A white mob attack a black home during the 1919 Race Riots.
The Chicago 1919 Race Riots seared the souls of the cotton field diaspora who had found rough shelter in the city’s unwelcoming arms—the Great Migration, Exodus indeed. The proper city of the gleaming towers and rah-rah civic boosters strove mightily to forget, to infuse or enforce a willful amnesia. But the poets noticed.
Carl Sandburg was 41 that year and bursting forth as a poet to be noticed. Chicago Poems had shaken up conventions in its sensational appearance in 1914 and later in the fatal year Cornhuskers would win the Pulitzer Prize. But the prairie Socialist was still proud to pound a typewriter at the Chicago Daily News as a working reporter.
Things were already tense on the South Side. Race riots had already popped up cities including East St. Louis, Illinois that summer. In Chicago a series of bombings had occurred on the fringes of the Black Belt aimed at discouraging Blacks from moving into adjacent white blocks. White gangs would occasionally cruise through the neighborhood shooting indiscriminately out car windows. In self-defense Black veterans organized “sniping”—firing on the raiders from windows and doorways—as they sped through. It was a practice that would be honed during the full-blown riots with the addition of using refuse and trash cans to barricade the streets and trap the cars longer under the return fire.
Carl Sandburg--poet and reporter.
All of the major newspapers were wringing their hands and nearly unanimously laid all the blame on “invading Negros” who were depicted variously as filthy, ignorant, lazy, violent, and criminal. The Daily News, however, decided to put Sandburg, a reporter known to be keen on social issues and familiar with the working class streets, on the story. He covered it as no one else would, by spending ten days in June talking to ordinary Black residents including women whose voices were seldom heard, their White neighbors, business people and real estate brokers, police, preachers, and precinct level politicians. He asked pointed questions about everything—the Black Migration and why people had come, housing conditions, work opportunities and competition for jobs including charges of strikebreaking, wildly exaggerated and sensationalized press accounts of Black crime, primal fears of race mixing and miscegenation.
Sandburg wrote to father in-law, “I have spent 10 days in the Black Belt and am starting a series in the Chicago Daily News on why Abyssinians, Bushmen and Zulus are here.” Some later commentators would take that sentence as proof that even a sympathetic Sandbur was tainted with racism. No doubt like almost every White person of the time—or now—that might be true. But it fails to take into account the bitter irony that often infused his poetry. He was never afraid to use the blunt language he heard on the street to expose its outrageousness.
A black crowd gathers on a Black Belt corner ready to defend the neighborhood from white gangs.
Among his most telling observations, which would be born out in the riots, was the significant role played by Black veterans who had served in France. While the served in segregated units and many were assigned menial labor like loading and unloading munitions and supplies or carting the dead from the battlefield, others served in infantry regiments who fought alongside the French and earned their admiration. All of the veterans returned with a sense that they had earned the respect of all of society. The city’s Black Belt neighborhood sent more than 18,000 draftees to France in addition to volunteers. Sandburg reported:
In barber shop windows and in cigar stores and haberdasheries are helmets, rifles, cartridges, canteens and haversacks and photographs of negro regiments that were sent to France… So it is clear that in one neighborhood there are ... strong young men who have been talking to each other on topics more or less intimately related to the questions, “What are we ready to die for? Why do we live? What is democracy? What is the meaning of freedom; of self-determination?
He quoted Charles Duke, one of the relatively few Black officers who served:
All attempts at segregation bring only discord and resentful opposition. The bombing of the homes of colored citizens is futile. This will neither intimidate any considerable number of them nor stop their moving into a given district.
His series of articles began running daily on July 14—perhaps not entirely accidently Bastille Day—and ran until just before the riots broke out on July 27. If anyone wondered why or how the ultimate explosion occurred, Sandburg had already supplied the answers.
The book assembled from Sandburg's Chicago Daily News articles.
NAACP Joel Spingarn board member was in Chicago during and after the eight days of rioting. He discovered Sandburg’s series and was so impressed that he sent it to Alfred Harcourt of the Harcourt, Brace and Howe publishers without consulting the reporter. Harcourt was impressed and contacted Sandburg with an offer to do a book based on the series. Sandburg, who had other projects at hand in addition to his work as a reporter, agreed with the stipulation that he did not have time for much new material including a detailed account of the actual riots.
