Every week on Intercepted, we examine various threads of power and their impact on our society and on everyday people’s lives. We speak to journalists, lawmakers, lawyers, and activists about war, about guns, about racism, and political hypocrisy. But we also have made a commitment to feature the work and voices of artists and musicians and poets and writers. These folks play a unique role in our society, particularly at moments like the one we currently live in.
One such artist is Dr. Eve Ewing. She’s actually much more than just an artist. She’s a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. Her research has focused on racism, social inequality, urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people.
She has a new book out called, “Electric Arches,” which explores these issues by blending stark realism with the surreal and fantastic. It’s a beautiful collection of Eve’s poetry, essays, and visual art.
On last week’s episode, we aired an excerpt of our interview with Ewing. That audio is linked below. What follows is a transcript of our entire conversation with Ewing, where we discuss her book and art, her time as a science teacher in a public school, the white CIA operative in the Black Panther film, guns, how certain people use violence in Chicago to serve their political agendas, and much more.
Jeremy Scahill: Eve Ewing, welcome to Intercepted.
Eve Ewing: Thanks for having me.
JS: Before we get into this new book “Electric Arches,” I want to first ask you: Because Donald Trump and his allies bring up Chicago so much and they make it sound, you know, that Chicago is the epicenter of this frightening violence in America, just your general response to the way that Chicago is talked about in this moment in time by a specific group of people in this country.
EE: Yeah, I wrote an essay about this. But basically the way I feel about it is that it’s very convenient to use Chicago as a symbol that is really for many people kind of like an effective dog-whistle. It frightens people. It’s used in the service of the same kind of rhetoric that we heard in past presidential administrations with things like, “welfare queens” and “crack babies.” Right? These are these are racialized images that are meant to inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of Americans and to make them feel as though there’s justification for any kind of extreme crackdown, right, that might happen afterwards.
It has nothing to do with an actual desire to help or care for uplift or support or nurture or even listen to people who actually live here, because if it did stem from that genuine desire, there would be so many different kinds of interventions like providing us with more social services and resources, helping us hold our elected officials accountable for our educational system, responding to the Department of Justice and their inquiry into the fact that the Chicago Police Department has longstanding — generations-long — systemic racism.
Those are the things that would actually help Chicago, and Chicagoans will be quick to tell you that, but it’s really not about us, it’s really about using this symbol as a scary, violent, black place that is supposed to inspire fear in the hearts of Americans and unfortunately it works pretty well.
JS: Right, and with this whole discussion now about guns in the United States and the school shootings and now so many young people walking out, confronting politicians and political figures, the refrain from the right and from Trump is always, “Well, if you care about guns, why aren’t you doing anything about Chicago?” And the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the gun-related problems in this country are not coming out of Chicago. The problem is that we have a gun culture where people are addicted, and they’re largely white males, to stockpiling very high-powered weapons.
EE: Yeah, and the thing is that, you know, people here do fight violence every single day. There are so many community organizers and leaders and educators that not only stand against gun violence, not only actually show up to the vigils of the young people that are lost in our communities all the time, but are attuned to the deeper issues and reasons and committed to the city and are committed to actually unpacking the reasons behind this violence.
Again this is — you’re exactly right. This is, it’s really rhetoric, it’s using the city as a stand-in for fear and it’s really, quite frankly, very insulting to tell people, you know, why don’t you do anything about the violence in Chicago, when folks have no desire to learn about or uplift the people who do that work, that is really quite thankless work every single day.
And I am really, really grateful and moved and excited by the younger folks that are stepping up and speaking out against gun violence. And what I really, really hope, and I think that I have reason to believe that this hope is going to come to fruition, what I really hope is that they can form meaningful coalitions and solidarity between students who are from wealthier, whiter communities saying that, “We don’t want this to happen in our community again” and young people from places like Baltimore, places like Chicago places where this violence is an everyday reality. Those young people want the same things they want to show up and be safe at school, they want jobs they want to see a future for themselves and I’m really excited by the possibility of that solidarity.
At the time we’re having this conversation, this week we saw the National School Walkout. And I shared a video on Twitter of a young woman, [a] 16-year-old black girl who was participating in the exact same kinds of walkouts that we saw these inspiring photos of all over the country, and she is arrested. And she’s peacefully protesting and is arrested. And she is not facing any charges, but that’s a trauma that she’s going to have to live with for the rest of her life. And so I just want to invite people across the country to understand that even as we see young people speaking up and speaking out, the consequences for those young people are still widely divergent based on things like race and class. And it’s our job as adults to support them and also help them see these points of solidarity and be hyper-aware of those young people for whom speaking up and exercising their right to free speech really puts them at risk, and those are undocumented students, students of color, students with disabilities, trans students, the same kids that are facing risk and vulnerability every single day just for being who they are. We have to protect them and make sure that they have a chance to exercise their free speech rights as well.
