Adam Morgan | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,587 words)
Precisely one hundred summers ago, at least 165 people were killed in “race riots” against black Americans in cities ranging from Washington, D.C. to Bisbee, Arizona. The bloodiest conflict of that “Red Summer” unfolded on the South Side of Chicago between July 27 and August 3. It started at the 29th Street Beach, where a white man threw rocks at black swimmers and killed a 17-year-old boy named Eugene Williams. Over the next few days, 38 people were killed and more than 500 were injured as roving gangs of white men terrorized Chicago’s Black Belt.
“Chicagoans tend to be enthusiastic and vocal discussants of our own history,” Eve Ewing writes in the introduction to 1919, her second book of poetry. “But 1919 didn’t seem to make it into the timeline alongside titanic stories about Fort Dearborn, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1968 riots, Richard J. Daley, or Harold Washington.”
So Ewing — the poet of Electric Arches, the scholar of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, the comic book writer of Marvel’s Ironheart, the playwright of No Blue Memories, and arguably the most powerful cultural voice in Chicago over the past five years — set about telling the story of 1919 in a characteristically clever way. Flecked with historical photos and evocative quotes from a post-riot commission report, filled with biblical and mythological references, seamlessly bending time and genre, 1919 is an unforgettable conversation-starter. Every poem leaves a bruise.
I recently spoke with Ewing over the phone about the Red Summer, the legacy of the riots in present-day Chicago, and why she decided poetry was the best medium to tell this story.
Adam Morgan: When did you first stumble upon the Chicago race riots of 1919?
Eve Ewing: I recall a very passing mention of the Red Summer in high school. From my college coursework, I knew a little bit about the racial violence Black World War I veterans faced when they came back from overseas. But I certainly didn’t know any real particulars about the Red Summer in Chicago.
What compelled you to write a book about it?
When I was doing the research for Ghosts in the Schoolyard, I ended up reading a lot about 1919, partially because the source text that I’m in conversation with in 1919 — The Negro in Chicago — was a really helpful resource for me to understand conditions for Black people during the Great Migration, which ended up being a really important part of Ghosts in the Schoolyard. I also knew that Black Metropolis — a classic sociological text written in the ’40s — drew heavily from this report.
I was just so fascinated with [The Negro in Chicago]. I was using it for Ghosts in the Schoolyard as a source for this one bit of historical context, but I became fascinated with the origins of the report itself, and the thing they were actually writing about, which was the 1919 race riots.
I have a fascination with texts that aren’t poetry, but are nevertheless extremely poetic. It can be things in the environment like signage, found text. I’m interested in places where people have written something with a certain kind of craft or strangeness that we would normally associate with poetry. I was really interested in some of the lines and the passages in this report, that to me were very poetic in a way that I found kind of entrancing and strange.
Then there’s the event itself. I think a recurring theme in my work across all genres is: which histories get told, and which ones don’t, and why, and who gets to decide that? I was fascinated on a meta-level about how little I knew about 1919, and how little I knew about that summer. Using myself as a test case, it was like, “Man, I really care about these things, and I’ve read a lot about them, and I’ve been to a lot of schools, so it’s really telling that I don’t know more about this.” I became interested in creating an accessible entry point for people to learn more.
I have a fascination with texts that aren’t poetry, but are nevertheless extremely poetic.
Have you ever read the 9/11 Commission Report? A lot of writers have remarked on how compelling and poetic the prose is, even though, like The Negro in Chicago, it was just a post-mortem report commissioned by the government.
Yeah, when I read from 1919 in public, sometimes I use the 9/11 commission report as an analog to help people understand what The Negro in Chicago was as a document: an in-depth research project that is aimed at trying to understand why an event happened and prevent it from ever happening again. I remember when the 9/11 commission report came out, it was actually for sale in bookstores. It’s an interesting genre of writing.
Appraising it now, a century after it was written, do you think the writers of The Negro in Chicago did a good job?
That’s a good question. Given the time in which they lived, and the tools that were available to then, I think they did a pretty comprehensive job. The problem is, I don’t really have anything to compare it to, right? I wasn’t alive during that time. I can’t be like, “Oh, they missed this and that.” It’s funny, W.E.B. Du Bois — who is a hero of mine — wrote this open letter in which he basically lambasted the report. He said they weren’t doing a good job and encouraged people not to talk to them. But as part of the commission’s due diligence, they included his letter in the report. That level of transparency is admirable, although they didn’t actually name him. They refer to him as “a prominent negro editor,” or something like that. I was like, “I’m pretty sure this is Du Bois.” I just copied and pasted it and found a match in The Crisis. But I think they did a pretty good job, and I think it’s a pretty incredible piece of writing.
After reading your book, I downloaded the report myself. It’s fascinating.
That’s the other thing that’s cool, right? Working with Bughouse Square and writing Ghosts in the Schoolyard made me think about archives a lot. It’s cool that anybody can go read this thing in the public domain. In the introduction to the report, the governor says, “I think if people read this, we’ll never have problems like this again.” My running joke has been, “Oh, well nobody read all 800 pages, so that’s why we still have racism and violence.” Maybe this is all just an ornate trick by me to get more people to read this really long document.
Have you seen any evidence in your research that Chicago officials learned anything, or heeded anything, from this report?
Well, part of the reason I pushed to get the book out this year is because it’s the centenary of 1919. So because of that, I’ve been in conversation with a lot of other scholars, especially historians who work on this period. And their consensus seems to be no. If you go to the end of the report and read the recommendations, a lot of them would be pretty bold as recommendations today. They’re things that we’re still working on.
