“Poetry in Our Times: Protest and Pandemic” with Matthew Graham

Poetry in Our Times: Protest and Pandemic Curated by Matthew Graham This is not a time to be silent, especially for writers. If COVID-19 opened the door to a national…

Poetry in Our Times: Protest and Pandemic
Curated by Matthew Graham

This is not a time to be silent, especially for writers. If COVID-19 opened the door to a national awareness of long entrenched and unacknowledged social and racial indignities and injustices, the murder of George Floyd blew that door off its hinges. As State Poet Laureate, during the month of July, I’ll be posting poems by Indiana writers addressing many of the issues that have come to light in the last four months. I hope these poems will begin or continue important conversations we need to be having. For the third posting of Protest and Pandemic, I am featuring one of my own poems, “Dispatches: The Chicago Race Riots, 1919.”

In 1919 Carl Sandburg, future three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, was a young reporter for The Chicago Daily News. He was one of the few journalists to actively and honestly cover the events that came to be known as The Red Summer. The Red Summer was the culmination of tensions created by the large migration of southern African Americans northward during World War I and was marked by violence in cities across the nation. Much of my poem’s language is taken from his actual dispatches and includes fragments of his poems.

I use two words in the poem to identify African Americans that are unacceptable in the 21st century but were widely employed in 1919. I decided to use the words to be true to Sandburg’s reports and to the language of the time. They are not my words, nor do I approve of them; they intentionally paraphrase Sandburg’s original dispatches in the poem. This poem is part of a series of poems where I’ve echoed the style and voice of the author I’m referencing. Sandburg was sympathetic and supportive of the African American population in Chicago and felt them to be innocent victims of white rioting and murder. In a time before radio, much less the internet, Sandburg’s journalism was the only means for citizens to know of and grasp the significance of the unfolding events. Much of my research for the poem came from a collection of his newspaper reports compiled in the publication titled The Chicago Race Riots by Dover Publications, 2013, originally by Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1919.

James Baldwin wrote: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”  I agree, yet I also hope the present carries within it the future, and that what we try to accomplish today will have a powerful and positive influence on what comes next. It is important to remember, though, as Baldwin reminds us, that the legacy of 1919 is still with us today as is the history of injustice and cruelty in this country for the last four hundred years that we must never simplify nor forget.

Matthew Graham is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Southern Indiana. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Geography of Home, and is the current State Poet Laureate.


Dispatches: The Chicago Race Riots, 1919

For Marcus Wicker

New things is comin
Altogether diverse
From what they has been.

— Reverend W.C. Thompson of the Pentecostal Church
34th and South State Street, Chicago, Illinois 

I. The Facts

What is called the Red Summer began on Sunday, July 27
Off the 25th Street beach when a colored boy
Swam across an imaginary segregation line.
White boys threw rocks,
Knocked him off his raft
And he was drowned.
The white police did nothing.
The toll by August 3 was twenty-three Negros dead,
Fifteen whites and scores of houses burned.
Six thousand colored union men
Walked off the yards and the packing plants
Dropped to 60% capacity
Lowering production and lessening
The amount of commodities for the market.
Swift and Armour went to the Stock Yards Labor Council
And the union said their men, white and colored,
Would stand together equal and organized and opposed
To violence. Production stabilized
Based on a poisonous lie.

II. The Truth

The black belt of southern Negro migration,
People just looking for a chance among the bleached angels of the north,
Grew too tight around the Irish south side,
Bridgeport, Behind the Yards,
And caused an explosion poising one poor population
Against another, ignited by Irish gangs,
Thugs from the Irish Hamburg Athletic Club
Always looking for trouble with “semi-white” immigrants:
Jews, Chinese, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Mexican
But especially the Blacks.

…the people hold to the humdrum of work and food
While reaching out…
This reaching is alive.

And so the Bodegas, Chop Suey Joints, Poker and Crap Parlors –“try yr wrist”—
Barbeque Stands, Luncheonettes of Italian beef and fried baloney,
Taverns of sawdust and spit,
Cowboy Bars with their steel string sounds
Of Abilene and Tucumcari, Blues Bars as dark as the delta,
As sorrow itself, and the Jazz Clubs whose horns percolate
Up from Basin Street to East St. Louis to this long stretch
Of South State Street, all lean together in an uneasy alliance
Never far from the great lowing of the Union Stock Yard
And Transit Company, from the bubbling stench
Of the south fork of the Chicago River.

The load of shorthorns splintering the boards,
Oh Lord, the shorthorns.

The Illinois Central and the Michigan Central
Roll in the steers and sheep and hogs of Montana,
Nebraska and Iowa all day and night
While the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroad
Moves 450,000 tons of ice a week.
The Wheel of Death takes thirty-five minutes
To kill and dress a steer.
An assembly line of death where black men, only black men
Known as Beef Lugers, stagger through blood and time
And barely a living wage carrying on their shoulders
Whole quarters of slaughtered beef.

Of the twenty looking on
Ten murmur, “Oh it’s a hell of a job,”
Ten others, “Jesus, I wish I had the job.”

Nothing is lost. At the end of the line
The Hair Factory at 44th and Ashland Ave. churns out leather,
Soap, glue, ivory, shoe polish, buttons, perfume,
Combs and violin strings:
The endless disassembly line of after death
That nothing can stop.

The unions say the riots were not about race
But about equal pay, housing and education,
Issues they can fix but they can’t
Because the riots were about race.

What do you do when every time you build a sand castle
Someone kicks it down?
You build it over a cinder block.

The boy who drowned off the 25th Street beach?
His name was Eugene Williams.
He was thirteen years old.

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
   the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for
   keeps, the people march

Carl Sandburg, The Chicago Daily News,
November, 1919

Matthew Graham


Views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana Humanities.