JS: And you wrote this great essay for [The] Fader that was called “Black Life And Death In A Familiar America.”
EE: Oh, thank you for reading that. It’s very depressing.
JS: Well yes, but we always say on this show that history and context matter, and I think the nuance that you’re writing with is really refreshing and really essential. I just want to share with people part of that.
You were writing about Mount Greenwood, which is a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that is different from what you might imagine the way that the South Side of Chicago is talked about. And you write: “Mt. Greenwood residents became excited at the mere mention of his name, and for a moment the altercation had the tone of a spontaneous campaign rally. They began to chant ‘Donald Trump,’ and one of them directly addressed the young black woman holding the camera, ‘Build that wall! We’ll fuckin’ put you on the other side, motherfucker!’ I watched him through a screen, through another screen, through the eyes of another. I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to look at him through a chain-link fence.”
Was this an event that signaled to you that Donald Trump’s vision for America was sort of alive and well even in patches of this part of the country in Chicago that’s talked about so much before he was even elected?
EE: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. That was a beautiful reading. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, so that piece was published the day after the election, and the event that I’m describing there took place before the election. And so I think that timing is important to illustrate exactly what you’re saying, which is that during the Trump campaign and then right after he was elected, there was a lot of justifiable and understandable fear, hand-wringing, and shock, especially from corners of liberal, white America where people thought, basically, this was a referendum that made them realize that the America that they thought they lived in does not exist. Or this election constituted a transformational, historical event that somehow gave permission or highlighted new forms of racism or new forms of xenophobia.
In no way do I want to undercut what I do think have been some of the uniquely awful aspects of this administration, but I also think it’s important for folks to remember that this is not like the man in a laboratory conjuring up these racist people like Frankensteins, who had never existed — you know, Frankenstein monsters that never existed. Rather it is him giving a voice and a platform for an energy behind white supremacy and hatred that has a long history in America and that actually, in my opinion, constitutes the very fabric of the nation.
And so I think that that’s important to realize, because it makes you understand that in order to conquer or change or transform the kind of hatred and vile evil that we’re seeing right now, it’s not just about these particular voters, it’s not just about this particular election, but we have to be brave enough to confront and understand a history that is much deeper and an aspect of this culture that runs very, very deep.
And basically, like, the America that people feared was going to come into fruition or come to reality already existed before the election. And these folks were more than happy to use this president as a sort of projection of the energy that they already had and the opinions that they already had.
JS: Now, unlike Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, you’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in public schools.
EE: (Laughs.) Yes, yes I have.
JS: And taught public schools. And her proposal, and it’s not just hers, but now she’s sort of in charge of it, this idea of arming teachers.
EE: Mhmm. To fight the bears that are gonna —
JS: Well, although, maybe, I’ve still been trying to find out if grizzly bears are a euphemism for a group of people and we just aren’t hip to it. But just in general, your thoughts about that, and what it sort of indicates about the moment we’re in?
EE: Yeah, so, there’s so much. There are so many things wrong with this idea that it’s really hard to even wrap your mind around where to begin.
You know, when I was a public school teacher, I spent an average of $100 a week on supplies for my own students, especially because when I started out I was teaching science and I was the only science teacher for the entire middle school, so I had about 170 students that I taught science to every week, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
EE: And I was committed to — yeah, just me — I mean, you know, they got subjects from other people, but I was the only person teaching science to 170 kids. And I was committed to providing them the best inquiry-based science education that I possibly could, which meant I didn’t just want them to read about things in textbooks, I wanted them to do all the things that so many of us remember as being the fun things that allow you to see how science actually works and bring it to life. I wanted them to connect circuits. I wanted them to look at things under microscopes. Right? And all those things cost money.
And so I would spend massive amounts of money every week. I would make my lesson plans on Sunday and then on Monday I would go to Home Depot and I would go to Radio Shack and I would go to the pet store to get the food to feed our class pets and animals we had in the classroom, and all those things came out of my pocket. And I never heard you know the secretary of education or any of these people out here outraged and wanting to arm me with the actual things that I needed to do my job every week.
At the end of the year, I was entitled to a $100 reimbursement, and I would just pick whatever random receipts I had from that week and use it to file for my union-entitled $100 reimbursement.
And so, to hear these same folks in the name of protecting students or protecting lives talking about how we should arm teachers, many teachers have risen up and said: “Arm us with pencils, arm us with nurses, right? Arm us with social workers.” We had a social worker to serve our entire school who is serving multiple schools and she would come once a week, right? And try to give service to whoever she could in that limited time.
These are very common — counselors, people to just help with basic disabilities with all kinds of things that we actually need in terms of resources, and once again, it betrays that none of this is actually about helping anybody but it’s about reinforcing an agenda of control and militarization.
