Three hundred years after slavery “ended,” the Chicago race riot of 1919 thoroughly debunked the idea that the fallout tensions between white and Black people were nonexistent. Much like other atrocities perpetrated against non-white citizens, these events have been downplayed over time, almost to the point of erasure in favor of a more amicable history among cultures. Eve L. Ewing’s second collection of poems, 1919 (Haymarket Books), explores this event in American history through a hybrid of multiple genres: poetry, nonfictional academic writing, and photography. Through her efforts, the harrowing days of “The Great Migration,” where hundreds of Black families fled the racism of Southern states in favor of the more harmonious northern cities—especially that of Chicago, Illinois—are thoroughly examined and understood through a much more expansive lens, to give the lost family lives a second chance to be heard through the destruction and deaths brought upon by a white supremacy that had (and still has) overstayed its welcome.
Ewing employs, first and foremost, excerpts from the public report The Negro in Chicago, which details the events of the 1919 riot for posterity. Every poem in the collection is accompanied by a citation from the report that is, in turn, adapted and recontextualized into a poetic voice that transforms the objective facts from the article into a tangible scene of pathos for the reader to firmly grasp the plight of the riots. The poem “keeping house” is one that explores a passage from The Negro in Chicago regarding the general misunderstandings between white and Black matters, stating, “White persons are generally uninformed on matters affecting Negroes and race relations…This same ignorance applies to Negroes, though not to the same degree; for they know white people on their intimate personal and home relations and in connection with their work in factories and stores.” Ewing constructs the following poem to mirror the anxieties Black people faced in the workforce during that time, almost having the poem read like a set of instructions for a house slave to subsist in a white household; directly tying the idea of Black people living among white people—not in harmony, but as though trying to survive. This is especially true looking at the following stanza:
My mother taught me
to be silent in their homes.
they forget you’re there.
this way, you pass as a ghost.
come and go as you please, hushed.
The scene transforms from cold hard facts about the relationships between people to an intimate lesson in race relations and an attempt to understand place in a troubling and uncomfortable environment. Ewing creates a speaker in this poem who looks out for sustainability within a space that is meant to be shared and livable despite differences in cultures or blood, knowing it is impossible to do so without some level of obedience—something that should have been discarded centuries prior. By developing these images and ideas, Ewing creates a space for salvation that was long since missing during these riots. The same levels of intimacy can be seen in the piece, “True Stories About the Great Fire,” where the prose illustrates how white people viewed the migration of Black people to Northern cities as a form of destruction on par with that of the Great Fire. Insulting, to say the least, but Ewing’s poem then embraces the Fire as something that cleanses for newness rather than destroys—a beautiful sentiment that rescues an image that—ironically—was attempted to be burned down by the white community. One need only look at the following lines:
The Great Fire did not come to eat up the homes.
The homes lay down at the feet of the Great fire,
for it was godly, and it glowed.
The Great Fire blessed the rooftops.
The Great Fire danced with the lakeshore.
With the continued emphasis on “The Great Fire,” Ewing not only adopts a force of nature as a stand in for the Black community, but emphasizes the cleansing power of such an event—a reset in the vain of baptism that helps civilization rebuild foundations. To say the home—the ones destroyed by fire—bows to the fire, is blessed by it, shows a command veiled in the Great Migration that accentuates the fears of the white public—a fear that newness is solely disastrous when, really, newness is rebirth. This control is furthered for the reader with the proceeding photograph: a street filled to the brim with well dressed black men standing under a “Bank/Real Estate” sign, standing confidently with one another with hands stylishly in pockets and winning grins across almost every face, standing like a brush fire growing bigger with every added body. The collection follows this pattern throughout, destabilizing the normality of ousting the marginalized while maintaining what small semblance of control one has is precious and needed for growth.
Ewing utilizes these placements to develop a thesis she crafted from the very first line of the book: “This book is a story.” While other poetry collections tend to follow a more thematic narrative, 1919 does well to develop the histories of the Chicago Riot through strict retellings, positionings of poems, academic excerpts, and photos that are not scattered in a haphazard fashion. These all work together in a way that is unified and digestible for those who may not know about these lost histories. While some may see the excerpts from The Negro in Chicago as running the risk of acting as “crib notes” for the proceeding poems, they actually only emphasize and aid the work as a whole to create an inclusive and complete narrative of the factual and ethereal happenings of the riots. This is especially true of the poem “Jump / Rope,” which begins with a direct retelling of events leading to the riots, a catalyst being the drowning of a young Black boy. While the reader is privy to the events about to be retold, the poem itself looks at the event from a more innocent perspective—words akin to lyrics for Double Dutch, perhaps. Ewing allows the language to stay innocent while simultaneously devolving the story into tragedy.
Down down baby
Down down the water’s tugging
Sweet sweet baby
Don’t make me let you go
Swallow swallow grab the sky
Swallow swallow dark…
…Grandma Grandma sick in bed
Call on Jesus cause your baby’s
She leaves the end of the assumed rhyme to the reader’s imagination, colored by the knowledge of the boy’s death. This, in turn, fully immerses the reader into the ideologies of the Black community during these times: taking tragedy and tying it to a cultural aspect of their lives to make sure it stays in the minds of future generations, to learn from these histories. Not only is this another way Ewing lets these souls take their power back, but it cements these lost events into the readers’ lexicons to fully sympathize with the riots.
1919 plays with structure in a way that allows the poems to feel more vibrant and heard among the photography and academic writing—never once feeling eclipsed or burdened by mixed genres. Ewing’s sociology background helps this collection create a perfect hybrid of visual aids to relay histories lost and recontextualized over time, to help those lives adrift in the riots feel seen—as though they found home after the Great Migration. Not only does 1919 create a fantastic foundation for these artistic touches, but it rescues the lives long thought forgotten—reiterating in a much louder voice that there is still work to be done for the Black community to be seen as equal by white people, even another century later. With this collection, Ewing sets fire to the erasures suffered by the victims of the 1919 Chicago riots and creates a blaze so bright that only the truest stories can be told.