Guernica

Eve Ewing: Other Means to Liberation

Photo: RJ Eldridge.

Before I read Eve Ewing’s debut poetry collection, Electric Arches, I’d read her work in The New Yorker. I’d read her work in The Atlantic. I’d read her work in the New York Times. I’d read her tweets. I’d read her poems. I knew that she was a sociologist of education based at the University of Chicago whose research was focused on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of those forces on the lives of young people. So I should have been ready for her book.

I was not ready.

I didn’t think it was possible for one book to contain work and worlds that could be loved by eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds. I didn’t think it was possible for one book to contain the emotional sweat of Chicago, Dorchester, and Yazoo City, Mississippi. I didn’t think it was possible for one book to make us smell the residue of classroom erasers, empty White Castle bags, and wet wondrous balls of Black-girl hair clinging to the bottoms of bathtubs. With Electrics Arches, Ewing has written a book I thought was unwriteable. Every page feels like a beginning and end, an invitation and conclusion, but never in that order.

Electric Arches, through an innovative use of visual art, prose, and verse, mediates and obliterates the tired arguments between craft and content, form and politics, Afrofuturism and Afropessimism. It pleads with us to remember, and/or accept, that if there are characters, there are real bodies. If there are real bodies, there are raced, classed, and gendered identities. If there are raced, classed, and gendered identities, there must be love. If there is love, too often in this nation there will be interpersonal and structural abuse. If there is abuse, there is denial. If there is denial, there is memory. If there is memory, there can be moral imagination. And when there is moral imagination, there can be breathtaking books.

Somehow Ewing has created a collection that is at once formally spectacular and grounded enough to ask readers the two most important questions in art: Will you stop to remember and imagine with me and will you help me change the world with memory and imagination? On a phone call during which we talked about everything from the wonders of shea butter to Assata Shakur, I got to ask her how she pulled it off.

Kiese Laymon for Guernica

Guernica: Can we talk about oil and grease and the lack of ashiness in Chicago? In the poem “Shea Butter Manifesto,” you write, “We, the forgotten Delta people, the dry riverbed people, hair calling always for rain, skin turns skyward, wishing for clouds, we stand for blood, we kneel for water.” And then there’s this line: “For oil, we lay down.”

Eve Ewing: That sounds so good when you read it! I’m like, whoa, this is good.

Guernica: I love the way the pieces in this book stand at attention. Then, in the middle of saying what they say, I feel some lines smirking. In this piece, you write, “Be resurrected, glistening in the story of you, be shining.” When I’m in Chicago I don’t ever see ashy black people.

Eve Ewing: No, we are not ashy ever.

Guernica: Y’all do not fuck with the ashiness. I mean, black people generally don’t fuck with ashiness, but y’all shine. Do you have any idea why?

Eve Ewing: First, let me ask you a question: When you were a kid in Mississippi, did your mom put Vaseline on your face?

Guernica: Yeah!

Eve Ewing: Okay, but it’s not cold in Mississippi. Vaseline was specifically to guard against cold weather. The story of this poem is that, as people of color in America, specifically in childhood is when you start to see the ways in which white society has marked the things you do as other or strange. My good friend Fatimah Asghar has this really great poem about her large South Asian family going to Old Country Buffet, and how, basically, people would be so upset when they came in because they knew this family was going to come and just eat up all the food. They would have, like, Tupperware snuck in, and for her it was the only time when she could waste food. She could try different foods. She could try a food and then not like it. She could try all these different American desserts and stuff that she didn’t get to have other times. And I think that there are all these stories from different people of color, where you come to school and you find out that your family doesn’t worship like other families, or, you know, the food that your mom packs you for your lunch is gross to other kids.

As a kid, before I went outside to go to school, I would get greased up. I think that moisturizer is just one of those everyday aspects of black life that I was basically trying to construct as a political aspect of our identity. And what would it be like to have a Shea Butter Manifesto, you know? It’s basically a manifesto about what it means to be a people on earth dedicated to our own shininess and suppleness.

Guernica: I have a question connected to shininess. So, you love some Jordans, right?

Eve Ewing: I do, I do. I haven’t bought a new pair in a while, but I do love them. I only have one pair of Jordans.

Guernica: If your Jordans got dusty, could you still wear them?