And the other thing, you know, lots of teachers have said this kind of rhetoric of like, “Arm us with the things we actually need.” Which I agree with, and I also want to add to that when people sign up to be teachers, they want to be educators. They sign up to transform lives to nurture young people, to support people that are in need, to help shape their minds, to help them discover the things about themselves that are wonderful and special and their gifts and their talents and interests. That’s why I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t want to be a teacher so that I would be a frontline soldier. And I don’t think that that the teachers of America should have to worry about volunteering their lives or making the decisions between going home to their families that day and sacrificing themselves for the children in their classroom. And I don’t think that that is something to be ashamed of. To say, “I didn’t sign up for this job to potentially die.” You know, and to be a soldier. I think that is perfectly reasonable.
When I was a teacher, I spent plenty of time sort of envisioning in my head my own sort of plan if there ever was an active shooter in the building, you know, looking at the students before me and thinking, “OK, which one could I count on to run over and grab my keys,” or if I say, “Everybody needs to get under the desk,” who’s the one who always is going to say, “Why do we have to do that, Miss Ewing?'” Basically trying to make these plans in my head that accounted for the actual kids in front of me that I knew and that I loved. And that’s just really messed up. That’s brain space that I shouldn’t have had to dedicate to thinking about how I would protect the kids in my care, and hopefully escape with my life. And to validate that and further uplift it by talking about giving teachers guns is just morally reprehensible to me.
JS: Well, and we’ve also seen in this era of social media, you were mentioning Twitter before, videos that young people are posting of staff inside of schools assaulting students, and this is not even having a gun.
JS: I mean my real fear about guns in school is that these altercations where we’ve seen, you know, staff at schools slamming black children down or putting them in a headlock or restraining them by extreme force or doing other things that may not be physical assault but are meant to humiliate them in retribution, in revenge for some perceived slight — that now you’re going to have some of these hotheads in schools, not necessarily teachers but other staffers who have guns? And what are those altercations going to look like now if those staffers have guns on them?
EE: I think you’re absolutely right. And we also already have police and these SROs, these security resource officers, in schools, and there are many, many students in this country that attend schools that have security or police presence and no counselors to help them get to college. That is despicable.
And I think you’re right. You know, I think about the black children murdered across this country, who will never make it to high school because someone thought they were dangerous. I think about Tamir Rice, I think about Aiyana Stanley, and the idea that we would further introduce that dynamic into schools, a place where children are supposed to feel safe and where many of them already do not, it’s just bad policy.
JS: Now you’ve mentioned being a science teacher. I have to say one of my most favorite pieces in your new book, “Electric Arches” is the piece called “The Device.”
EE: Oh, thank you.
JS: I think it’s really interesting. I think for a lot of young black kids who are interested in coding and tech, I think this is going to be a really inspirational story for them.
EE: Oh, thank you.
This is the first paragraph of the short story, “The Device:”
“It wasn’t like a George Washington Carver kind of thing, where one brilliant Negro with a soldering iron made some magic and poof! A miraculous machine. It was an open-source kind of situation. Thousands of high school science-fair whiz kids, this and that engineering club at this and that technical college, the One Black Person at a bunch of Silicon Valley startups getting together with a bunch of other One Black Persons over craft beer and coding late into the night, even some government folks working off the clock (or so the rumors go). Not just one person. A hive mind of black nerds, obsessive types, scientists, and inventors but also historians and archaeologists and the odd astrologer here and there. Project Delta Mother, they called it (goofy name TBH but it’s whatever).”
So that’s the beginning of this short story, “The Device.” And the story is about, as is described in that first paragraph, a collective group of black scientists across the country who build this machine and the purpose of the machine is to allow you to communicate with your ancestors.
And the story describes the first time that the machine is turned on, and the little girl who is selected to be like the test pilot flips the switch and finds herself communicating with her ancestors over space and time. And it doesn’t go exactly as everybody thinks it’s going to go.
And I wrote that story, I was invited to give a reading at the Art Institute of Chicago in the African art gallery. And so I was — so I had some time to tour the gallery by myself and check it out. And this doesn’t end the way it ends in “Black Panther,” where then I like, executed a careful heist of the artifacts. That did not happen. What happened was, I was looking at a mask, and there was a series of West African masks that were supposed to enable the wearer to basically channel the spirits of their ancestors and so they were used in different rituals and events where somebody would wear them and then they would embody the spirits of the people that had gone before them. And I thought about what a powerful idea that was for African-Americans, for those of us for whom our lineage is necessarily cut off by chattel slavery.
I have a tattoo on my right shoulder blade of my matrilineal genealogy, and it goes back to my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma, back to my great, great grandmother who died a free person but was born an enslaved person. And because she’s considered property and record-keeping is spotty, I don’t have any access to the people who came before her.
