Sister, Outsider: Public Success, Deadly Depression and the Life of Leanita McClain

by Audrey Elisa Kerr

Leanita McClain's name has long been forgotten by many, or worse, never uttered by most. McClain became the first black woman and youngest person on The Chicago Tribune's editorial board. Her dexterity with the pen — her talent and her work ethic — resulted in her being named one of Glamour Magazine's 10 top career women in 1984. McClain's bronze skin and Hollywood blonde hair, along with her stunning eyes tucked behind broad rim glasses, gave her the appearance of a beauty queen playing a reporter. And yet her uncompromising racial allegiance and her ability to write plainly about racial injustice affirmed that she was one of the most important journalistic voices on the Chicago scene during a time so critical in our racial history that it inspired future political powerhouses, including a young Barak Obama.

Raised in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the south side of Chicago, McClain attended Northwestern University where she discovered journalism. But McClain struggled to fit in — both with the family she'd left behind in the projects (her elite education rendered her an outsider) and with the middle and upper middle class whites who permeated her new world.

As a rising star in journalism, McClain (along with most Chicagoans) followed the mayoral campaign of Harold Washington, a black democratic candidate whose run against an unknown white candidate was one of the most racially charged campaigns of our time. Although democrats had ruled the city of Chicago for most of the 20th century, democratic whites placed their financial clout and public support behind the lesser-known white candidate. In indisputable and disturbing terms, the election was a public admission of the racism that had divided the city for generations. As McClain described it, white secretaries in city hall stopped taking to black secretaries: race permeated even the most mundane of conversations in Chicago.

In her personal life, McClain struggled with depression. She married the writer Clarence Page. Her depression — along with a plethora of personal and professional pressures — caused McClain to fluctuate between creatively channeled disgust and dangerous moments of physical and emotional surrender. As McClain watched race wars erupt in Chicago on the dawn of Mayor Harold Washington's election, the newsroom — her base — was transformed: white co-workers now avoided her gaze. Conversations were arrested and tense. Beyond work there was no "home" — just a house to lay her head in; there was no marriage to offer comfort, no colleagues in whom she could confide.

Using the power of the pen, McClain penned a "manifesto" — published 700 miles away in the Washington Post — that was, arguably, the most important response to Chicago's race wars that emerge from Mayor Washington's election. In it, McCain said that she had been, "robb[ed] of ... hope" for any real citywide integration. "I've detested my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune, who... pretend to have immense racial concerns ...but who don't know blacks other than me. So here I am, blacker than I've ever been. And I now know that I can hate." Her growing outspokenness on issues of race — in one article she recalls watching a protest and wanting to mow whites down — spoke emphatically to the slow psychological death racism provoked in her, and the multifarious ways racism claims its victims.

The confluence of these public statements alongside the existing racial tensions in the city was a lethal combination for McClain. Colleagues watched McClain suspiciously, and the invitations to lunch began to dry up. She'd moved from the posh Hyde Park section of Chicago back to the city's predominantly black South side. But there was no cheering on the occasion of her homecoming. Instead, she was met by more loneliness and isolation.

Despite all of these dilemmas, her heaviest burden was her success. As her ex-husband later noted, "One of the most difficult acts for African Americans is to give themselves permission to make money."

Leanita McClain — at the age of 33 — succumbed to the weight of it all and took her own life. How trapped she must have felt in the world that words had built; how overwhelming the conviction that there is no way out. Life claims many of our greatest voices, and among them was Leanita McClain. As I write her name, I hope her story lives again.

Leanita McClain, American writer. Sister, outsider.

Leanita McClain, remembered.


Davis, Robert. "The Election of Harold Washington, the First Black Mayor of Chicago," Chicago Tribune, April 1983,0,6299016.story

McClain, L. "How Chicago Taught Me to Hate White People," Washington Post, 1984

Page, Clarence. "Survivor Guilt: The Angst of the Black Bourgeoisie," March 11, 1996

Sister, Outsider: Public Success, Deadly Depression and the Life of Leanita McClain by Audrey Elisa Kerr

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