Eve Ewing: Oh, absolutely not! Absolutely not!

Guernica: Can you tell me why?

Eve Ewing: I have one pair of Jordans. I’m not like Mychal Denzel Smith, or like Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. When I was a kid, we just wore, like, hand-me-down Payless shoes. I never had nice gym shoes as a kid. But when I defended my dissertation, I went to a shoe boutique in Harvard Square with my friend Stephany, with a “y,” a Chicana feminist from LA. And she might be a Chicana feminist from LA, and I might be a black feminist from Chicago, but we both got this Jordan thing. And so she came with me to the store, and she took a picture. I was crying, holding them. She helped me pick them, and she consulted with me. To me, Jordans are dress shoes. That’s really what they are. They’re not casual wear; I always feel like that’s a cultural misunderstanding.

Guernica: Can we talk about Chicago a bit? Is Chicago the most electric place you’ve ever lived?

Eve Ewing: That’s such a great question! Well, I haven’t lived very many places. This is basically my home, so it is the most electric place I’ve ever lived. But the question is: Is that about the city itself or is it about the notion of home as a proxy for that which feeds us?

Guernica: For us down in Mississippi, Chicago seems like such a destination. Folks still want to run away from Mississippi and go to Chicago. But you left Chicago, went to Harvard, and then came back.

Eve Ewing: I really, really, really wanted to come back.

Guernica: Tell me about that.

Eve Ewing: I think that it’s going to be interesting in the next century based on the work that Isabel Wilkerson has done and other people have done as black Americans, kind of reclaiming the migrant narrative. We’re told in school that we were never migrants, you know? And I remember being in fourth grade and basically being taught about Ellis Island, and having my teacher share her immigrant narrative, how they came through Ellis Island. The white kids in my class would go interview their grandparents and great-grandparents, and come back and talk about how they had come from different places in Europe. I remember one of my best friends had this handwritten report; she had interviewed her grandma, and her grandma talked about looking outside the window and seeing Nazi soldiers beating somebody up on a corner, and realizing, We have to leave the country.

I remember hearing those narratives, and being like, well, we don’t have that as black people. But part of the reason why the book stuff is so stressful is because I’m finishing up this other book at the same time [When the Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History and Discourse amid Chicago’s School Closures, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in fall 2018], and the other book is about race in schools, and racism, and school policy, specifically school closure in Chicago. And I’ve been looking at all these pictures from the WPA that people came and took—of migrants during the Great Migration when they arrived in Chicago, and then in these kitchenettes, which were essentially tenement housing. This week I saw this one really stunning photo of this whole family, and they had worn their Sunday best to get on the train. It’s the picture right when they’ve arrived in the train station and they’re all standing there as a family of six people. They all have hats, and wool coats, and they’re holding these suitcases. That’s how my grandmother left Mississippi. And now I’m kind of wrangling with all of those things in terms of my own relationship to Mississippi or to the South, in terms of a place I’ve never been to that I sort of romanticize in some regard, but also which my family fled because of terror.

I went and I lived in Boston for five years, and the whole time I was basically obsessed with how to come home. Not just in terms of job stuff, but in terms of using the analytical skills that I developed in graduate school to think about my home. I sat in Harvard for five years reading books about the corners and neighborhoods of my own hometown, where I had spent the preceding two and a half decades. And then I just came back as soon as I could. And one of my advisors said, “Nobody goes to Harvard and comes back home afterwards.” But for me that was always the whole purpose. I always felt like I was sort of a long-term loan.

Guernica: What’s different about Chicago than any other Midwestern city in terms of schooling? Are there dramatic differences between the way black kids are treated in school in Chicago and the way they’re treated in Detroit? Differences from Indianapolis? From Milwaukee?

Eve Ewing: I mean, yes and no. I think that in terms of the way kids are treated on a classroom basis, there’s not a difference. Something that’s really powerful for me is to think about the city as a case study, and what I like to do is invite people to then look at where they live. A lot of times when I go and give talks, or when I talk about this stuff on social media or in articles, people from Detroit come up to me, people from Baltimore come up to me, people from DC, people from Philly, and they’re like, “Yeah, we have the same thing!” It’s about understanding that these are patterns that reinscribe themselves. That’s on a classroom level. On a more macro level, a policy level, a lot of the most insidious neoliberal education policies that enable and structure the everyday oppression of black children have been created, pioneered, tested, and expanded in Chicago. That is something that has to do with our position as the third-largest school district in the country. It’s also one very united, centralized school district in a way that, for example, New York is not as much. It’s a breeding ground for what I would consider very bad policy that happens here and then has expanded elsewhere.