And I thought a lot — this is something that African-Americans specifically wrestle with a lot in this country, especially as we consider our place in the diaspora and sometimes get messages from other people in the diaspora that, you know, we don’t have a real history or that slavery is something we should be ashamed of and it doesn’t give us access to kind of a national identity or an understanding of who our ancestors were.
And so I wanted to grapple with that idea and think about, you know, what if we could use science to talk to them. And then I thought like, “Do we really want to talk to our ancestors?” Like, our ancestors are family and do you always want to talk to your family, and sometimes family is annoying, or they bother you about things or they hassle you, or they don’t get certain aspects of who you are. And I tried to think about what it actually means to not just consider our ancestors as these like mythical, magical people, but as human beings with their own opinions and thoughts and unexpected quirks. So that’s kind of where the story came from.
JS: Yeah, it’s a great story.
EE: Thank you.
JS: And I encourage people to read it. I think it’s so important, I mean young people in general, I think need to, I mean obviously it’s great if they can be more excited about science because science is one of the ways that we counteract the kind of culture that now exists in Washington and with the current administration. You mentioned, you mentioned Black Panther there, and I, therefore, have to ask or point out that your current Twitter name is Wikipedia “Killmonger, But Make It Feminist” brown.
JS: What did you make of the white CIA guy who is helping Wakanda?
EE: Yeah. That’s so deep. I could go on about this for a long time. But, I think that Ryan Coogler situated the movie so — I mean these questions about diaspora are so — that is to me, is like the center of the movie. And I mean, if you haven’t seen a movie at this point, it’s on you. So all the spoiler alerts, obviously.
But, you know, I went to the movie expecting like a great action movie, and what I got is this movie that presents these actual serious ethical dilemmas about our like Pan-African identity and blackness and what kinds of responsibilities we have to each other in history, and you know the whole time I was sitting in the movie with my partner, and he kept like, every time Killmonger made like a speech, he would just lean over and say, “He’s not wrong, he’s got a point.” Right?
And of course, upon further analysis we think about the fact that his, you know, basically what he wants to do is recreate empire and recreate white supremacy, right? Hence my hence my Twitter name “Killmonger, But Make It Feminist.” Right? Make it about restoration and reparation and not about recreating empire and harm and colonialism.
So anyway, to get your actual question, I think that you know Coogler, coming from Oakland understands so much about the work that intelligence government, intelligence agencies did and have done and continue to do into the present I might add, to try to undermine black freedom movements.
And so it’s really deep that T’Challa trusts the CIA guy, and I think it says something about him that’s really interesting and worth investigating, the fact that, he sees himself as having a solidarity with him in a need to save his life based on the individual interactions that they’ve had, that might be very different from how an African-American person would view him as a symbol of an evil institution or maybe he’s just being pragmatic. I don’t know. But he really let that man in to see like all their technology and everything. I was like, “No! What are you doing?” So, yeah.
JS: One of the thoughts I had, and I have to say I know Ryan Coogler personally, and I met him when he was working on his first film “Fruitvale Station” and I was working on a documentary at the time, we were mixing sound for our films at the same time, and then he and I were kind of on the circuit together, and now he’s blown up. He did “Creed.”
JS: Which is, probably, I think the best Rocky movie, if not the best, the best since the original. But, I mean, that was an amazing film.
EE: It’s so good.
JS: And, Black Panther, I’m going to go and see it again, because I am very interested in that CIA character.
Here’s my theory, Eve. I think that it’s possible that they’re introducing him, and that T’Challa and others in Wakanda think, “Well, yeah, we know who he is, but he seems to be like with us on this particular thing.” And I’m hoping that it’s a metaphor for how the CIA has always functioned in colonial territories, where they say, “Oh, we’re here to help you,” or “We’ll help you on this thing,” and then later you realize who they really are and that we see like an uprising of Wakanda against the CIA. That’s my hope.
EE: Well and that’s one of the things where, you know, one of the masterful narrative arcs of the movie is that in the beginning we see Sterling K. Brown’s character, we see them, it seems like they’re planning some sort of heist or robbery or something like that. And what we come to understand is that actually, he has gone to the United States and learned about black freedom movements from African-American people and learned about this diasporic history and so his perspective is one of black solidarity across kind of nationhood, and he sees himself as having responsibilities for folks.
T’Challa doesn’t, he doesn’t feel that way. And, you know, so we expect him to have sort of a pan-Africanist lens that there’s no reason why he would actually have having grown up in Wakanda, and so his obligations are individualized, right? And it’s one way in which the loss of his uncle means the loss of another kind of wisdom that he could have really benefited from.
And, you know, the funny part is that like his sort of compromise of his radical ideology is that he’s going to go like participate in the nonprofit industrial complex in Oakland, and start, you know, basically be a housing owner and start some sort of after-school program. And people on Twitter are joking he’s going to start a charter school.
