rich artistic and intellectual history, developing as a consequence of Black people moving to Chicago from the southern United States during the Great Migration. Dawn Turner grew up in the afterglow of the civil rights movement, when her parents and neighbors had great expectations for the fulfillment of their dreams for their children. Along with her sister Kim and best friend Debra, Dawn had a childhood filled with play, attentive teachers, and watchful, loving parents. But out of that shared childhood three very different fates came to each girl. Dawn’s memoir explores questions of how and why that came to pass.

  1. You are a journalist and a novelist, and you had written about Debra before in your column for the Chicago Tribune. How did you come to know that you would write more about her and that it would take the form of a memoir? The first time I wrote about Debra was in 2000 in the pages of the Tribune when she was about to go to trial. The piece was about me knowing her since we were children. I wrote about her again in 2002, and in 2007. The last story chronicled her graduation from college while in prison. Even then, I didn’t know there would be a book. Then in 2010 Wes Moore published his book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates about himself and another young man from Baltimore with dramatically different fates. One went to prison with no chance of parole and the other is an accomplished writer. It was an example of the fragility of the black community in which seemingly minor turns can have huge consequences. I began to think about a book about two girls, Debra and me. There were parallels with the Wes Moore story, but the big difference was that Debra and I knew each other since we were children. After I got an agent, I sent her a proposal, and my sister (Kim), true to form, leapt out of the page. The agent said it’s a story about three girls and a place. Bronzeville (officially named The Douglas Community) is a lot like Harlem in many ways but not a lot of people know the history, not even people from Chicago. I had never written about my sister before and that opened up another world of narrative and emotional challenges.
  1. The subtitle of the book is “A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood.” What about your story and the stories of Kim and Debra do you feel is uniquely American? My great grandparents arrived in Chicago in 1916, when my grandmother was three years old, to escape Jim Crow (a uniquely American system). They thought it was the promised land, holding the idea of the American dream – the dream that you can aspire to a life that is whole-bodied and has dignity. For a while the mortar held in Chicago but as more and more Black people arrived, the city confined them to the Black Belt on the south side, and gradually the area became imperiled—garbage pickup lagged; policing was overly harsh. There were a lot of people who were strivers, but institutional failures stripped away dreams. Redlining banking policies and restrictive housing covenants had consequences you can see in discrepancies today. The ability to dream doesn’t feel as present, and the optimism is lessened because hopes have been dashed over and over.
  1. You write about a lack of investment in Bronzeville and other neighborhoods relative to majority-white neighborhoods in Chicago. In an interview you gave at the Chicago Humanities Festival you spoke of “aspiration deserts,” and I’m curious to know what you see as key factors for creating environments where aspirations are born and people can thrive. The Ida B. Wells Homes were beautiful when they were built. When we were coming up we were in private housing that was directly across the street from public housing. Dr. Theodore Lawless (a Black dermatologist) said there was housing for the very poor and people who were solidly middle-class [but a gap in between]. Where you live and how you live are great determinants of your life trajectory. I remember a friend who lived in Ida B. Wells telling me, “Dawn, I would sometimes look at the white towers in Lawless and wish I lived there” (Lawless Gardens and Ida B. Wells were across the street from each other). In Lawless Gardens janitors chased down garbage with a religious fervor and mopped the floors constantly, and the lawn was beautifully manicured. All of that matters. Conversely if you live in a place that is squalid, when the elevators don’t work, when stairwells smell like urine, it is difficult to fight the good fight. There used to be janitors who lived in the building at Ida B. Wells, but the Chicago Housing Authority removed the janitors and the security from the premises. The city withdrew resources and put people in a desperate situation, where nothing worked. I remember a story on WBEZ that the city was replacing lightbulbs in a housing project – why was this news? Because people had been living their lives navigating stairwells using lighters. They were happy when there was a full moon, or a night game at the baseball field across the expressway. We know how to create neighborhoods that are functional. I grow tired of this conversation regarding how to fix communities. All you have to do is look at a community that is working well and use it as a blueprint. We take away resources and ask people to fix themselves.