The original articles became the core of the book with a little introductory and final commentator. Walter Lippmann, then known as a liberal commentator was tapped to write the forward, which gave the slender volume some literary heft. It was quickly issued under the slightly deceptive title of The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 despite the fact that it was mostly essential background to the actual disturbances.
In his own brief introduction Sandburg summarized his findings:
In any American city where the racial situation is critical at this moment, the radical and active factors probably are (1) housing, (2) politics and war psychology, and (3) organization of labor.
The book sold well and became an essential text for anyone studying the Red Summer in Chicago. But the title continued to fool people. A 50th anniversary edition was published in 1969 on the heels of a new wave of race riots. Distinguished Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill did the new forward but despite the clear evidence of the text he was praising wrote as if Sandburg reported and wrote after the riots. He couldn’t believe that Sandburg’s prescience was not hind sight.
Gwendolyn Brooks as a young poet about the time A Street in Bronzevill was published.
Decades later for Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks the riots of the Red Summer were the background and subtext to her Bronzeville poems and the haunted roots of her turn-the-table verse of the 1968 West Side riots.
A riot is the language of the unheard.
—martin luther king
John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.
Because the Negroes were coming down the street.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.
Gross. Gross. “Que tu es grossier!” John Cabot
itched instantly beneath the nourished white
that told his story of glory to the World.
“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whispered
to any handy angel in the sky.
But, in a thrilling announcement, on It drove
and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili,
malign, mocked John. And, in terrific touch, old
averted doubt jerked forward decently,
cried, “Cabot! John! You are a desperate man,
and the desperate die expensively today.”
John Cabot went down in the smoke and fire
and broken glass and blood, and he cried “Lord!
Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.”
The cover of Eve L. Ewing's 1919 Poems from Haymarket Books.
The Negro in Chicago: A Study in Race Relations and a Race Riot was the dry, academic title of the report published in 1922 of an evenly split Black and White 12 person commission established by Illinois Governor Frank Lowden and selected by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations. Not the kind of inspiration you would expect for a poet.
Ewing's touchstone and inspiration.
Ewing first encountered the report in her research for a previous book, Ghosts in the School Yard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. She was struck that:
…a view into Black life in my city a century earlier, and so many things struck me as being either radically different or completely unchanged. And even though this was a government issued report, many of its passages immediately think about poetry. They were so narrative, so evocative, so imagistic. The report was like an old pastry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave.
Thus the conception of her new book was born. Ewing uses direct quotes from the report as epigrams for each poem and then riffs on it in a wide variety of styles and in many voices as they seem appropriate. It is all fresh. More than that, it is liberating.
Ewing was born in Chicago in 1986 and grew up in Logan Square the daughter of a radio reporter and producer mother and an artist father. She attended public schools and graduated from Northside College Preparatory High School before entering the University of Chicago. She earned an masters degree in Elementary Education from Dominican University and taught middle school science in Chicago public schools before moving to Boston where she earned an M.Ed in Education Policy and Management in 2013 and a doctorate from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Ewing is currently an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
Eve L. Ewing--scholar and poet.
Beyond her impressive academic credentials, Ewing has been a prolific writer and poet whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Washington Post, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, and the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, curated by Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States. With Nate Marshall, she co-wrote the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, produced by Manual Cinema and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation.
On top of all of that Ewing displays her versatility as the writer/creator of the Ironheart series for Marvel Comics and a contributor to other of their projects. She co-directs Crescendo Literary, a partnership that develops community-engaged arts events and educational resources as a form of cultural organizing.
And since last October she has hosted of the podcast Bughouse Square with Eve Ewing which begins each episode with an excerpt from the vast archive of Studs Terkle’s radio broadcasts then interviews a guest in a conversation with parallel themes. She uses Terkle’s source material in ways the echo her use of The Negro in Chicago in her new collection.
|Eve L. Fanning self portrait.
Her debut literary collection, Electric Arches published in 2017 by Haymarket Books was an imaginative exploration of Black girlhood and womanhood through poetry, visual art, and narrative prose. The book gathered high praise and awards including the Norma Farber First Book Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Alex Award for Young by the American Library Association Winner, National Public Radio’s list of Best Books of 2017,Top Ten Books of 2017 by the Chicago Tribune, Best Poetry Book of 2017 by the Chicago Review of Books, and Top Ten Books of 2017 by the Chicago Public Library.