EE: And partner with like, P. Diddy and Common to run a charter school in Oakland. And I think that these are real critiques. Right? These are real critiques about the way some black people see participation and essentially like black capitalism as a pathway to freedom which is very different than what Killmonger had in mind before he gave his incredibly corny last words. (Laughs.)
JS: Well, we’re going to, you can be our movie critic from now on.
EE: Yeah. Anytime, anytime.
JS: So going to back to the book, one thing I also want people to be aware of, this is not simply a book of poetry or a collection of poetry and short stories. You also have visual art that you have created. Can you talk about how that’s deployed throughout the book and how you make your visual art because it’s interesting the trade that you use?
EE: Thank you. Yeah, well, you know one book that really inspired “Electric Arches” was “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. And I was amazed at the idea of incorporating visual art as, in service of perpetuating some of the ideas and thoughts that are central to the book and themes that are central to the book, but also, to be quite honest, as a way of just forcing people to have encounters with visual art.
I find that, you know, poetry already as an art form is something that people have a lot of like sort of mystified mythos about, where many people think of it as very inaccessible or very hard to understand or they think that they need some kind of special training to understand it — like a class — it’s confusing and so on. And I find that visual art often has the same reputation, especially contemporary art where people, you know they say things like, “Well, I don’t really know anything about art, or I don’t get art, or I don’t like modern art.” Right? And often misusing the term modern for contemporary.
And so part of what I want to do is invite people to have encounters with visual works as part of their encounter with text, and also basically to think of — I always think of the book as an object itself, and I want it to be in engaging object, and so that’s why, for example, there are pages that are white text on a black background, rather than the other way around, and the cover is extremely engaging and the book is square. These are all things that make me — that I, that I did or that I wanted to do to kind of invite people to engage the book as an object as a physical thing and not only as something that lives in your head. And so that’s why the visual art is there.
I just did it because I could and I wanted to. That’s the other reason. I had this amazing press that kind of let me do whatever I wanted, so I was like, “Well, I want to put art in there.” So I did.
JS: Well, and one of your inventions is the decoder rings that used to come in cereal boxes.
JS: And the one you’ve cooked up in your imagination allows the wearer to be able to understand what black girls are saying.
EE: Yes, yes.
JS: You could make that, you could probably make that and I bet it would catch on across this country.
EE: Oh, what I could do is I could make it and then sell it on Etsy and then one of the Kardashians would copy it without my permission and then sell it for like thousands and thousands of dollars. And then, that would be like the natural life cycle of my invention. (Laughs.)
JS: That’s never happened to black creators in this country.
EE: Yeah, right. Exactly.
JS: There’s no stealing of work.
EE: (Laughs.) Yeah, I made that, sort of like childhood and playfulness are recurring themes in the book, and in my own life, and so, it’s really: The black girl decoder ring is kind of playing with the fact that so much of popular culture is based on this sort of two-faced desire of black women, where on the one hand there’s like a desire to imitate and to copy and to steal, you know beauty and body styles and hairstyles and things like that, but that’s also coupled with a disrespect and like invisibility and even disgust with or like, sense of contempt for like actual black women and black women’s bodies. And so the decoder ring is sort of like the thing that Taylor Swift or Katy Perry gets to wear, that will allow them the thing they most desire which is to be able to understand and fully access what black women are doing and saying without actually engaging with them as human beings. And I thought about that kind of translational work and the idea of like this cereal box toy that you could get.
JS: If we had sound effects, I would be hitting like a boom sound effect. #takethattaylor. Another thing that I really find fun about your book is that you take well-known figures and then you place them in kind of different magical situations.
JS: One of those is the blues legend Koko Taylor, and then a very famous person, the king, LeBron James.
EE: The king himself.
JS: Right, and I mean I want you to tell the story, but I mean the essence of it is LeBron James is sort of going through time and then he runs into or seeks out his teenage self. You’ll do the job of describing it better than I would, but talk about that, and if you want to share part of it, that’s cool, but if not, you can just talk about it. Either way, it’s up to you.
EE: Yeah, so I’ll read this poem, it’s called “Note from LeBron James to LeBron James”:
“I knew it was you when I saw you in the parking lot, headphones on, waiting for Drew to come up with the car and trying not to eat all the chips before he got there. The tip of each finger of each hand finding its own minute ridged seam on the waistband of your shorts.
I knew it was you from the way you smiled when you saw how lean my shoulders, how spare my triceps. I knew it was you because you haven’t yet seen what will come after, the days when I was a ballast for every vessel I blinked at, an impossible man, when I was not the leg-lift or the quickstep or the hoist, I was the tire, the hurdle, the rope itself — I was the trial itself, and you can’t know that yet.