  1. The book describes the very different fates of three girls, and for Debra and Kim a question that is implied throughout the book is, when did we lose them? But another important question is about why some people are given second chances, who gets them, and what do they make of them. What were some chances and second chances that were most consequential for you? When I was a kid my teachers told me I should go to college. I had great standardized test scores and grades. But after my first year I was invited to leave college (due to poor grades). This was a huge turning point because I had to fight to stay there. When I got the letter that said I must sit out a year, my future father-in-law said, “Dawn, everything is negotiable.” Dean Robert Copeland, one of the first Black deans at the University of Illinois at Urbana, allowed me to sit out a semester. It was an inflection point in my life, and I realized I never wanted to be invited to leave anywhere again.
  1. You mentioned in another interview that the margin of error is extremely thin for Black people, especially women. I think that is clear in the book but also that you treat it with subtlety and put a lot of trust in the reader to reach that conclusion on their own. Was that, do you think, a result of your writing style as a journalist or was it a decision that you made to leave the reader a lot of latitude to decide what the story means? I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to show how our lives unfolded as scenes. I saw it as an opportunity to employ my journalistic and novelistic skillset. There’s something tricky about writing a memoir because it’s deeply personal, and I had an incredible editor to guide me through that. I was struggling about how I felt about some of the subtler moments. One of the things that I do as a professional and in my personal life as well is to compartmentalize. I had to go back and I remember how I felt about certain things—my editor had to pull those out of me to retrieve those emotions and feelings.
  1. Forgiveness is an important theme in the book. You write about the family of Raymond Jones forgiving Debra and about other moments of forgiveness for yourself and others. In your observation, what makes forgiveness possible? Forgiveness is a very individual experience. What makes it possible for one person may not work for someone else. I’ve been asked if I had to forgive myself, if I felt like I should have saved my sister or Debra. I know that I let them down to a degree and I had to forgive myself but, I also had to forgive them for making it so hard for us to save them. Raymond Jones’s mother forgave Debra instantly. Terri Jones (his wife) initially thought she would never forgive Debra. But Terri met women (while volunteering) in the Marion County Jail whose lives were upended by drugs. That was the moment when her heart began to soften. Forgiveness is a journey. I can’t say I’d forgive someone if they ever touched my child even knowing what forgiveness has done for my friend. In Christian theology it’s the thing we must do (in theory), but in practice it’s a whole other animal.
  1. What are your best memories of growing up in Bronzeville? I loved hanging out with my sister and friends; I remember them fondly. We had no idea how historic the community was, even though my mother pointed out where the great anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells had lived; or where the novelist Richard Wright had lived or even Gwendolyn Brooks and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first heart surgeon to perform the first successful heart surgery. None of that meant much to me until I grew up and could contextualize that. I loved my teachers. People too often disparage public education. Debra’s parents and Kim’s and mine imagined the world would open up for us, they pointed us toward the sun; our teachers were a part of that. Even though they would be disabused of some of those dreams. My sister and I went downtown, to museums, we traveled every summer with our church throughout the country and beyond so we had seen the world beyond our community. I still keep in touch with my second grade teacher, Janet Sheard, who took us on field trips to museums and art houses. There are some heavy things in the book and some sadness but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We were allowed to be children.
  1. You mentioned that you became aware of the many remarkable people who came from Bronzeville more after you’d grown up than as a child living there. I wonder if you plan to write more about the people and history of your childhood neighborhood? Can you share something about your current writing projects? I don’t plan to revisit Bronzeville directly in my next project because it’s a novel taking place somewhere else. But who knows. With Three Girls from Bronzeville, the story pursued me and now that I’ve written it, I’m moving on. But I’d love to reserve the possibility of returning to Bronzeville if the spirit moves.
Emily Updegraff

Emily is a Reviews Editor at Great Lakes Review.