Chelsea Ike

Rachel Kim, our former education editor,  and Ashvini Kartik-Narayan, one of our current education editors, collaborated to hold South Side Weekly’s second student essay contest this summer. The theme for the contest was inspired by Chicago native Nate Marshall’s poem, “When I Say Chicago.” We asked students: What do you mean when you say Chicago? We wanted to hear how students “find, define, build, and maintain a sense of community in Chicago”: their answers, penned during a pandemic and a summer of immense racial injustice against Black people, were especially poignant. 

We received over fifteen submissions from all over the South Side. We are extremely grateful for all of these submissions and for the time, energy, and care students put into writing them during a time of unbelievable stress, pain, and uncertainty. There were so many incredible, thoughtful essays, each offering a different view of what makes Chicago so beautiful and so special. In the end, we chose three essays to print. Read the other two: “I’m From Chicago” and “When I Say Chicago.

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When I say Chicago

I mean the city I was raised in

I mean the neighborhood people I grew up with

I mean the 50 cent chips you can buy at the gas station

I mean the city filled with many African Americans, Hispanics and more.

I mean the pizza plaza famous for its deep dish pizza

I mean the busy crowded roads downtown

& my sister

& my brother

& my nephew

& my aunt

& my uncle


When I say Chicago

I mean the elementary school around the corner

I mean the buses going to 95th/Dan Ryan and back

I mean the high school that accepted my application

I mean the IHOP on Blvd, Hammond that served my family

I mean the Longhorn Steakhouse I went to on my graduation

I mean the city that caused pain for my neighbor

& that man

& that woman

& that mother

& that father

& that sibling

& that family


When I say Chicago

I mean the time when I walked home from school almost everyday

I mean the stray cats wandering around my neighborhood

I mean the 4th of July bbq, drinking soft drinks and eating grilled meat.

I mean watching the men and women jog as my dad drives past.

I mean going to Nigerian gatherings and eating jollof rice and meat pie

I mean going to the beach with my brother, playing with my siblings

& that girl

& that boy

& that kid

& that sand bucket

& that water gun

& that ball


When I say chicago 

I mean when my brother comes over and brings us fried chicken with fries and oreos

I mean when on hot days my mom goes to the store and brings back ice cream.

I mean when the weather’s warm, my sisters and I go for warm walks with our dog

I mean when my dad came home with a big fluffy goldendoodle, that leaped everytime it saw us. 

I mean the cold winters when I was forced to wear heavy coats and clothing

I mean the warm days when I got fast food with my senior friend

& this guy

& that girl

& that group

& this friend

& that friend

& this kid


When I say Chicago

I mean the nice people greeting one another on the sidewalks

I mean people selling CDs at park or gas station

I mean people sitting down and chatting at restaurants

I mean people on business calls, rushing to get to work

I mean people giving out donations of foods, clothing, and hygiene products

I mean people donating money to the poor

& to charity

& to programs

& to small businesses

& to clothing brands

& to makeup brands

& to shoe brands


When I say Chicago

I think about my family and my closest friends

I think about my past and my regrets

I think about my broken bonds and tied ones

I think about the happy and exciting moments

I think about the depressing and anxious moments

I think about the pain my people of color are feeling

& how they’re feeling

& how she’s feeling

& how he’s feeling

& how Hispanics are feeling

& how Asians are feeling

& how Native Americans and Muslims are feeling

& how Blacks are feeling.

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1 Comment

  1. I love this poem, especially the acutely detailed observations, the poet’s engagement with family, community and city, and the structure and rhythm of the poem as a whole. I bet it’s even better read aloud!

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