Ojikutu, Bayo 1971–
Bayo Ojikutu 1971–
Bayo Ojikutu is the author of 47th Street Black and Free Burning, two novels that depict the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago's South Side. In 47th Street Black, Ojikutu traced the adventures of teenagers who become involved in organized crime, while Free Burning centers on a family man who turns to criminal activity after losing his white-collar job. Reviewing the latter in Booklist, Donna Seaman called it a “timeless tale of a good man trapped in hell” and praised the “fierce precision and strategic nuance” of Ojikutu's prose.
Bayo Ojikutu was born in 1971, the son of Sylvia and Owolabi Ojikutu. His father, a podiatrist who had emigrated from Nigeria, operated a chain of clinics in northwestern Indiana. Ojikutu and his two sisters were raised in Chicago Heights, at the southern end of Cook County, Illinois. On his mother's side, the family's migration patterns reflected that of many African-American families during the twentieth century: Ojikutu's maternal grandparents had moved to Chicago from the Deep South in the early 1920s as part of the large wave of internal migration, when southern blacks headed north for better job opportunities. In the next generation Ojikutu's parents followed another migratory pattern, leaving the predominantly black South Side for one of the adjacent Chicagoland suburbs.
Influenced by Films
Ojikutu began writing at the age of twelve, and attended Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, where his writing teacher was Mort Castle, a prolific science fiction novelist. Filmmakers, not authors, were among Ojikutu's earliest influences. He told Jessica Hopper in Chicago Reader, “When I was younger it was mainstream stuff—[Steven] Spielberg and George Lucas, John Hughes even…. Scorsese was huge for me as I embraced writing with some seriousness.” He has also cited the performance films of comedian Richard Pryor as an influence. He has said that his parents took him to see Pryor's movies, though the comedian was somewhat infamous for his shocking language and subject matter. “Maybe they plugged our ears … during certain segments,” he recalled in Chicago Reader. “But that was my exposure to the aesthetically illicit. Pryor was huge for me in terms of gaining confidence in a distinctive voice.”
At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Ojikutu majored in journalism at first, but then switched to pre-law and political science. Two years after earning his undergraduate degree in 1995, he entered the creative writing program at DePaul University. He also began working on the first draft of what became 47th Street Black, which won third place in a fiction contest and helped him land a literary agent.
Published Debut Novel
47th Street Black was published by Three Rivers Press in 2003. It is set in Chicago during the 1960s and follows the lives of high school students Morris “Mookie” King and J.C. Rose. Told from alternating points of view, the story begins when they discover the body of a notorious local crime figure, take the dead man's gold jewelry, and then try to pawn it. From there they are drawn further into the South Side's criminal underworld, which at the time revolved around the numbers-running racket. The book's title refers to an elderly man who is a fixture on the South Side's main artery, 47th Street, having witnessed the neighborhood's many changes since he first arrived from the Deep South nearly fifty years earlier.
Mookie and J.C. profit handsomely from their work as collection agents for their mobster bosses, but one of their unsavory tasks goes awry and ends in murder, for which J.C. earns a fifteen-year prison sentence after Mookie flees the scene. Ojikutu's novel then flashes forward several years to J.C.'s release and reunion with Mookie, who is now the South Side's main crime boss. “Threats, bloodshed and murder are rife in this first novel, but Ojikutu keeps the mayhem tightly focused,” noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, who judged it “an accomplished and engaging story.”
In 2006 Ojikutu followed that debut with Free Burning, a story offering the “bleak message” that “the black middle class is just a few steps away from hell,” according to Laura S. Washington in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Its dark pages pound out more real-life social ills than you can find in the syllabus of an urban studies class,” Washington noted. The novel's protagonist is Tommie Simms, a black college graduate and family man who has beaten the odds of his neighborhood to hold a job with a major insurance company headquartered in Chicago. His comfortable life is shattered, however, when he is laid off in the wave of corporate downsizing that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In his old neighborhood Tommie has been mocked by some of his childhood friends as a square and a sell-out, dubbed a “BMW,” or “Black Man Working.” However, when his bills begin to pile up at home, he seeks out his cousin Remi, a drug dealer, for help in earning some extra income. Before long Tommie's involvement escalates and imperils not just his middle-class lifestyle but his actual life as he is caught in a conflict between a corrupt cop and a powerful drug cartel. “Ojikutu's harsh and often violent depiction of the street life … is riveting,” wrote Library Journal's Lawrence Rungren. In Black Issues Book Review Denolyn Carroll called Free Burning “a powerful work of urban fiction, a searing portrayal of one of the shameful realities within an unjust society.”
Inspired by Heritage
Ojikutu teaches creative writing at his alma mater, DePaul, and urges others to explore the city's rich heritage for stories missing from conventional urban histories. “There is this easiness to disavow our community,” he said in an interview by Lisa Lenoir in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Forty-seventh Street was so beautiful. It's so easy to let these things fall.”
When asked by Contemporary Black Biography if there were any African writers who had influenced him, Ojikutu replied, “The most influential writer of direct African decent over the course of my aesthetic life has been John Edgar Wideman, [who] particularly in his short story ”Damballah” and in several of his nonfiction essays, writes provocatively of [the African] Diaspora's symbiotic narrative. The most compelling element of the auteur's notion is the idea that there exists a unifying spirit force crafting a conjoining line through a many-volume tale: a One Plot told by a transcendent narrator that conveys every bit of all our stories for all time, preserving the mirth, tears and blood dripped from each human soul while flitting about this parable for perpetuity's animated chronicle."
At a Glance …
Born August 27, 1971, in Chicago, IL; son of Owolabi (a podiatrist and orthopedic surgeon) and Sylvia (a government employee) Ojikutu; married July 10, 1999; wife's name, Carolyn. Education: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, BA, 1995; DePaul University, MA, 1999.
Career: Writer. Published first novel, 47th Street Black, in 2003; instructor in creative writing, DePaul University.
Awards: Washington Prize for Fiction and Great American Book Contest winner, both for 47th Street Black.
Addresses: Office—Department of English, DePaul University, Rm. 115B, McGaw Hall, 802 West Belden Ave., Chicago, IL 60604. Agent—Katherine Boyle, LitWest LLC, 1157 Valencia St., Ste. 4, San Francisco, CA 94110. E-mail— [email protected]
47th Street Black, Three Rivers Press, 2003.
Free Burning, Three Rivers Press, 2006.
Black Issues Book Review, January-February 2007, p. 44.
Booklist, October 1, 2006, p. 37.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 2, 2003; October 1, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, October 6, 2006, p. 73.
Essence, October 2006, p. 106.
Library Journal, September 1, 2006, p. 138.
Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2003, p. 39.
“Cinematic Grit,” Chicago Reader, November 3, 2006, http://www.chicagoreader.com/features/stories/fallbooks/bayoojikutu/ (accessed January 25, 2008).
Interview with Bayo Ojikutu, November 19, 2007.
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