On July 27th, 1919, Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old boy from Chicago’s South Side, was cooling off in the waters of Lake Michigan near 31st Street when he drifted into a whites only section of the segregated lakefront. Having crossed an invisible racial line, a group of white beachgoers began throwing stones at Williams, causing him to drown. Williams’ murder – and the subsequent refusal by a white police officer to arrest the murderer – set off a week of shootings, arson and beatings in Chicago, in which thousands of homes were destroyed, more than 500 people were injured and nearly 40 killed - the victims of which were mostly Black.
The series of fights sparked further riots in more than three dozen cities across the county, in what would later be termed the Red Summer of 1919.
“I would talk to people all the time and think about why is it that this history is not at the forefront?” said poet and sociologist Eve L. Ewing at the beginning of a conversation hosted by the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E 60th St., on Wednesday evening, Oct. 12. Sasha-Ann Simmons, the host of WBEZ’s “Reset”, joined Ewing for the discussion, “Reflections on 1919,” breaking down the impact of the Red Summer on Chicago and the nation.
Eugene Williams' death and the riots that followed inspired Ewing’s most recent book of poetry “1919”, which was released in June 2019. A native of Logan Square and now a tenured University of Chicago professor, her work has since been adapted for the stage by J. Nicole Brooks, whose play made its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater in early October.
Ewing and Simmons began by discussing the process of writing Ewing’s previous book of poetry, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard,” during which time she came across a 1922 report by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations titled “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot” researching the causes and consequences of the 1919 riots. As a sociologist, Ewing saw the text as a rich historical document, detailing the lives of Black Chicagoans in the early years of the Great Migration.
“There were incredible parallels between the issues that folks were bringing to the forefront a century ago, and the world in which we find ourselves now,” she said, noting the report’s focus on problems of police violence, unequal access to education and lack of affordable housing in Black communities in the early 20th century.
As a writer, Ewing also recognized a certain poetic quality within the text: “Many of the lines were incredibly provocative or beautiful. You don't go to a document like that thinking, ‘Oh, it's gonna be bars in here.’”
She also found that she knew very little about this history, to which Simmons probed: Why did so many Americans know so little about it?
“Our racial narrative in the United States is a comfortable one of linear progress. It is also a comfortable one where conflicts have heroes and clear resolutions,” replied Ewing. These conflicts and heroes are instantly recognizable to anyone raised in the U.S. education system: enslavement and President Abraham Lincoln, the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The events of 1919, however, resist a neat historiography.
“It was a time when people lost their lives for absolutely no good reason. And there were not heroes or happy endings, it was just awful,” said Ewing.
The effects of the Red Summer continue to be felt across the psychic and geographic infrastructure of the city. In an attempt to quell the rioting that followed Williams’ murder, Chicago police created what they called “the deadline” — an invisible line running between the communities of the predominantly Irish and Polish Bridgeport and the predominantly Black Bronzeville. No white people were allowed east of this line and no Black people were allowed west of this line.
“That line was Wentworth Avenue,” said Ewing. “The Daleys on one side and public housing on the other.”
“We look around the city and we see these things as though they just happened, right? Like the segregation fairy came with her wand and just made it this way. And it didn't happen like that,” she said. “There's people, policies, institutions, and histories that led us to this moment. And so I think it's often uncomfortable when those moments don't have a very tidy solution.”
Ewing also discussed her writing process, including the impact of literary giants that inspired her, namely Lorraine Hansbury, Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde. (Ewing also added to this list film critic, historian and Hyde Parker Sergio Mims, who passed away in early October.) Despite having written three books of poetry and countless other works, Ewing described feeling sick to her stomach at the start of each new project.
Many of her literary inspirations had their lives cut short by circumstances beyond their control: Hansbury died at the age of 35 and Audre Lorde passed away at 58 after a long battle with breast cancer. As such, Ewing views the sight of a blank page as a chance to wrestle with her own mortality. “I believe that we have a finite time on this earth and when people ask me, ‘well what's your motivation?’ or ‘How do you get over writer's block?’ or things like that, I believe it's an uncomfortable fact that one day my time on this planet, in this physical form, will have ended… and on that day, all the things that were in my brain either I will have written them or I won’t, and that's it,” she said. “I care a lot about trying to make the most of the time I have.”
At 36-years-old, Ewing has so far published three books of poetry, several academic articles and is the current writer for Marvel Comics’ “Ironheart,” a series about a teen inventor and superhero from Chicago’s South Side.
“Writing is always the battle for clarity,” she continued. “We all have abstract feelings, experiences, ideas — mush playdough in your head — that you’re trying to get other people to understand, and to do that precisely is incredibly challenging.”
Simmons was quick to point out that, for Ewing, this battle is in part an attempt to elucidate the ties linking our historical past and our present reality. “You take us on a journey well beyond 1919. This book and the stage adaptation references the 1968 Chicago riots, the (deadly) heatwave in 1995 (and) Laquan McDonald's murder in 2014 by a police officer,” Simmons said.
An example of this paralleling is Ewings’ poem “It wouldn't take much”, which is based on an email she received from the management of her apartment building during the final days of the Jason Van Dyke trial – the CPD officer that murdered Laquan McDonald – in October 2019. The email warned residents that the release of the verdict might lead to rioting throughout the city.
“I remember passing through downtown that day and seeing big empty CTA buses with police in them because they were literally ready to use the buses to engage in mass arrest if needed. That's wild,” said Ewing. “Sometimes, we are very acutely aware of living through history...We have a certain notion of what constitutes a historic moment that I think is often quite narrow. And so it felt important to capture that.”
Ewing closed the discussion by reflecting on poetry’s unique power to capture these historical moments. “For me, poetry in particular, and writing in general, is a space for highlighting how narrow, I believe, the distance is between what is and what could be, and in a way that doesn't cost anything, that doesn't require anybody's permission,” she said. “What I hope to do in my work is to create a space where, just for a moment, we get to enter into that plane of other possibilities.”
“1919,” J. Nicole Brooks stage adaptation of Ewing’s poetry, is showing at the Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St., now through Oct. 29th. The play is part of the theater’s Steppenwolf for Young Adults series meant to bring thought provoking theater to students across Chicago. Tickets are on sale now.