Late in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s short and dense and powerful exploration of the closing of African-American schools on Chicago’s South Side, she talks to a young man named Martin who walks past his old shuttered grade school every day. Giving Marvin the space to explore his thoughts, she quotes:
You remember a tree! We played near that tree and my brother would take us to school…Like you’ll walk to school with your brother and I see the tree and I see the school…and then I walk into my school. So it’s like I would take a left and you would walk down and you just start remembering everything. Because like, it’s this house, it’s a house that you always remembered…I remember walking past it and I remember they were building it. Then I walked past this tree and there was a beehive there. And you know we were kids so-
[Ewing (laughs): You’re throwin’…”]
You’re messing with the bees [laughs]. I know it’s not good now, but you’re messing with the bees and we’re running from the bees and every time I walk past that tree I just think about the bees.
Reading this passage, I was moved by the reality of his memory, by the freshness and the rawness of it, by the sweet elegy of the bee memory, the kind of thing that maybe happened a handful of times but stuck in his head as monumental, and enters his brain every day.
Even as I read it and entered into the strangeness of another person’s associations- strange both for being not your own, and strange for being so recognizable and shaded in a universal amber- I was thinking of a literary comparison. In his eloquent inelegance, Martin sort of reminded me of Holden talking about the Natural History Museum in Catcher in the Rye, except, really, that’s not right at all.
For Holden, the point was that in the museum “everything always stayed right where it was”, and “the only thing that would be different would be you.” That’s far from the case here. For Martin, and virtually everyone else in Ewing’s powerful and powerfully-researched book, everything had changed. Their neighborhoods and their institutions were ravaged. Their memories were torn down. The names of their heroes were effaced.
And all this was done because Martin wasn’t Holden. That is, because centuries of racism and neglect and generations of institutional indifference and cruelty had erased African-Americans from their own stories. There was no conception that the people impacted by decisions in City Hall were people, that they had genuine feelings for their communities. They were erased from their stories. There was no moral imagination to allow the people of Bronzeville to be the protagonists in the narrative of their lives.
Ewing’s book changes that.
Let us not mince words: Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a wonder. It’s both sweeping and intimate, deeply-researched and deeply-felt, giving air to individuals while exhaustively weighing the impact created by decades of decisions and indifference.
Ewing’s book telescopes back and forth in examining the closing of schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the heart of the historic “Black Belt”, an area that was penned in and crowded by redlining and the Dan Ryan, a place that was synonymous with an explosion of arts and culture and with violence, an area that saw the worst of housing project architecture. An area, in short, that fit many narratives, few of which were ever told by the people who lived there. (Or, more accurately, were told, but were rarely listened to outside the community.)
Ghosts in the Schoolyard sets out to change that. Ewing focuses on one high school, Dyett, which the CPS and Rahm Emmanuel wanted to close to turn into a charter school, and three elementary schools, which were “underutilized and under-resourced”.
Ewing tackles these issues from the narrow and the broad, and in doing so shows us there is no difference between them. She talks about the community effort to save Dyett, to keep it an open enrollment high school, one that could actually prepare students for the future. After all, if the city was going to spend money to make it a charter school, why couldn’t they spend money to improve it as an open enrollment school?
Why not, indeed? Because that wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to fix a “failing” education system by neoliberalizing the hell out of it. That is what Rahm wanted, and that was the direction the CPS was going, in the footsteps of Arne Duncan (whose ideas were supported by, ashamedly, Barack Obama).
Ewing ties that decision to the history of Chicago, which crowded people into Bronzeville and the Black Belt through institutional racism, refusing the chances to desegregate the city when building public housing. Instead of building across the city, the built straight in the air.
We know that story. But the story that isn’t told as much is that when those towers came down, when Mayor Daley pushed to create ground-level public housing, communities were destroyed. I know that I, safe and sound and decidely liberal, rejoiced when the projects were torn down to make for more human living conditions. What I forgot, or probably never thought about, was that those were still actual communities. They may have been bad, but people had set up lives there.