One section says, “We need to have high-quality housing for Black people in Chicago. Segregation is stopping us from having that. White people in the city need to step up and take ownership to fight segregation.” If the mayor said that tomorrow, people would be clutching their pearls, you know? I definitely think [the report] was comparatively progressive for its time, and therefore, not really heeded. I mean, you live here, so you can see the after-effects.
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You do a great job hinting at the present-day legacy of the riots throughout the book, especially in the final third. I had no idea [former Chicago mayor, Richard J.] Daley was a member of one of the white gangs that instigated violence during the riots.
Oh yeah, dude.
Right? Hello? It’s all right there. I don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist, because it’s all right there. Again, it’s like, “Why don’t we talk about this?” And you’re a person who would know these things, right?
I would have thought so, yeah.
It shows how compressed history really is.
Did you revisit any of the locations where the riots took place?
Not specifically for the book, but just in life. That’s what was so haunting about the process of writing it: some of these places were corners and intersections where I’ve been. There’s actually a group of people who are working on a project in Chicago right now to build a series of what they call stumbling stones. The German word is stolperstein, which is a great word. They’re working to raise money for a public art project that would create literal stones in the ground that you stumble over as commemorative markers of where these events took place.
Strangely, there is actually a plaque along the beach near where the riot began, where Eugene Williams drowned. It’s sort of unfortunate, because it’s a plaque that was installed by a group of well-meaning people from outside of Chicago, a group of young high school students from a nearby suburb. The quote they put is Martin Luther King’s, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.”
Which, in this particular instance, is not a great use of that quote, right? [The Red Summer] was not about oppressed people rioting up against their circumstances. It was actually about racial violence that was largely enacted by white residents against black residents. Which, I think, invokes a broader question that I’m sort of agnostic on, and interested in what other people think, but you know, the term “riot” . . . is that the term we should use for this event? I think it’s an open question.
These kinds of violent histories are all around us, you know? We have to take the time to stop and seek them out if we’re ever going to have any hope at social reconciliation.
Over the last five years you’ve written poetry, nonfiction, comics, and plays. For this particular project, what drew you to poetry?
I think there were a couple things. Number one was, thinking about what I mentioned earlier, about how some of the language was so poetic, I just wanted to engage with that a little more, on the level of these short snippets. The other thing was, I didn’t want to position myself as an expert, or the person to write the be-all-end-all nonfiction treatise. I really wanted to invite a conversation, to create an entry point for people. I think poetry is a good way to do that. It’s short, it’s accessible. It was really hard, and it took a long time to write, longer than I wanted it to, but I’m happy with that decision.
You had some art in Electric Arches that went along with the poetry, and this time you used photographs. Why is a multimodal approach important to you as a poet?
You know, the short answer is because I can. I’m so lucky to work with the people at Haymarket, who put out both of my poetry books. I really wanted both Electric Arches and 1919 to be very accessible. What I mean by that word is different for each of the books and for different reasons. With Electric Arches, it was very important for the book to be an inviting visual object. So I thought about making the book square, and about the cover art, which I chose in partnership with my publisher at Haymarket, which is not always something authors get to do.
It’s pretty rare!
Yeah, it’s very rare. With 1919, I chose the cover art as well. I think visual language compliments poetry in a way that can make it more inviting and more comprehensive an experience for a lot of people. In the case of this book, the archival photos are so amazing, and they really invite you to try to understand what living through this thing would actually have been like, to put yourself in the shoes of these Chicagoans. You know that I’m very interested in time-bending and nonlinear time, and I think of the people in this book as our neighbors, right? They happen to be our neighbors across the span of a century, but they’re our neighbors. They’re our fellow Chicagoans. I feel like the photos really helped with that goal of inviting empathy.
I want to ask the next question because it’s something I’m often asked myself when I pitch Chicago-based stories to national publications: Why should the rest of the country care about something that happened in Chicago?
For sure. One thing is, this was a tumultuous time across the country, and I hope that reading this book will invite people to think about what that history might have looked like in the places where they live. Whenever I write about Chicago, I’m writing very much about Chicago, but I’m also not. Chicago happens to be the place I live, and what I’m trying to do is establish a prototype for what it means to ask certain kinds of questions about the places we live, wherever that may be for you.
I hope that by reading this people will learn about a specific event that happened here, but I also want them to ask: what are the important histories in the place where you live, that maybe you don’t know so much about, and how can you learn more about them? What are the histories of violence, in particular? I think that’s really important.
You know, I teach a class at the University of Chicago called “The Social Meaning of Race.” This year, one of my students has been doing these Hyde Park neighborhood tours, and he was writing a little bit about the history of Japanese Americans in Chicago, and during office hours he was telling me about this history. He very kindly gave a tour to the rest of the class on the history of Asian American issues in Hyde Park, which is a community on the South Side that people don’t think of as being an Asian American community.
It turns out there was so many powerful things, including the fact that this huge house on 48th and Ellis was used as a temporary prison during World War II, where Japanese American and Italian people were held. It was a jail. It was a prison. That’s a private residence that people pass all the time. That’s just a small example, but these kinds of violent histories are all around us, you know? We have to take the time to stop and seek them out if we’re ever going to have any hope at social reconciliation. That’s really what I’m arguing for. Again, that’s about Chicago, but it’s not about Chicago.
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Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.
Editor: Dana Snitzky