Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side

Eve L. Ewing
Published by The University of Chicago Press in 2018

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

Alex Kotlowitz
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in 2019

Lenore M. Knight Johnson is associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.

Crumbling public schools. Gun violence. Loss. Failure. Death. Grief. The stories we commonly hear of Chicago paint a grim picture dominated by all that is broken in the third largest city in the United States. Yet digging beneath the surface of these images, there is life and beauty continually created and recreated by communities who, in their stories of survival, refuse to be defined by the brokenness alone. Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side and Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago take on this task, reframing the narrative of Chicago as a city beyond repair, reminding readers of the humanity always and everywhere present, even in places where we might assume all hope and possibility are lost. These two books are tied together by their physical setting—the city of Chicago—the demographics of the people at the center of the stories—predominantly black and brown people living amid continual economic, political, and social neglect—their focus on significant social problems—educational inequalities and gun violence—and the central themes of death, grief, and mourning. But beyond these shared points of history, politics, racism, invisibility, neglect, death, and loss there exists a far more significant and important connection between these parallel stories: love.

In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Ewing traces the sources and consequences of the unprecedented decision by Chicago Public School (CPS) officials to close a record number of public schools (49 at final count out of the initial 330 deemed eligible for closure) at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Noting the disproportionate impact of these closures on the African American community of Chicago—88% of students were black, 90% of schools were majority black, and 71% of schools had majority black teachers—Ewing focuses her attention on the role of race and racism in the lead up, process, community response, and aftermath of the closures. She illustrates these racialized (though colorblind in nature) motivations not only by illustrating the disproportionate impact the closures had on black Chicagoans, but also by situating the closures within the ongoing patterns of political, economic, and social neglect in Chicago that render African-American people and history invisible.

Ewing weaves an historical picture of Bronzeville, a neighborhood that has endured the ebbs and flows of urban demographic change and the racist real estate practices and political power structures that concentrated significant numbers of black families with young children into substandard public housing complexes. The lack of proper planning for the educational needs of these children led to the subsequent overcrowding and gross under-resourcing of the neighborhood schools. As the city moved into an era of school choice, neighborhood institutions struggled to keep up with the decline in students that comes with a further loss of resources. In connecting the dots of Chicago history, including the almost daily stories of gun violence in the city’s poorest and largely ignored neighborhoods, Ewing is effective in convincing readers that these schools were set up to fail.

Yet an added layer to this book—one that makes it more powerful than many other studies on race and educational inequality—is that Ewing continues beyond this point of “failure” and instead challenges the very notion that these are failing schools. Ewing opens her book exploring “what a school means,” a starting point that becomes increasingly significant as this sociological study progresses, especially as she argues that school closures are symbolic of a larger narrative on history, voice, agency, and place in Chicago. Ewing draws her attention toward the community members who fought to keep their schools open, resisting the top-down decision making from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS (at the time, led by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a bribery scheme involving no-bid contracts between CPS and her former employer). She zeros in on one particular school, Walter H. Dyett High School, and a widely publicized hunger strike that lasted 34 days meant to draw attention to the voice of the community advocating for their school. In the eyes of the city and CPS, the school—named for a local musician, public school educator, and key figure of Chicago black history—was a failure and beyond repair. But to the neighborhood and Dyett’s remaining students, the school represented history, memory, and community.

Ewing draws from the concept of “speech as action” to parse out the contrasting rhetorical frames each side presented in the conflict over the closures, the “dueling realities” between the district’s largely quantitative, business-oriented approach and the community’s interest in highlighting the qualitative measures of school quality and significance. The district saw the closing schools as

uniformly valueless, without worth, and characterized mostly by criteria that are as far as you can get from something as base and as messy as human emotion. How many students can the building hold? How much will it cost to repair it? What test scores did it have last year? (134)

The Dyett community, on the other side, claimed that these institutions cannot be simply defined (or easily cast aside) by standardized test scores that say little about the relationships, the connections, the sense of stability, safety, and care the students experience in these spaces that are, right down to their names, representations of black history in Chicago. And yet their perspective was dismissed by district officials who continually reinforced the position that these were failing schools. Quoting a community member advocating for their school, “What kind of person goes to a failing school?” Ewing reminds readers that the city was dismissing far more than one’s perspective in this tragic tale (138).

The social sources and consequences of closing such a significant number of schools—those largely populated by black students and teachers—cannot be fully understood outside the continued failure among Chicago leaders to invest in the flourishing of the city’s black and brown residents, neighborhoods, schools, and business districts. Ewing argues that “meaning making” among African Americans is shaped by the presence of racism and a sense that the process was “fundamentally unjust” (143). Nowhere is this unearthed trauma more prevalent than in the community’s effort to transform the closed Dyett site into Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. As Ewing ties together the various public events connected to the discussion on Dyett’s future, it becomes clear that the city and CPS leadership had no intention of engaging in a transparent process where community input was considered in the final decision. In the end, what appears like a win—Dyett is reopened as an arts-focused high school—is in the eyes of the community a loss because this was never just about the school. It was about community members having a voice in the shape and trajectory of their institutions. Ewing writes,