Leaning against nothing there in the sunlight, me kicking at sticky black pebbles sprung loose from the tar while you stood firm in your new shoes a few inches up on the curb where the melting street couldn’t sully them, and both of us wanting lunch and touching our hips absentmindedly and listening to a jet pass overhead, the hum of a Saturday, and looking down the road toward where Portage Path would be, except too far past the oaks to see and us not really thinking about that anyway. I couldn’t tell you.
When it’s time to roll you have to keep everybody tethered to you, no matter how heavy or hungry or ugly they get, you have to keep their soreness and their worst parts and their smashed tin wants and their construction paper crowns and their everything they ever wanted for you and for them in the same backpack with the shredded bottom where you keep your own drawings and scraped knuckles and your being afraid. Keep them like a secret. I couldn’t tell you that just then.”
EE: So that poem — I’m putting my glasses back on — so that poem is, you know, LeBron James, like many people I have — OK. Something I find interesting about sports, growing up in like a fierce sports city like Chicago, is that sports are really about our collective societal desires. Right? They’re about us projecting our hopes and our dreams and our desire to win and be victorious on to these like gladiators who are these incredible human beings.
You know, LeBron James, as a person, his very physiology is miraculous. Right? Like how can somebody be so big and so strong and also so fast and leap in the air and spin around and do things that like a figure skater would do? But also be so incredibly strong.
And when I was a kid, you know the United Center in Chicago, now they’ve moved it inside, but my entire childhood there was this big famous iconic statue of Michael Jordan, and it’s him leaping into the air and has this quote from the novel “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean. And then it has, the inscription on the statue says: “The best there ever was, the best there ever will be.” Which is like such an amazing, I’ve always loved that phrase because there’s such a hubris to it, right? It’s like you have no way of possibly knowing that this is the greatest basketball player that will ever live, but you’re speaking it. Right? Like this is like a prophecy. “The best there ever was, the best there ever will be.”
And so that’s like a big part of what I love about basketball — sports in general, but like that’s my choice. I think also a lot of people see that same kind of heroism in football. But for me, growing up in Chicago in the ’90s, right, basketball is everything.
And so — but these are human beings. And I’m interested in, you know, with basketball there’s these mythologies, the “Hoop Dreams” mythology of the kid on the street who basically achieves the American dream, where, you know he comes from poverty and just works really hard and has this incredible God-given skill and is able to rise up and be successful and buy his mother a house. And, you know, rapping kind of offers the same kind of American dream mythology, like hip-hop culture.
But the thing is that, you know, I’m also a sociologist and there’s some interesting research that shows that NBA players are, for the most part, they come from families that have higher median incomes than most black people in the United States, and so the majority of NBA players are more like Steph Curry than LeBron James. Right? They are more people that, they come from families that have the money and the resources to get them to practice on time, get their uniforms ready, make sure that they are where they’re supposed to be, have flexible jobs that allow them to support these things, and help them be on traveling teams, have the academic opportunities that enable that they’re going to be able to play.
And so it turns out that even though we have this mythology about basketball as this like the American dream, bootstrap space, in actuality it’s just another part of America where your class background actually matters a lot for your outcomes.
And, so because of all that, people like LeBron James who actually come from poverty are really remarkable to me in basketball, and so I started reading about his biography and his childhood, and basically the fact that at a very young age his outcomes for his, like his own life, but also the life of his family and his loved ones seem to sit very squarely on his shoulders, and his family’s entire life, his mother basically uprooted their family and moved them into somebodies house so that he would be able to have consistent coaching and training. And she had him when she was a teenager.
And also as a person who’s also from a post-industrial Midwestern city, I have a lot of solidarity and love for Cleveland, and when LeBron James, when he did “The Decision” and when he announced that he was leaving Cleveland and he was going to go to Miami, I had this big giant poster of him in my classroom, I was teaching middle school, and I had this huge poster of LeBron James, and I ripped it off the wall. (Laughs.)
EE: Because I felt so betrayed that he was leaving the Midwest, and my students came in and were like, “Miss E, where’s LeBron?” I was like, “Shh, shh, shh. We’re not talking about it — we don’t speak his name in here, children.” You know?
And so, when he wrote this heartfelt essay — or you know if you co-wrote it with somebody, I don’t know — but he wrote this heartfelt essay talking about how he was going to come back to Cleveland and about how part of it was because he wanted kids growing up in northeast Ohio to basically believe that it was possible to stay home and be right where you’re from, right where you were born and like, be great, and accomplish great things for yourself and your family and your community, that meant so much to me.
And so I wrote this time-traveling poem for him to kind of encounter his younger, his younger self.
JS: Has he seen it?
EE: To my knowledge, he has not seen it. I have one, as far as I know, I have exactly one NBA fan, who is Andre Iguodala, my fellow Chicagoan, and has been extremely supportive of the book, and has posted it on Instagram and stuff him.
JS: Come on, Craig Hodges is at your same publisher.
EE: I know, I know.
JS: Haymarket, get on that!
