The Suicide of Leanita McClain

Leanita McClainLeanita McClain was a rising Chicago journalist in the 1980s whose Memorial Day 1984 suicide made an impression on me as a suburban Chicago youth. By the age of 32, she had gone from growing up in a city housing project on the south side to graduating from Northwestern University’s journalism school and working as a top editor at the Chicago Tribune. She had written an influential column for Newsweek and she’d been headed for success. Known to her friends as Lea and married to journalist Clarence Page, McClain had, to me, been living the American Dream—being productive, living in a lakefront high-rise and being happily married.

That’s why her suicide didn’t add up. I later learned that Leanita McClain had been suffering from depression, that she had divorced Page and had felt guilty for being black and successful. As someone who had been pre-judged for factors (like hers) beyond my control and had once had thoughts of suicide, an act which permeated my youth in an area in which 33 teen-age suicides were committed in an 18-month period, the suicide of Leanita McClain resonated.

I knew that she had struggled with being a successful black woman, which she wrote about, and that she felt guilt about living in a wealthy white area of the city. Before she killed herself, McClain had returned to living on Chicago’s predominantly black south side—she had moved into the wealthy and racially mixed Hyde Park—after volunteering to tutor poor blacks in government sponsored housing. The light-skinned McClain, whose mother was albino, was apparently taunted for living among whites. I, too, had been pre-judged; for being white—bullied by blacks using racial slurs in streets, parks, and offices—for being male, for being gay, and, constantly, for living in the suburbs. To someone who used to hear the Chicago and Northwestern train whistle near the tracks where I lived and wonder who would take their own life and not show up for school that day, her final act was intriguing. Had McClain felt alone, alienated and envied for merely existing, too? I wondered. I knew that people tried to make me feel guilty for living in a nice, clean suburb, that some hated me based on my skin color, and I knew I felt like I did not fit in. Her death showed me that someone from a poor background who had achieved success and had the best of everything might also fall prey to such feelings. What thoughts had preceded her feelings, I wanted to know. Why did she choose to check out?

What deepened the mystery was the deficit of information about her death—it was as though there was a seal of information on suicide, any suicide, but especially hers, and, years later, when I booked and met Clarence Page while working as a talk radio production assistant, I didn’t dare ask about his ex-wife, the late Leanita McClain. But the touchstones of her life and career—Chicago, race, and envy—were never far from my thoughts. When I interviewed writer and director Robert Benton about his evocative 2003 movie, The Human Stain, which was vilified by the liberal press for casting Anthony Hopkins as a black man passing for white, I thought of her again.

And again, when writing a column about the year 1967 in motion pictures, when a black New York Times columnist called Sidney Poitier, one of my favorite actors, a derogatory term for appealing to white audiences in his historic trifecta of a year with In the Heat of the Night, To Sir with Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Poitier, I knew, never portrayed a leading man in another major movie again. I saw that what Ayn Rand, who had denounced racism as a variant of collectivism, called the Age of Envy could destroy people of all races and backgrounds. And still no one breathed the name of Leanita McClain.

Until now. I had recently reconnected to Clarence Page, still writing for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington, DC, bureau, and gamely debating me on Facebook between talk TV appearances, and I gently reached out in memory of Leanita McClain’s Memorial Day suicide and asked for an interview, which he graciously granted. As I read more about her suicide, I decided to seek the input of her friend and fellow journalist Monroe Anderson, and a lively conversation ensued. I did ask one of her white Tribune editors for an interview. I never heard back and I was not surprised. In my view, many in the media are often purely subjective in using people to advance a certain perception about their business (i.e., newspaper, news channel, Web site) and her suicide is partly a lesson in what’s wrong with the media, the culture, and the country.

What follows are the facts and writings of her short life. Leanita McClain was born to a poor family on Chicago’s south side. With two much older sisters, an albino mother and a father who worked in a factory, she spent a lot of time alone and her early writings foreshadow her sense of alienation. In a brief teen-age essay, entitled “On Me, Segregation, Integration and Pink Polka-Dotted Gremlins With Olive Ears,” McClain wrote:

“Why is there so much hate and contempt among people? I have never been blocked from anything because of my color, and I’m not ashamed of it, either. My great grandfather was Caucasian and so was my great grandmother. My grandmother was part Seminole Indian. I hate to talk like that. It sounds like someone drained all of the blood out of my grandmother and decided that one color was Negro, another color Indian and another Caucasian.” She added: “Why can’t people just be people and live in peace and harmony. Maybe I’m in search of the perfect world. Or maybe I’m just me. That’s it. I’m me. But . . . to be me is to be nothing — to be nothing is to be me. And I love all people. Even pink polka-dotted ones with olive ears.”

McClain grew up in the Ida B. Wells government housing project. She was a bright student, attended Chicago State University, aimed to be a teacher like her older sisters but changed her mind after a violent crime, and went to Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism on a scholarship. After being hired as an intern at the Chicago Tribune, where she met both Page and Anderson, McClain worked in several editing positions, and, in its October 13, 1980, edition, Newsweek published the strong-minded young woman’s My Turn column, “The Middle-Class Black’s Burden”. Her first line signals her dilemma: “I am a member of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success,” she wrote. “I am not ashamed.” McClain, an unabashed advocate for welfare-statism, continued: “As for the envy of my own people, am I to give up my career, my standard of living, to pacify them and set my conscience at ease? No, I have worked for these amenities and deserve them, though I can never enjoy them without feeling guilty.” Clarence Page would write in his introduction to A Foot in Each World, a posthumously published collection of her work: “Material comfort and worldly honors could not lighten the burden she placed on herself, a cross she felt she had to bear for her people.”