Ewing divides 1919 Poems into three sections: Before, What Happened, and After. Before examines Black roots in slavery and the South and the Great Migration to Chicago. Biblical Exodus is a recurring theme as is the Great Fire that had scorched the city. She takes care to present individual voices as well as a mystical collective consciousness.
True Stories About the Great Fire
…the sentiment was expressed that the Negro invasion of the district was the worst calamity that had struck the city since the Great Fire. A prominent white real estate man said: “Property owners should be notified to stand together block by block and prevent such invasion.” (118-19)
Everything they tell you is wrong.
The Great Fire came here in a pair of worn loafers
dating its last sandwich wrapped in paper
and the Great Fire had a smell like grease and flowers.
The Great Fire did not come to eat up the homes,
The homes lay down at the foot of the Great Fire,
for it was godly, and it glowed.
The Great Fire blessed the rooftops.
The Great Fire danced with the lakeshore.
The Great Fire has an auntie who makes dresses
and the Great Fire wears a red pinafore
and dances in a cake walk.
The Great Fire can only move at right angles.
The Great Fire goes from block to block at night
and kisses stray cats in the moonlight
and the cats catch the Holy Ghost.
The Great Fire sits in the balcony and yells at the picture.
The Great Fire sings in a too-loud voice.
The Great Fire has plans for you.
The Great Fire is going to take your daughter someplace.
The Great Fire has a hoard of gold like a dragon.
The Great Fire already lives next door
and hides in the daytime.
The Great Fire knows that they don’t want it here.
The Great Fire is going to burn the city they built
and we will watch from the stone tower
and we will wait for it to finish
and we can wait a long time
and the Fire can too.
—Eve L. Ewing
In What Happened she captures snap shots of the events.
City in a Garden
After Carl Sandburg
The Negro crowd from Twenty-ninth Street got into action, and white men who came I contact with it were beaten…Further to the west, as darkness came on, white gangsters became active. Negroes in white districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. twenty-seven Negroes were beaten, seven were stabbed, and four were shot. (5)
o my ugly homestead,
Who is horto, meaning:
if it grows it once came from dirt.
o my love, why do you till the ground with iron?
o my miracle, why do you fire in the dark?
you, thief of dusk, you, captain of my sorrows. you avarice.
your ground is greedy for our children, and you take them as you please.
the babies come from you, the train car orators, and the beloved hustlers.
they die, and you send forth more, you who makes a place
in a middle land, you ruthless. you seed ground.
you bear the best of us and the worst in equal measure.
o my garden, which am I.
—Eve L. Ewing
A youth confronts Illinois National Guardsmen during the 1968 West Side riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
April 5, 1968
After Gwendolyn Brooks
Our country is over, you see. Here lies
my prettiest baby and her glass fingertips are
are all over the tar. In the before I told
her, ‘play beloved’ and
from the storefront piano came legends
of the mountaintop and it made
me weep. I was an ugly phoenix
but our dirt was our own. As the sun rises
now I know what we do is right. Unafraid
I stand before the skinny boy with the
bayonet & say ‘before I’ll be an ashen ghost, black
gone gray at your hand like our dead philosopher,
I’ll burn my own, you see, just the way I want, & you will
know it’s mine.’ Goodbye Madison. I will remember
my country, my sun-up town. Because there
on the mountaintop I saw the fire in the valley. They
were coming to take you away. They came
with cursed wat, the hurting river the used to
strike down the children of Birmingham, each life
a bad joke in their bull eyes. And
I said ‘not here. Not never. Not Madison. And exulted
in the shadow of the first fire, then the next, the
the heat sending sweat into my eyes, that simple salt hurt
keeping me from thinking too long of your piano gone mute.
I suspect the boy wanted to run then
but he stood shaking, gun raised, and I said, “if this is it,
if this is my last day that ever was,
man, at least I know I got over,
that the likes of you will never have us, that the
street I call my only home burned to dust
at my hand. Let them sing of how bright the sun was as
a coward struck me down. They will tell it always, they will say
that one glorious morning, I showed hem your heart, lest they think it was settled.
—Eve L. Ewing