Great Migration, the exodus of millions of black Americans from the South to
the North, began in 1916 and lasted for a few decades. The migrants were
unwelcome, and the drowning of a young black man in Chicago’s Lake Michigan on
July 27, 1919—white people on the shore may have knocked him unconscious by
throwing rocks, or he may have drowned trying to avoid those people—was the
catalyst for a race riot.
Poet and sociologist Eve L. Ewing chanced upon a 1922 report titled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot, inspiring a series of poems on the migration and riot, plus a few about Chicago in more recent decades.
The poems don’t offer historical instruction (so keep reading). Instead it’s an authoritative and entertaining panoply of voices and styles, including biblical verse, jump-rope chant, and government document. (And I will resist qualifying “entertaining.”)
Ewing quotes the report as saying that Chicagoans saw The Great Migration as “the worst calamity that had struck the city since the Great Fire.” One of Ewing’s poems is titled “True Stories About the Great Fire”:
Everything they tell you is wrong.
The Great Fire came here in a pair of worn loafers.
eating its last sandwich wrapped in paper
and the Great Fire had a smell of grease and flowers.
William Faulkner, I think, said something to the effect that people write novels because they lack the skill to tell their story within the concision of a poem. I’ve never seen this maxim demonstrated more masterfully than in Ewing’s poem “keeping house,” in which a black maid tells us about her life with her white employer. I’d quote a verse/section, but that would be like quoting twelve percent of the year’s best novel about twentieth century American race relations. –Jim Woster (Haymarket Press, HaymarketBooks.org)