The TRiiBE spoke with Ewing during the premiere week of “1919” at the Steppenwolf Theater to learn about the process of adapting the book into a stage play, how it feels to see her work in theater and more.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).
The TRiiBE: In the introductory chapter from 1919, you mentioned that you hadn’t learned much about Eugene Williams and the Chicago race riot as a child but began to learn more as a graduate student. Why was it important for you to tell this story?
Eve L. Ewing: Many times, we have this experience where we learn something about our own history, and we have this moment of regret, like, why didn’t I know about this? Why didn’t I know about this until this moment? I think that’s especially true with Black history and histories that involve racism and painful stories. To me, that’s never a moment to be ashamed. That’s a moment to ask, who was invested in you not knowing? What are the structures and the powers that benefit from us not knowing these things and from us not knowing these histories?
With 1919, and the Red Summer, in particular, a lot of it has to do with discomfort around the fact that this is not a story that has a hero. This is not a story that has an Abraham Lincoln, Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr. or Rosa Parks that the United States can fit into a happy narrative about how everything worked out in the end, and look how racism went away. This is not that story.
Folks who see this play or read the book will be struck by how many things from 1919 sound like they could be from 2019 or 2022. I think that that is a challenging conversation to have. But that conversation is the first step in us being able to transform the world that we live in.
TT: In 1919, you referenced the 1968 Chicago riots, the 1995 Chicago heat wave and the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald. In what ways do each of those historical events parallel Eugene Williams and the 1919 Chicago race riots?
EE: I think that people think about Afrofuturism as only being about the future because it’s in the word. So for me, Afrofuturism, and part of my practice as an Afrofuturist writer, is unsettling the relationship we think we know between the past, present and future.
When we are in school, often the mainstream narrative that we learn is that progress is linear. That things used to be so bad, but they get better and better. America is always getting better, and everything is going to be fixed. I think about the quote from Dr. King, who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” People don’t realize that we have to bend. That those things don’t just happen on their own. They don’t happen passively.
What Black people have always understood is that history is cyclical. History is circular. We look at a story like 1919, and the parallels between 1968, 2019, and 2022 are so striking. It was so obvious to me that those stories had to be connected. I feel grateful for people who’ve engaged with the book in that way and who have also made those connections in reading.
The race riot in 1919 began with the senseless murder of a 17-year-old Black boy. His name was Eugene Williams. It’s hard to hear about Eugene Williams and not think about Emmett Till. It’s hard to hear about Eugene Williams and not think about Laquan McDonald. As Black people and Black Chicagoans, we’re making those connections all the time, and we see the parallels all the time. Poetry allows us to lend an emotional resonance to those parallels, hopefully, and then think about what do we do with this. Where do we go from here?
TT: How should we teach our children and the generations after us about the 1919 Chicago race riot?
EE: One of the things that people have been talking about in the last couple of years is how we talk to kids about racism. And the thing is that kids are hearing, internalizing, perceiving and experiencing all kinds of things related to racism, whether or not we have conversations with them.
I got called a racial slur for the first time before I went to second grade by a white person on the street. I remember when I was a child, the Ku Klux Klan was planning a march in a northern Chicago suburb, and they put flyers and leaflets around my neighborhood, and I found one. I had to ask my mom, “what is this?” My mom had to explain to me what the Klan was.
How many Chicagoans or Black people from everywhere have learned the story of Emmett Till? One of my favorite questions to ask people is when did you learn about Emmett Till? Black people will say, “Oh, I was 12 years old, 13 years old. I was 10 years old. I was nine, or I was eight.” Our parents and our families feel like they have to tell us the truth, tell us these cautionary tales.
Young undocumented kids who are dealing with racism at school and young people of color have had tough conversations about racism for a long time at a very young age. So the question is, how do adults, families, community members and educators step up and give young people the tools to understand the context for what they’re seeing and experiencing? And to affirm them? Like, yes, you didn’t make this up. This is not your fault. The world you see around you is this way for a reason, and let’s talk about that.