A Discussion with Eve Ewing: 1919 and Political Violence

 

The Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University hosted a special discussion on “1919 and Political Violence,” with Eve L. Ewing, Assistant Professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Assistant Professor & Charles H. Mcilwain University Preceptor in the Department of African American Studies. The webminar was co-sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts and accessible to the public via zoom.

 

The conversation was opened with a welcome from Shannon Hiller, Co-Director of BDI, and Tracy K. Smith, Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts and Director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing. In her opening remarks, Smith contextualized the conversation in a moment of human history, which, as she described it, “is characterized by at least five major crises in the intersecting areas of public health, racial justice, finance, climate change, and leadership.” As most Americans stand at a crossroads, Smith encouraged the participants to see “debts and allegiances” as tools for moving the conversation toward an even more just democracy.

 

Ewing began with a reading from her award-winning book, “1919.” The book is a series of poems in dialogue with a commission report in response to the riots and surrounding violence in Chicago in 1919. Ewing pointed out that each poem began with a quote from the report, “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot,” published in 1922. Throughout the reading, Ewing described the racial, economic, and social conditions and historical antecedents of the “reckoning” in 1919, which included the suffering of the Great Chicago Fire and the demographic transformation caused by the Great Migration.

 

Following the powerful reading from Ewing, a question and answer session was moderated by Taylor. She began with a question posed to Ewing about the specific power of poetry in telling the story of the riots in Chicago, as opposed to a strictly sociological study of the archival text. Ewing explained that when reading the 800-page government-commissioned report – a mainly policy-based analysis – she was surprised to find poetic language throughout. She also highlighted the power of poetry in conveying a people’s history and imbuing the reader with enough compassion to then pursue other resources about the race riots. As the conversation continued, Taylor pointed to the pictures in the book, which capture the defiance of black people in Chicago and remains distinct from the other violence of the “Red Summer” of this period, for example in how recently returned Black soldiers organized to protect their communities when authorities failed to halt mob violence against Black citizens. Taylor underscored that while the photos show black people being victimized, there is still a sense of community, created and constituted throughout this time.

 

As the Q&A continued, Ewing discussed the impetus for public history projects, more broadly, which in her words shouldn’t be a story of positivity or about the existence of “some great people on both sides.” Rather, there should be an honest reflection on how people were treated. She highlighted how some scholars do still point to the arguable “moment of racial harmony” when black and white leaders came together to produce the commission report in 1922. Ewing continued by noting how recommendations proposed at that time are eerily similar to the same calls for change today. And so, Ewing presented her own approach to the notion of progress, and eventually, the condemnation thereof. Progress should be seen, from her viewpoint, as “circular or layered, rather than a linear movement through time,” which should effectively challenge the way we understand history and policy as a whole.

 

To learn more about the Bridging Divides Initiative, please contact the project’s Co-Directors, Nealin Parker or Shannon Hiller. To learn more about the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, please contact the institute’s Executive Director, Nadia Crisan.

 


Dr. Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year's best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. She is also the author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side, 1919 (Haymarket Press, 2019), the writer of Marvel Comics' Ironheart series, and the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. In 2019, she received the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award. She is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and and the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, curated by Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States. Her first book for middle grade readers, Maya and the Robot, is forthcoming in 2020 via Kokila.

 

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, which won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award for an Especially Notable Book in 2016. She is also editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, which won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBQT nonfiction in 2018. Her third book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, published in 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press, has been longlisted for a National Book Award for nonfiction. This new book looks at the federal government's promotion of single-family homeownership in Black communities after the urban rebellions of the 1960s. Taylor develops the concept of "predatory inclusion" to examine the federal government's turn to market-based solutions in its low-income housing programs in the 1970s impacted Black neighborhoods, Black women on welfare, and emergent discourses on the urban “underclass”. In 2016, Taylor was named one of the hundred most influential African Americans in the United States by The Root. She has been appointed as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians by the Organization of American Historians, and as the Charles H. McIlwain University Preceptor at Princeton University from 2018-2021. She is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.