EE: I know, he’s in the Haymarket gang with. I know, somebody, but as far as I know, the real-live people in the book, as far as I know, none of them have read any of the poems. It’s Marilyn Mosby, Erykah Badu, LeBron James, Koko Taylor passed away, I did get a chance to meet her before she passed, which was amazing.
JS: Oh nice. Metta World Peace?
EE: Metta World Peace, no, and Stacey Dash, no. I don’t think any of them have read any of these poems and I don’t know what they would think about them.
JS: Maybe LeBron James is a closet listener to this podcast.
JS: He wants to be an expert on CIA drone strikes.
EE: (Laughs.) You know for years, I grind my teeth and so I wear a mouthpiece when I go to sleep.
JS: Don’t wear it when Michael B. Jordan takes off his shirt.
EE: (Laughs.) I know, right? Hopefully, that does not happen to me. But I wear a mouthpiece when I go to sleep because I grind my teeth and clench my jaw, and because I wear before I go to bed I have these — I sort of associate it with like peace and calm and like serenity and sleeping. And so for years, I wanted to write a poem about my mouthpiece. And Blake Griffin wrote one as a joke for a commercial, he wrote like a fake, like a poem, like an ode to his mouthpiece and I’m really angry that Blake Griffin beat me to the mouthpiece poem. So that’s my only like, NBA poetry beef is that I’m salt about that. But if he ever wanted to collaborate on a poem, I would also be fine with that as well.
JS: Fair enough. Before we, you and I, started talking today I was asking my colleagues, the producers of the show, what they thought of the book. And one of my colleagues, her favorite poem in the book was “Appletree” which, you mentioned, Erykah Badu, “[on black womanhood, from and to Erykah Badu].” So maybe you can you can lay that out for people and explain that piece.
EE: So I’m going to read the first of seven section of this poem, called “Appletree [on black womanhood, from and to Erykah Badu]”
“First: The year Baduism came out was the same year I had sex ed for the first time. Not the kind with feelings or warnings or photographs, it was the vocabulary kind of sex ed. The kind with diagrams and purple inked diddle lines. And I was bad at remembering which words went with which shapes on the page and so at school I learned that my body was a worksheet, full of blank spaces and mysterious menacing forms and the best I could hope was that someone more knowledgeable than I was would know what to do with them.
When I came home every day my mother would be playing the CD on repeat. You would begin and begin again. Oh, what a day. And I would sigh along with you and it was the first time I understood that the violet waxy blobs of my insides were circles spun with a lazy finger.
There’s a small sun in there, you said, a cup of tea. There’s a stone that moves of its own volition tracing a path each day from my throat to the soles of my feet and back up across the muscles of my thighs over my spine. It’s a boulder without a Sisyphus. I learned that everything about me could be round and full if I let it, that under my skin were ciphers of humming and laughing and buzzing, stones laid in a labyrinth that turns and turns in on itself, so when you get to the center you have no choice but to turn around and walk the other way. What a day. What a day.”
EE: So, yeah, the poem is kind of like, an ode to Erykah Badu, or a tribute to her. You know, the book overall, is like coming of age in black girlhood and black womanhood, with the obvious understanding that those things are not monoliths. Right? And so this is like my particular story and my particular life and I hope that some people find things that are true in it, and other things maybe not so much.
But Erykah Badu, you know, was a very important figure in popular culture who kind of helped me understand a different version of black womanhood and what it means to be a black woman than I saw in other aspects of popular culture, in the media. And obviously this is changing to a degree and I think improving a lot, and its been amazing to see in the last couple of years, but for a lot of us growing up, for my mothers’ generation, there were just very, very few black women in media. I mean, that’s why seeing Nichelle Nichols in “Star Trek” was so important for so many young women, right? They were like, it’s a black woman on a spaceship, that’s amazing. You know, or seeing news anchors or things like that.
But for my generation, you know, there were black women, but there were just these very limited ideas of, you know, what it looked like to be a black woman, what kind of person you were allowed to be, and it just felt very limiting and very flat and two-dimensional. And Erykah Badu is just this really sort of strange, ethereal, otherworldly, wise character who came on the scene and just celebrated a different vision of what it meant to be a black woman than I had seen growing up.
And her playfulness, her kind of irreverence, the fact that she could sing in the same way that the music that my parents or grandparents listened to, she had that kind of vocal ability, but hearing the song, “Tyrone,” right? Hearing a woman sing with this beautiful, incredible voice about like, throwing a dude out because he never pays for anything, and like, he has to come pick up all his stuff from your house, right? These are just like these true stories about life that also seem to, for me, restore some sense of agency or autonomy to the body, and that it’s OK to have a body and your body is your body.