I never explored what it meant to suddenly disrupt the lives of all these people; I took it as axiomatically good, because I still refused to give proper agency or narrative control to the people whose lives were impacted. In this, I wasn’t alone. What Ewing does is place the narrative where it belongs, while still keeping the thread of how these decisions waterfall on each other.
So: overcrowding became “underutilized” schools, after the communities that once crowded the classrooms were dispersed. But there were still students there. There were still teachers. There were still lives built around the routine of the classroom and the safety of known and accepted routes to school.
The disruption of that, and the trauma it create, is what the heroes of the book fought and still fight against. They fight because they are people, and they fight not against the overt racism of yesteryear, but the passive wonkish racism of the spreadsheet.
In one of the book’s most maddening passages, Ewing quotes a CPS official reading the numbers explaining why the grade schools have to close. It was an elegant mathematical formula: “the enrollment efficiency is plus or minus 20% of the facilities ideal enrollment”; “the number of allotted homerooms in approximately 76-77% of total classrooms”, etc.
It’s bizarre. It’s inhuman. And Ewing takes it to task not just for its absurdity, but for its mulish implacability, its use of cold numbers to mask the human truth of the situation. She talks about how the numbers are seen as unquestionable, even though they are essentially arbitrary. They are positioned as inarguable, presented with the shrugged shoulders of the bloodless apparatchik, instead of something created and massaged in the service of a preordained ideal.
In this, Ewing captures the perfect and seamless continuity between the old man Daley’s thuggish racism and Rahm’s neoliberal paens to equality, and how, in the end, there is no difference. She is cutting and accurate in pointing out that words don’t matter. Intentions might not even matter. If at the end of the day the result is the same, if you are continuing the dehumanizing assault on black lives, who gives a damn about your words?
We see who gives a damn in this book. We see the community activists, and we hear from the people whose lives were ruined. And through it all, there is a surprising theme: love.
We meet people who genuinely love their schools. They love what it means to go to the school their grandmother attended. They love the institutional links between generations. And of course they love their friends and their family.
Ewing dives deep into black culture, and how ties go beyond nuclear family, and how mourning means something different. In doing so she demonstrates the impact of American culture on the black community, and Chicago in particular, and how traumatic these mathematical closings really are.
For me, the thrust of the book is erasure. It’s an erasure of a culture. It’s an erasure of lives. It is how we rarely let African-Americans tell their own stories. In literature, sure, but not in life.
That’s nowhere more clear than in school names. Dyett High was named after Walter Henri Dyett, who spent decades teaching music in Bronzeville, imparting upong generations that mystical combination of discipline and ecstasy. He was a community legend. His name was erased.
While the school was saved, it was officially changed to “Drake”, named after a racist hotel magnate with zero ties to the Bronzeville community. That’s not all though.
Mary C. Terrell Elementary- named for a black suffragist who was a charter member of the NAACP- became ACE Technical Charter School in 2001. Two years later, Sojourner Truth Elementary School became the Chicago International Charter School. Ralph J Bunche Elementary School, honoring the first African American to win a Nobel Prize, is now Providence Englewood Charter School.
To say this is all gross is an understatement; replacing Sojourner Truth with some neoliberal perfidy is a literal assault on a culture. The changing of the names is an effacement. The names matter. Lives matter.
That’s the heart of Ewing’s book. These are lives here. And while she doesn’t argue, of course, that all schools should always remain open, trapped in amber and surrounded by the same beehives, she urges us to actually think about the people.
There is a luxury in hiding behind spreadsheets. There is a luxury in ignoring the decades and centuries of distant decisions that led to a crisis and then blaming the people who suffer from those decisions, and uprooting them more. There is comfort in having no memories, but personal institutional amnesia isn’t the heart of the program.
The heart of the program is denying other people’s memories. It’s denying other people’s agency. It’s removing them from the story, taking away their beehives and their recollections of Double Dutching before class and their knowledge that their parents had to fight the same damn battles against the same damn oppressors. That’s how racism wins time and time again.
Ewing’s book is a correction to that. It is a non-polemic that gives no quarter, and is fiercely urgent. It’s a book that tells the right story. It’s a book that reminds us these stories have to exist.