Guernica: One of the things that amazes me about your work generally, and Electric Arches specifically, is the way you can write to the eight-year-old in me, the eighty-year-old in me whom I haven’t met yet. It feels like these pieces are written to your niece, and then often, at the same time, it feels like you’re writing to Assata Shakur of the Black Liberation Army.

Eve Ewing: I believe that young people and children are actually the shapers of the American canon. We have kids in these buildings just reading for hours a day. Reading to each other. Teachers reading to them. Reading to themselves. I think that their tastes and what is interesting to them, whether we admit it or not, drive so much of the American literary imagination, because they grow up. I think I’m always chasing the way it felt to read as a child. The way it felt to be in the backseat of a car while my parents were driving somewhere, or up late at night, under a blanket, or on the school bus, or in the back of the room when I was supposed to be reading something else. The way it felt reading in those moments is to me one of the greatest feelings of human experience and I’m always a little bit chasing that.

Guernica: I want to talk about Assata Shakur for a second and get us into thinking a bit about capital-P Political Eve. There was this point a few months ago when folks were wondering if Obama was going to pardon Assata Shakur. (Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba following her escape from a prison in New Jersey, where she was serving a life sentence for her alleged role in the 1973 murder of a US state trooper.)

Eve Ewing: Yeah. Well, you and I are in the same place on this, in terms of what we expect and believe of the American president. I would never have said that it wasn’t possible. But I would have been very, very surprised. I don’t have high expectations of the office of the president.

Guernica: Can you talk to me about your literary relationship with Assata Shakur? What brought you to Assata? And what compelled you to make her a part of this text?

Eve Ewing: I think it was unintentional from the outset but then made a lot of sense after the fact. When I was first handed the autobiography of Assata Shakur I knew who she was politically. I knew the history. I knew what had happened with her, but I didn’t expect to see a poem in the front of the book. The book has this poem, “Affirmation,” at the front, and it was interesting to me that I hadn’t heard her talked about as a poet. In the last couple of years, I’ve become really obsessed. I have this tattoo that says, “Poetry is not a luxury,” which comes from Audre Lorde, and I’ve been obsessed with how black women have been doing this intellectual production. Black scholars in general have been doing this intellectual production that has elided boundaries of creation and genre for so long, and it fascinates me that I live in a world where that is not normalized. Where I’m a sociologist and a poet and I make visual art and I make these essays, and 90 percent of the interviews I do I have to sit there politely while somebody awkwardly asks me about that, about the fact that I do multiple things.

The reason that happens is because that is not considered orthodoxy even though Du Bois, a hundred years ago, was doing all of these things. I don’t know if you saw this, but there were these viral images going around of these infographics that Du Bois drew. He did all this sociological analysis and then he made these incredibly beautiful infographics, by hand, because there wasn’t digital design. He made these, and he wrote fiction. We have all these intellectual ancestors, like Zora Neale Hurston, and the majority of the people who read Their Eyes Were Watching God don’t know that she was an anthropologist. As a person who lives in the social sciences and who also lives in the arts, I’ve just been really fascinated with how many models we have of people doing that. Of course, it begs the question of why it’s considered unorthodox and what it would look like if it was accepted as a given—that people move organically between the forms of intellectual and creative production that best suit them at the moment, or best suit the ideas they’re trying to put forth at the moment.

Another thing that frames my relationship to Assata is seeing her as a proxy for the importance of multiple histories and the understanding that the history we’re given in the United States is but one history. I think that she is an important figure because she also calls to the fore how we think about histories and how we think about heroes, how we think about who matters, whose story matters, and who is to be believed. And the poem “Arrival Day” is based on this quote from her that I saw: “Black Revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions.” And I was like, “Oh, but what if we did?”

Guernica: Your work always makes me think about the ways our children are being educated. Do we need more anecdotal and chronicled stories of black girls being decimated by black boys and men in order to think about the ways that black girls’ and black women’s bodies are vulnerable—or are the stakes too high for that?