And so, that was really important to me, and so I wanted to write that kind of love letter to her, and to what her work has accomplished, even though a lot of the things that she says now, I’m like, “I really wish you wouldn’t say that, Erykah.” We don’t know each other, so she doesn’t contact me and ask me what she should say in these interviews, and if she did, I might give some different advice, but her work is just incredibly important to me and really means a lot to me.
JS: Wow. Well, as we wrap up our conversation, I want to encourage everybody to pick up this book by Eve Ewing, which is called “Electric Arches.” And Eve has generously offered to share some unpublished poetry with us today, and I’m going to hand the reins over to her to do a short reading here, on Intercepted.
EE: Well thank you again, so much, for having me. It’s been delightful.
So, I’m going to read a poem from a new project that I have coming out in 2019. And the project, it’s also coming out with Haymarket, it’s called “1919,” and it’s about the race riots that happened in Chicago in 1919, which obviously we’ll be coming up on the century anniversary of that.
And so, the poem I’m going to read is a persona poem, and it’s in the voice of a train bringing black people up from the South during the Great Migration to Chicago. And the poem begins with a line from the report that was commissioned by the state to evaluate the causes of the race riot, so that line is: “The presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.”
The poem is called, “The Train Speaks:”
“Even now, I dream of them. All my babies. Quiet nights in the rail yard when the little feet skitter beneath me, when the last of the strong men with his gleaming silver buttons has locked the door and laid his hands against me, warm palms offering a silent farewell.
I see them dancing in every passing cloud. My babies, my babies, born unto me in the hills and green lands, loose threads catching in my sharp parts when they don’t watch out, blistered hands hauling parcels of burlap as hefty and shapeless as bound cotton. They move like rabbits then. They look for a lash that isn’t there. Even them that never felt it. It’s in their shoulders. The lash lives in their shoulders.
Long after the last biscuit is gone, when the sunrise brings steel mountains, my children look and look through the space I have made for them. The gift I prepared. They are safe within but can see without. They feel it before they know the words, then smile when it comes to them. It’s flat. The land is flat. And they smile to think of it, this new place, the uncle or cousin who will greet them, the hat they will buy, the ribbons. They know not the cold, my babies. They know not the men who are waiting and angry. They know not that the absence of signs does not portend the absence of danger. My innocent children, my precious ones, I can never take you home. You have none. But, oh, if I could keep you here, safe in my iron heart, I would never let you go out into the wind.”
The end! (Laughs.)
JS: Briefly, Eve, the context of the poem.
EE: So, the 1919 race riots happened sort of in the still beginning phase of the Great Migration, which brought unprecedented migration in the scale of the United States and much of human history, and brought massive numbers of black people from the South into the industrialized North. And my grandmother moved from Mississippi to the North when she was five years old. And if folks are interested in learning more about that, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which captures oral histories from people who participated in the Great Migration.
But before I get to the story of the riot, I wanted to just talk about that movement. And I love trains. I’ve always loved trains, I love riding trains. And I think that the train has an interesting sort of symbolic resonance in black culture in America, both because the train was often used as like a metaphor for freedom. Langston Hughes has a famous poem called “Freedom Train,” the Underground Railroad obviously, and for many people, the train actually became the real pathway to their freedom.
And so I wanted to think about what it meant to regard these folks who came up North from a warm, lush, verdant place where they also were living under the threat of racial terrorism, to a North where they were hoping to find a different life and where there was still violence but a different kind of violence that perhaps they weren’t prepared for. And I wanted to view them from the perspective of someone that would see them with love and care and nurturing. And the train is that, right? It’s this kind of loving, caring thing that envelops you and shepherds you from one place to the next.
Yeah, and so that’s the poem. I read it the other day in Battle Creek, Michigan, which I didn’t know until I got there, is the resting place of Sojourner Truth. She’s buried in Battle Creek, so I got to visit her cemetery and her resting place.
And a woman in the audience, I could see this elderly woman in the back and like the whole time she was just grinning and smiling and like making noise and celebrating me as I was on stage. And afterwards, she came up and told me that the poem was so amazing and special to her because she remembers coming up North and she remembers being seven years old. And I said, “You remember the train?” She said, “Oh honey, I remember everything. I remember picking cotton in Mississippi and I remember leaving and we came up here and my uncles went to Chicago and we kept going and we landed here in Battle Creek.”
And so, it’s a part of our history that I think is really important and beautiful and also is special because our elders are still here to tell us about it. And I think it’s important for us to capture it as much as possible.
So I’m hoping that, you know, the poem and the book more broadly will invite people to think about a chapter of our history that we often, I think, don’t talk about as much as we should but that actually shapes the fabric of the cities and the country that we live in today.
JS: What a great note to end on. Wikipedia Brown, aka Killmonger But Make It Feminist, aka Dr. Eve L. Ewing, thank you so much for being with us on Intercepted.
EE: Oh, it’s my great pleasure. Thank you for having me and thanks for the great questions.