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The Blues of 1919: On History and Poetry


Chicago Race Riot 1919 leaving house. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Aristotle warned us about poets. Or, rather, he put historians on notice: by his estimation, poets were better at truth-telling and more valuable to the world than we were. In his fourth-century BCE. treatise Poetics, the ancient Greek opined that historical writing was too full of contingencies and particulars, too descriptive of what had been, to offer a useful roadmap for the future. Poetry, by contrast, was a project of the imagination, a push for universals, and a conceptualization of what might be. As philosopher Anthony Kenny writes in the introduction of his new translation of Poetics, “Poetry, for Aristotle, has a kind of truth that comes between the necessary truths of philosophy and the contingent particulars of history….[I]n the Olympiad of truth it is poetry that takes the silver medal, while history takes the bronze.”[1]

That relationship has been on my mind over the past few years as I began reading more poetry, after years of taking shamefully little interest in the genre. In particular, I have found myself gravitating toward poets of color—poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Allison Hedge Coke, Clint Smith, Danez Smith, Maya Angelou, Robert Hayden, among others—who ground their work in documenting oppression and resistance, and in doing so demand reckonings with this nation’s present and past. These writers are not historians—at least not in the professionally recognized and defined sense of the word—and with all respect to Aristotle, I wouldn’t say that they’re better at explicating the past than are professionally trained historians. Yet these poets all know (or knew) how to look at the past and make it legible and meaningful. Our crafts and mediums are different, but our desire to make sense, meaning, and use of the past is not.

Last fall, in a class titled “Black Chicago: The Past, Present, and Future of an American Community,” I spent a week with my students reading and discussing a new poetry collection by Eve Ewing titled 1919. Ewing is a Chicago-born and -based poet, writer (including for Marvel Comics), artist, former Chicago public school teacher, and University of Chicago sociology professor. Her previous work includes another poetry collection, Electric Arches (2017), and Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018), a sociological study of Chicago’s epidemic of school closings.[2]

1919 is a meditation on Chicago’s race riots that erupted one hundred years ago last summer, in which thirty-eight Chicagoans were killed, and of the longer traditions of racism and Black struggle in Chicago. The poems offer stories about Black Great Migrators to the Windy City and their hopes, dreams, achievements, and disappointments; of life and death during the 1919 riot; and of the legacies of segregation and violence (structural and interpersonal) that continue to the present. Ewing illuminates both Black riot experiences and larger portraits of African American life in Chicago as variously and often simultaneously beautiful, devastating, and haunting.

In the way that Aristotle liked of poets, Ewing is engaged in a project of imagination in 1919. She isn’t concerned with crafting facts as they are indisputably known, but rather in using the archival record to better imagine and more sensitively render human experiences. As she explains in the book’s introduction, “I like to use poems as what-if machines and as time-traveling devices.”[3]

Ewing’s principle muse for 1919 is a 1922 report, published under the auspices of The Chicago Commission on Race Relations (ccrr), titled The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. Anyone who has written at length about Black Chicago’s past will likely be familiar with the document—a massive, sprawling study conducted by an interracial coalition of Black and white men whose charge was to study what had happened in the 1919 riot, what conditions had provoked it, and recommend ways to prevent something like it from happening again. As Ewing writes, what struck her when she started working with the document was its claims of comprehension. “Just the title alone enticed me; it was so direct and made such a bold claim on totality. How could someone claim to tell the story of Black people in this city? The whole story?”[4]

Each of 1919’s poems opens with words from the commission’s report. “The Train Speaks”—in which a personified train ruminates on the Great Migrants it bore northward, the dreams they carried and the unknown demons ahead of them—begins with a line from The Negro in Chicago’s introduction that told its readers that “the presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.” “Keeping House”—about the invisibility of Black women laboring in Chicago’s white homes—follows from a report quote about white ignorance of Black interior life and racial struggle. “Countless Schemes” starts with a short paragraph of schemes to rid the nation of its Black people, from deportation to “hop[ing] for a solution through the dying out of the Negro race.”[5]