Eve Ewing: That’s an interesting question, and I like how you tacked on the fake counterpoint at the end. The thing about learning an archetype in history is that it allows you a reference point to which you can return. I’m loath to over-rely on sharing only narratives of the decimation of black people and black children as a means to our liberation. Yet and still, I think you are right that what ends up happening is that—because the stories of black women who are killed by black men, or the stories of black trans women, or of black trans people, or of anyone who is a woman or doesn’t confirm to any kind of gender binary, or of all of us who are vulnerable to patriarchy, are muted—many people don’t think about these things and they don’t have an archetype to return to. All of us have stories in our lives of black women whom we know who have been victimized by their partners, who have been victimized, abused, in many cases killed. But we are not trained to think about them within an archetype of a recurring pattern. It makes it really hard to have conversations where you’re trying to speak up for black women and people are not trying to hear it.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the case of Bresha Meadows in the last year. And I think it’s important to consider the ways in which black men’s violence against black women is also a manifestation of state violence. There’s a way patriarchy harms men and women and that’s why the phrase “toxic masculinity” is still useful, because it helps us understand how our very definition of what it means to be a man is harmful to people of all genders. When your understanding of what it means to be a man is bound up in your ability to harm or kill somebody else who doesn’t give you consent in a given moment, it’s bad for you and it’s bad for that person.

It saddens me, to be very plain about it. I live with a certain degree of fear and trauma, not only from the ways in which racial violence has impacted my life but also from ways in which black men have enacted violence upon me. I wish that I could talk about that in a way that feels safe. I can’t. There is no safe way to talk about that, no way that doesn’t involve attack and critique and silence. So, in terms of how we get there, whether it’s having more anecdotes or whatever it is, I don’t have an answer. But—and it’s obviously palpable, you can hear it in my voice—my discomfort with it is very real. Specifically in the poetry community, and in all kinds of artistic communities, in activist communities, I know so many women who live in silent terror of seeing men who have harmed them in these spaces, and who constantly have to figure out ways of navigating just being in the world. One day I’ll figure out how to talk about it.

Guernica: Sounds like you are talking about it. Thank you. Can you remember the most joyful part of the process of creating Electric Arches?

Eve Ewing: I think that the poem “True Stories About Koko Taylor” brought me a lot of joy because I like fantastical tales. The poem is my effort to write about this woman and singer who was larger than life but who doesn’t have the place in our everyday conversation that I think she deserves. It’s also a play off of her song “I’m A Woman,” where she says she can make love to a crocodile and cut a stone with a pin, among other things. I think tall tales are such an important part of black storytelling, where people come back and they say, “No you didn’t, stop lying, that didn’t happen, you didn’t do that, you ain’t got that.” And you’re like, “Yes, I did.” Yes, I did. And that’s what I’m going for with the Koko Taylor thing. I want people to be like, “No, she didn’t. She didn’t do that.” And for some people to go, “Yes, she did. She did do that.”

And then “Arrival Day” brought me a lot of satisfaction to write because the poem opened up a very imaginative space. I don’t write a lot of poems initially knowing that I’m going to go into a speculative place. I just end up going there. But with “Arrival Day,” I opened the day knowing that this poem was going to be about black revolutionaries coming from the moon. Okay, go. That was a very satisfying experience.

Guernica: When you read Electric Arches as a reader, what parts give you the most joy?

Eve Ewing: This is a really simple one: “The Discount Mega Mall.” “The Discount Mega Mall” is very satisfying for me because I feel that it does a lot in a very small space. It’s a poem eulogizing the discount mall in the neighborhood where I grew up. They razed it to the ground. They haven’t built anything else there so there’s just a bunch of rubble and a fence around it, and I straight up cried. I cried for the discount mega mall. I cried because I don’t know when it happened. It would never have occurred to me in a thousand years that it could ever not be there. It’s one of those things, again, of having dual histories. This was a monument to me. This was a monument in my life. This was a fixture in my life and it’s gone. And the fact that it’s gone is considered so unremarkable. I think that’s the way gentrification and displacement happen, and part of why they’re so painful. For people who live in these places, these are the day-to-day monuments that are memorializing your life on earth. These are the pictures of your life on earth.