As with the fight for Dyett, these school battles are about much more than individual sites. Community members are fighting for an acknowledgement of past harms, an honest reckoning of present injustice, and an acceptance of their reality—a reality in which a school’s value is about much more than numbers. (124)

Alongside Ewing’s standpoint as a sociologist and professor, she is also a poet and an artist, with an eclectic combination of gifts that results in a book that transcends the genre of academic research. The theme of love that she weaves through the pages is more than her retelling of the love for schools, communities, history, and relationships she witnessed while tracing the closures. This book is also a narrative rooted in her own love for a city and its people that shaped her life and identity. Love emerges in this story through the concept of “institutional mourning,” which Ewing defines as “the idea that we can mourn lost institutions just as we mourn lost people” (14). She writes,

When we remember what we’ve lost, we remember first with love. In institutional mourning this doesn’t just mean love for a school or for the people in it. It can also mean love for ourselves within the school. In losing a school one loses a version of oneself—a self understood to be a member of a community, living and learning in relation to other community members. (130-131)

The intersection of time and place is the most obvious link between Ewing’s sharply researched study and Chicago writer and filmmaker Alex Kotlowitz’s most recent book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. But Ewing’s statement of the love embedded in institutional mourning could very well be drawn from Kotlowitz’s book, replacing the words “institution” and “school” with “brother,” “sister,” “son,” “daughter,” or “loved one.” On the surface, Kotlowitz seems to have written a book about death stemming from gun violence in Chicago, but a closer look reveals instead a book on survival. It is a rich and moving collection of interwoven stories shared by people whose lives have been impacted by violence, death, and loss, and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to find life amid the crushing rubble of trauma and grief. Kotlowitz is clear at the outset that he did not write this book in an attempt to find solutions to the gun violence plaguing the city. “Let me tell you what this book isn’t,” he states. “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works and doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying” (6). Instead, An American Summer is a series of stories, historical and contemporary, that stand alone in their power, not needing any outside interpretation of what is going on or convincing readers how they should think or act in response.

There are, however, some subtle and not so subtle arguments underlying the narratives of grief and survival woven together in this book. The fact that these striking themes show through without Kotlowitz having to spell them out explicitly is a testament to his skill as a writer. Among these themes is a clear challenge to the oversimplified binary of good people and bad people. There are few, if any, neat boxes in which anyone in this book fits given the contexts that shape one’s identity and story. There is Jimmie Lee, who was a prominent gang leader in the 1980s and 1990s and now, as owner of the Night Prowler club, organizes a safe gathering space for neighborhood kids on Halloween. Lee’s counterpart, Napoleon English, both feared and revered, ties patterns of violence to a search for respect, a point on which Kotlowitz agrees:

You grow up in a community with abandoned homes, a jobless rate of over 25 percent, underfunded schools, and you stand outside your home, look at the city’s gleaming downtown skyline, at its prosperity, and you know your place in the world. And so you look for ways to feel like you’re someone, ways to feel like people look up to you, ways to feel like you have some standing in your city. (48)

In a similar vein, Kotlowitz shares the story of Marcelo Sanchez in several parts throughout the book. Sanchez, a seventeen-year-old high school student and survivor of a gunshot wound, was in and out of cycles of good grades and supportive systems alongside several unfortunate interactions that led to anger, revenge, and poor choices that ultimately landed him in jail on robbery and battery charges. He struggles with forgiveness, not from others, but from himself. Kotlowitz writes of Sanchez, “He’s in this strange place, between worlds, trying to figure out where he fits in, how, or if what he’s done in the past has shaped who he is now” (275).

The nuanced portraits of the people Kotlowitz profiles are marked by added complexity as Kotlowitz navigates, on the one hand, the deep-seated fear and isolation that stems from encounters with violence and, on the other hand, the glimmers of community and connection that transcend grief and provide people with the means to go on. Ramaine survives a gunshot wound yet lives in constant fear, wearing headphones to cancel out his surroundings. After identifying his shooter in court, who is subsequently convicted and sentenced, Ramaine knows he is a target: “Fear runs through these communities like a steady rip current, pulling people out to sea, where they’re on their own, flailing to stay afloat. Fear is everywhere” (263). Ramaine is later shot in a park in broad daylight in an act of revenge for his testimony. The detective on the case could not get anyone to step forward as a witness, despite numerous people (including Kotlowitz) knowing without a doubt who killed Ramaine.

But like Ewing’s refusal to end at failing schools, Kotlowitz contrasts the stories of fear and isolation with narratives reflecting the physical, emotional, and spiritual interconnectedness of people and communities wrestling with their liminal positions somewhere in between death and life. Lisa Daniels, grieving the death of her son, recognizes that the altercation could have easily ended differently, with her son on trial for shooting another man. When the local paper ran a story on her son’s death under the headline “Man Shot to Death in Park Forest Had Drug, Weapons Convictions,” Kotlowitz describes how Daniels channels her anger toward tirelessly working to reclaim the humanity and identity of her son Darren, ensuring “that his legacy will not be defined by his worst mistake” (18, 35). She took this same message to the sentencing of her son’s killer, urging the judge to be lenient because he, too, should not be defined by this poor choice. Kotlowitz is careful to avoid over-glamorizing Daniels’s ability to forgive her son’s killer, noting the particular circumstances and the varied ways people respond to loss. The stories he tells are rooted in survival, not in solutions, the latter of which would wrongly convey that there is a way past these unexplainable and unimaginable patterns of violence and death. He notes that social workers use “complex loss” over “post-traumatic stress” because “post” does not fully account for the ongoing grief of survivors, the “mothers who drift on a sea of heartache, without oars and without destination” (23).

