Here is a sign that you've become a person of consequence: you're standing in line at a coffee shop, waiting to pay for your drink, when one of the baristas recognizes you and declares her love for you by using your Twitter name. Instead of backing away slowly in alarm, you respond with perfect poise, "Thank you! That's so sweet!"
Wikipedia Brown, aka @eveewing, aka Eve L. Ewing, is a person of consequence. She has, at the moment, nearly 85,000 followers who engage with her in discussions about racism, politics, education, lost dogs, ways to entertain young relatives, potato salad, and whatever else she happens to be thinking about. Her influence is such that she once tweeted, "where the waffles at" and 16 people retweeted it. There was no deep hidden meaning, she says. She just wanted waffles.
In her offline life, Ewing is a sociologist at the University of Chicago who studies racial inequality in schools, particularly the Chicago Public Schools. She's also a poet and an artist: her first book, Electric Arches, was recently published by Haymarket Books. You could describe it as a collection of poetry, prose, and art that's based on Ewing's experiences as a black girl growing up in Logan Square and Hermosa in the 80s and 90s and you'd be accurate. But, like Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, which Ewing read as she put her own book together, its vision is much more expansive. It's not just about her own coming-of-age. It's about her city and the power of the imagination.
"I see myself as doing one big project with many parts and manifestations," she says. "I'm trying to build a city that is worthy of how much we love it."
In her scholarly research, Ewing studies how and why the city's inequalities came to be. On Twitter, she asks her followers directly how those inequalities have affected their lives. And in her art, she imagines how things could be different. In the introduction to Electric Arches, she compares this process to how, when she was a little girl, she was only allowed to ride her bike up and down a single block so her mother could keep an eye on her. The street wasn't a good place for a child to play: the cement was cracked, and the neighborhood was full of gangs. But Ewing didn't feel constrained, either by geography or her circumstances; in her mind, she was free to have glorious adventures wherever and whenever she wanted. (In those days, she signed all her schoolwork "Eve .L. Ewing," and now she uses her middle initial as an homage to her younger self.)
In Electric Arches, she says, "I'm trying to articulate what freedom looks like and feels like to someone like me: Black women. People who grew up in Chicago and are trying to keep a place in a city that's trying to push us out and replace us. Imaginative children. People from the neighborhood. People who have lived through and are living the aftermath of the decline of the American city and postindustrial capitalism. People from cities that trade on images of blackness while pushing black people out."
One of Ewing's favorite poems in Electric Arches is "Arrival Day," a response to a quote by the activist Assata Shakur: "Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions." In Ewing's imagining, the revolutionaries do arrive from the moon, joyfully parading through the streets, "hammering the iron of the / jail cell doors into lovely wrought curls" and singing "while / they smashed a bottle on the squad cars . . . whatever was near enough to say 'this / here is christened a new thing.'" It's a vision of liberation.
"I've been reading it out loud a lot," Ewing says. "People cry a lot. I see them inside the poem while I'm talking, coming with me to another place and time."
Throughout the book, Ewing refuses to depict herself as a victim. "There's a convention in poetry, especially poetry by people of color, to bear witness to trauma," she says. "When it's expected of you, when [it's] something you don't do on your own, it becomes a spectacle." This is something she actively resists. When she was a little girl and had nightmares, her mother would ask her to come up with an alternative ending: the monster wasn't chasing her so he could eat her, he was trying to warn her that her shoe was untied. This was a way of learning to control the things that caused her anxiety. In a series of poems called "re-tellings," she recounts a series of potentially traumatizing events—being called "nigger," a time she saw four boys accosted by cops in Hyde Park—and imagines that instead of feeling paralyzed and helpless, she has magical powers to make things better. And so a racist woman becomes "possessed by a mighty and exuberant ghost-spirit" that makes her dance, and the boys float into the air, leaving the cops grasping at their shoelaces.
"Eve is the kind of person who has a lot of clarity about her work," says Julie Fain, Haymarket's cofounder and editor. "She knows it very well. She knows what she's trying to do and say. The book has struck a nerve in the way she's been able to bring the personal into the political and have fun with it while being incredibly serious."
Ewing got into the habit of writing and drawing as a high school student; she spent 90 minutes every day commuting to Northside College Prep, and since this was in the era before smartphones, she passed the time with her journal and sketchbook. (Her father was a cartoonist whose strip Jack Stiff ran in the Reader in the early 90s.) At Young Chicago Authors, she learned that a lot of storytelling happens in what she calls "in-between moments," and that writing about the world around her in little snippets—as she does now on Twitter—could be just as important as a doorstop-size Great American Novel.
After college at the University of Chicago, she taught middle school science and then English in the Chicago Public Schools. She loved everything about the daily work of teaching—acting loud and silly in the classroom, getting to know her students—and she loved that she was entrusted with what she felt was the sacred task of helping them feel safe and cared for so they could become the best people they could be. But while she was there, CPS instituted sharp budget cuts. It was a rude awakening.
"It astonished me that we would be asked as educators to respond to this budget crisis and it would be harmful to our students in ways that have nothing to do with them or us or our families or anyone in the building," she says. "There was this idea that we could build all these beautiful things that were so precarious and so dependent on the decisions of people that didn't seem to love us or care about us." Schools that educated the white and affluent, she noticed, didn't seem to suffer from this lack of love and care.
Ewing's usual approach to the insurmountable number of problems of teaching was to tackle a different one every day, but she realized that this inequality was too big a problem to solve from within the confines of the classroom. So she left for the Harvard Graduate School of Education to try to figure it all out. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the impact of the 2013 school closings on the students of Bronzeville; an expanded version will be published next year by University of Chicago Press as When the Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History and Discourse Amid Chicago's School Closings.
"I figured it out in broad strokes," she says. "I'm always discovering new and terrible things about schools. It's bad. But I've also been discovering new and wonderful things about schools. There's a lot of resilience and creativity. That's part of being in Chicago."
That spirit is in Electric Arches too. While the audience for When the Bell Stops Ringing is educators and scholars and policy makers, Electric Arches was written for the students themselves. She still keeps in touch with some of her former CPS students—they are the reason she never swears on Twitter—and, on the advice of her friend and editor Nate Marshall, she consulted them about which piece of art she should use for the cover. ("If you think about who you want the book to speak to," he remembers telling her, "you have to ask those people.") They chose a painting by the Trinidadian artist Brianna McCarthy of a young girl with a face full of stars. "I encourage people to judge the book by its cover," Ewing says.
Electric Arches has already received an enthusiastic early response, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Marshall isn't a bit surprised. "One of the things that excites me about Eve and poets like her is that she's not just a poet," he says. "I don't mean that there's anything wrong with being 'just a poet,' but I believe that the best poets are people who are interested and engaged in the world in a variety of ways. I think that's reflected in her art, and it's something that invites people in."
Ewing's Twitter followers, meanwhile, have been delighting her by tweeting her pictures of their copies of the book being read. She may be meeting some of them later this fall IRL—she's got an extensive book tour lined up. She's also got seven different projects under way, including a young adult novel that she's very excited about. And she's still imagining a future of hope and safety for all the kids of Chicago and the future she describes in "Arrival Day": "i could not / believe i had lived to see it—the promised light, descended to us at last." v