By Ariel Parrella-Aureli
Eve Ewing knows how to pack a room and capture the moment. With her goofy humor and charismatic energy, the local author, poet, and professor pleases anyone she encounters. She radiates positivity, from her shiny white teeth to her words as they peel off the page. It’s infectious.
As is her writing, which tells truth to power through poetry, nonfiction, essays, biographies, and historical nonfiction scopes. Ewing’s latest work, 1919, released June 10, was launched at a sold-out party at the American Writers Museum, which also featured readings from local poets and Ewing’s friends Nate Marshall and Fatimah Asghar.
The poetry collection tells the story of the race riots that rocked Chicago 100 years ago, with an aftermath that still resonates in the present.
Standing before an admiring crowd, Ewing expressed her gratitude for Haymarket Books and the support of her friends and family while finishing this new book. While a short collection, it took a long time to write. Ewing described it as “long, slow, and late,” further thanking her support system for pushing her to create this important collection.
Like many, Ewing said she did not know much about the race riots or the Red Summer in Chicago. She viewed her book as a chance to find out more and combine her interests of race and history through poetry.
“I probably had a good paragraph about the Red Summer in high school but I didn’t really know about it,” Ewing told the crowd before reading from her work. “The more I read about it, the more I became convinced that this was a seminal moment that I think has come to define a lot of the racial boundaries that we take for granted as reality.”
Race, education, accessibility and segregation are abiding themes in Ewing’s work, and she threw out one of her signature phrases which described the 1919 riots that also applies to the race issues still plaguing the city.
“There is no segregation fairy. The segregation fairy doesn’t fly around at nighttime and bestow the magical segregation across the land,” she said. “These are things that happen because of people and policies in history.”
That was the start of her interest in the race riots, she said. But what was the endpoint of the collection?
“We hear about black history in slavery and then the Civil Rights Movement and in between, black people were just… Question mark? Nobody seems to really know,” Ewing said. “I set out to write this book that I hoped would be an accessible entry point into understanding this period of history.”
The collection reflects on the before, during, and after moments from the race riots mostly forgotten in Chicago’s history. The book is written in conversation with a text from 1922 called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot that Ewing stumbled upon while writing her second book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.
“The report was like an old tapestry 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,” writes Ewing about the report in the introduction of 1919. That’s precisely what she did.
Taking the poetic, majestic verses of the report—written by a black and white committee appointed by the governor to analyze and examine the race riots and ensure they never happened again—Ewing responded with her own poems from historical perspective of the time, through the people involved, and in consideration of the black issues and tensions between whites that led to the deadly riots.
With a smooth, silky voice and a strong, unwavering cadence, Ewing read several poems at the launch party and brought the voices and stories to life: Black families wanting better opportunities; the man who shot a white police officer after Eugene Williams, a black boy, drowned in Lake Michigan; the heaviness of the heat stroke of July 27; the representation of the Great Fire; and more.
Ewing’s showcasing of these stories through poetry brings accessible detail to the forefront for us to chew on. They let us see the reality of the segregation 100 years ago and its similarities to the same issue today. Anybody living in Chicago should know enough to understand the historical race segregation that fuels the city and how it disproportionately affects the black community. If they don’t 1919 might be a good starting point.
My personal favorite is the last poem in the collection, called “I saw Emmett Till last week at the grocery store,” with its visceral, visual, melancholic, and plum-colored overtone. Before reading this poem aloud, Ewing prefaced it by recognizing the black martyrs our culture has seen recently, tying the narrative from the past to the present.
“Eugene Williams, Emmett Till, Laquan McDonald, Trayvon Martin—they should never have become famous,” she told the crowd earnestly.
Imagine what their lives would have been like if they never got shot, never sparked a riot, never made headlines, but instead went on to live mundane but fulfilling lives like everybody else. That’s where the last poem came from, written in response to the snippet from The Negro in Chicago that called the race riots “the greatest problem in Chicago.”
Through personal creation, historical research, cultural connection, and an uncanny natural rhythm of time folding in on itself, Ewing manages to capture the people’s stories and the devastating race riots with a fluid touch of hope, excitement, understanding, and an abiding sense of grief.
Eve Ewing’s 1919 (88 pages) is available from Haymarket Books for a discounted price of $11.20.
Ariel is a freelance journalist in Chicago and the editor-in-chief of the hyperlocal news site LoganSquarist, dedicated to Logan Square. She is also a digital content producer at WBBM Newsradio and does media relations for DeSoto & State Communications. Check out her work at arielparrella.com.