The archive drives the work, in other words. Or if drive is perhaps too strong a word, the work is guided and shaped by the archive. Intellectually and methodologically it reminds me of Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—a dizzying, stunning Pulitzer-winning 2016 poetry collection about blackface minstrelsy in which Jess leans heavily into both primary and secondary historical sources for material. (Historians would likely find Jess’s bibliography impressive.)[6]

Stylistically, though, 1919 feels much more direct than Olio, more intimate and personal. It’s a book about Chicagoans, for Chicagoans, by a Chicagoan who loves deeply her beautiful, messy city, who writes for it, and who wants to make it better. My students recognized that impulse. “These poems feel like the blues,” one of my students commented at one point. I botched my class notes from that day and don’t have notation of what specific poem prompted the comment. It could’ve been many of them; any, really.

It could’ve been “James Crawford Speaks,” in which Ewing imagines the final seconds inside the mind of James Crawford—a Black man shot dead by the police at the outset of the 1919 riot after he, according the CCRR report, fired into a crowd of officers when police refused to make arrests after racists on a Lake Michigan beach threw rocks at a group of Black boys on a raft in the lake until one of them, Eugene Williams, drowned. In part:

I didn’t want to be
somebody, but he was somebody,
because I saw the whites of his eyes
before he let go of the railroad tie.
So I spoke it, his name came out of me,
And I fired.[7]

It could’ve been “sightseers”—so named for the report’s description of those who “did not know why they had taken part in crimes the viciousness of which was not apparent to them until afterward.” (Ewing quotes Hannah Arendt beneath the report’s line.)[8]

It could’ve been “Coming from the Stock Yards,” reflecting upon a section of the report that detailed the ways that women and men who occupied positions of prestige in the South lost those positions in the process of the migration. In particular it could have been this stanza about a former teacher in the South, now riding the El home after a day at Chicago’s slaughterhouses:

I recall my old pupils:
X is how they signed their names when they first came to me. to each I said no,
you have a name, and I wrote with them until they wrote alone,
zoetrope children, moving always and never. zephyr children, wind of my heart.[9]

When my students and I talked about these poems, what we talked about the most was how they allowed us to imagine people’s interior lives in ways that are otherwise often largely inaccessible. It isn’t just that the poems helped us better understand what happened in the riot or in the Great Migration that bracketed it, or in the generations that followed it (though they absolutely do that). They also better humanized what it meant in a way that historical monographs are rarely able to equally capture. They helped imagine what-ifs. They helped us think in new, different ways about the past and about the present and, I think and I hope, about the future.

I’m being honest when I say that I don’t remember which poem prompted my student’s comment that 1919 feels like the blues. I suspect, though, that it was the book’s closing poem, one of those that’s not about the riot itself but about longer traditions of community and beauty and love and also of racial violence. It’s called “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” and it reads like this:

I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store
looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
hello, so chilly today
should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
how are things going for you
 he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.

We are historians. Our training would tell us to call this poem something like a “counterfactual,” and I defer to Ewing in calling it as a “what-if machine.” But it’s also an access point, a means of thinking about history that can consider its human components and costs on a plane unencumbered from what’s “provable” and that instead lets our mind wander to what would’ve been possible. And I think that’s important, too, not as a replacement for what we do, but as an accompaniment to it.

After I read that poem for the first time, I sent it to Tim Tyson, who wrote The Blood of Emmett Till. I think it shook us both when we read it. And I also think that we, as two professionally trained historians, agreed that it reflected some of the most beautiful and brilliant work an imagination can do with the historical record.

Simon Balto is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power and of numerous articles in scholarly and popular venues alike, including Time, The Washington Post, The Progressive, The Journal of Urban History, and The Journal of African American History, among others.

[1] Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, 2013), xxviii.

[2] Eve L. Ewing, 1919 (Haymarket, 2019); Electric Arches (Haymarket, 2017); Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side(Chicago, 2018).

[3] Ewing, 1919, 5.

[4] The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago, 1922); Ewing, 1919, 3.

[5] Ewing, 1919, 10, 17, 59.

[6] Tyehimba Jess, Olio (Seattle, 2016).

[7] Ewing, 1919, 35–36.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Ibid., 16.