Therein was at least part of the problem, as reaction to the column—controversy, acclaim and a sudden promotion by the white liberal Tribune—may have fed the roots of her clinical depression. By the time Chicago’s corrupt Democratic Party had its first major black candidate, Harold Washington, for mayor, Leanita McClain was poised for despair. Washington ran, many of the city’s white Democrats fled to a Jewish Republican candidate named Bernie Epton (whom I supported), and Washington won. But McClain, already stung by criticism among blacks for having gone “uptown,” wrote a blisteringly racist commentary for the Washington Post. The newspaper’s editors gave her essay a headline she did not like—Page wrote that she thought it overstated her case—“How Chicago Taught Me to Hate Whites.” Leanita McClain killed herself less than a year after it was published.

In the essay, she wrote that she had heard a voice during the heated mayoral campaign that “was going on about ‘the blacks.’ ‘The blacks this’ and ‘the blacks’ that, ‘the blacks, the blacks, the blacks.’ My eyes fogged, but not from the bathroom steam. ‘The blacks.’ It is the article that offends.” Long before an interracial Illinois senator calling himself a black man from Chicago was elected president, McClain described what followed Harold Washington’s victory: “[b]lack strangers exchanged sly smiles on the streets. A jubilant scream went up, but it was a silent one, something like the high-pitched tones only animals can discern. The black man won! We did it! It rose to the stratosphere, crystalized and sprinkled every one of us like sugared rain. We had a feeling, and above all we had power.”

McClain admitted in the piece that she had put so much effort into “belonging”, and that the political acrimony showed her that solving the racial problem would take more than living, marrying and going to school together. “What is there, then, to believe in?” She asked, indicating that she held integration as a dogma more than as a goal and referring to what she called her innate black hope. Amid her abrupt abandonment of racial harmony as an attainable goal and embrace of what she called the comradeship of blackness, her insights were clear and penetrating:

“I’ve detested my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune whose antiseptic suburban worlds are just as narrow, who pretend to have immense racial concerns and knowledge, but who don’t know blacks other than me and who haven’t even come in touch with ordinary whites in decades.” Leanita McClain was prophetic about a newspaper that never regained the common touch and has floundered ever since.

Despite her newly declared hostility for whites, in a column in which she wrote about wanting to gun them down, liberal black editor Leanita McClain had at various times also criticized Chicago public schools, the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Chicago’s self-aggrandizing race-baiter, the Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, whose budding presidential candidacy she dismissed. But there were signs that defeatism had pierced her soul: “no black is going to be president of the United States for so far in the future that it isn’t worth pondering.”

McClain, whose parents had vowed that their children would leave public housing—which they did—was not afraid to question liberal articles of faith, denouncing both progressive education and the permissiveness of the 1960s. She also argued for the right to an abortion, absolute free speech, and she observed that the black middle class was largely dependent on government jobs. When Vanessa Williams won the 1984 Miss America contest, McClain wrote that Williams’s ability as an individual swayed the judges, and McClain rightly predicted that the nation’s first black Miss America would not be co-opted into becoming a spokesman for black causes. When she heard from some black readers that Williams won Miss America because she was light-skinned, like McClain, she called the self-hate out, firing right back: “Color variations are joked about uninhibitedly among black people, but any serious discussion of it is whispered; and it is an unmentionable in the company of whites. Even civil rights has not relieved this twisted, parasitic tendency…those people who choose to feel superior or inferior to others of their own race on the basis of skin color ought to spend more time looking over themselves.”

Throughout her brief career, Leanita McClain pointed out that it was a black journalist who revealed Jesse Jackson’s slur against Jews, that Black History Month was begun by a black historian in 1926 as Negro History Week during the week of the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and freed slave and abolitionist newspaper publisher Frederick Douglass, and she warned that Chicago, now governed by a mayor who is dictating drug tests for Chicago’s housing project residents and wants new city casinos, was falling under the control of thugs who would take the city back to the days of Al Capone. And she never let up in railing against racism: “Whether whites can see it or not, or admit to it or not, they are ingrained by this society with a superior attitude toward blacks that is as natural and reflexive and uncontrollable as sneezing.”

One of her best pieces, a Chicago magazine article published in 1981, asks: Who will save our schools? McClain wrote: “It wasn’t that long ago that one could grow up black and poor in Chicago and still receive an education. I did. So did my two sisters, who remain in the system as elementary school teachers. We and the thousands like us did it by mastering standardized tests and the English language. We did it without free meals, busing, pupil or teacher desegregation plans or euphemisms that hid the fact that children simply weren’t making it. To fail was just that. It was not a perfect education. The public schools provided a solid if unimaginative curriculum in basic reading and mathematical skills that those with initiative could develop. We can read, and write, and reason.”

And she did, making a living out of thinking, reading and writing, which I know first-hand is an achievement. Writing later about a sign she kept that evokes blacks sitting in colored waiting rooms, she explained that she kept it as a reminder that, “with a sense of self, we never will again.” Tragically, she lost her sense of self, which I think she erroneously predicated on blood. In this post and related posts, I seek to foster a better understanding of Leanita McClain’s work, life, and death, which moved me as a youth and influenced my career. The following interviews with those who knew her best, two accomplished journalists kind enough to talk to me on the eve of the 27th Memorial Day since she died, are intended to put her suicide in context, as part of studying an important and underreported topic that deeply affects us. This is for the memory of Leanita McClain and individuals who don’t fit in and want to make the world their own.