And yet violence, death, and grief, for all the isolation and loneliness they bring, also have the power to inform stories of belonging and love. Mike Kelly, a hard-working and hard-partying single white man becomes the unlikely adoptive father to Victor, an African-American boy wrestling with the shame of unanswered questions about his early life and his birth mother’s decision to give him up, and later with a conviction for attempted murder. Mike is on a path of stability professionally, yet is hiding the fact that he is gay, ashamed of his identity and what it will mean for his relationships. While Mike and Victor’s story is messy and wrought with conflict, it is also a story in which two people—seemingly so different from each other—find a sense of commonality and belonging in their shared experiences of loneliness and shame, eventually moving toward openness, vulnerability, and love.

While readers may think the death of a loved one is far more tragic than the closure of a school, Ewing’s focus on the symbolic significance of the schools suggests her book is just as much about tragedy, death, and violence as Kotlowitz’s collection of oral histories. She writes,

In an era when national attention has been fixed on ‘Chicago violence’ within a relatively narrow framework—observable gun violence—Bronzeville residents are attuned to a form of violence that is less direct and less immediately visible but no less lethal: structural violence. This form of violence creates systems within which death and despair are quiet but inevitable, and the weapons at hand are history, policy, and racism. And regardless of what the outside world may think about the quality or worth of closed schools as ‘failing institutions,’ their role as crucial pillars of their communities means their wanton destruction is a key step in enacting such structural violence. (151)

Whether focused on gun violence or structural violence, both authors draw necessary attention toward the disproportionate burden young people carry in these communities and the injustice of seeing kids traumatized by witnessing death, living amid violence, shifting from a safe space to one ridden with the unknown. The notion that school closures are about underutilized buildings and gun violence is about gang conflict misses the nuance in these issues and, more importantly, the humanity interwoven throughout these stories of agency and survival.

Ewing connects the title of her book to the theme of mourning, noting that these are, in fact, ghost stories:

In a way, ghost stories serve as an important counterstory; a ghost story says something you thought was gone is still happening here; a ghost story says those who are dead will not be forgotten. Something, someone is still here. We are still here, despite all attempts to eradicate us. This defies the dominant narrative of the city’s powerful, who would prefer to position the destruction of black institutions as a necessary step toward beautification or marketability. (154)

These ghosts are present in Kotlowitz’s book, as well:

The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same. (278)

These are haunting ghosts, yet also memories that never leave because they are memories of people, of institutions, of history, of life, that are, in the end, memories of love.

Beyond the stories themselves, these two books offer a profound methodological challenge to notions of pure objectivity as the primary means through which research takes place. Research is many things, including storytelling, and in tracing these stories, both authors are open at the outset that they have a personal stake in what emerges in their pages. Ewing writes of her positionality as a former teacher at a school slated to close: “Indeed, the story is not an objective one; I am not an objective observer, nor do I aspire to be.” She continues, citing critical race theorists, “[S]uch theorists would argue—and I would agree—that the experiential knowledge of people of color not only is a legitimate source of evidence, but is in fact critical to understanding the function of racism as fundamental American social structure” (7). This unapologetic subjectivity embedded in each book, in turn, informs larger questions urging readers to confront their own limited definitions of what is “good.” What is a good school? A good neighborhood? A good family? A good friend? A good human being?

Ewing and Kotlowitz skillfully knock down any assumptions readers might have at the outset of these books, and by acknowledging their own humanity in telling the stories, they provide us with the trust necessary to see the humanity in those at the center of each book. Eddie Bocanegra, who served a sentence for killing another man at age 18 in an act of gang-related loyalty and revenge, spends the anniversary of his victim’s death fasting and spending time with people who have been touched by violence in Chicago. Kotlowitz writes of Bocanegra, “He thinks of this as his day of atonement—though honestly, he spends virtually every minute of every day trying to prove himself, that he’s worthy, that he’s worthy of friends, of lovers, of having children, really of life” (155). In reflecting on the decision to close schools named after key African-American figures, a former student lamented, “That’s how you get black history to go away” (Ewing, 145). This is the struggle at the heart of these books–a longing for one’s inherent “worthiness” (that is, one’s sense of humanity, of self, of life, of history) to be recognized—and why they represent something larger than exposés into “issues” or “problems” that can somehow be solved by shifting people around into new places. The ghosts will always remain, as will the love of what once was.

Renowned Chicago writer Studs Terkel (whose interview archives are the subject of a podcast hosted by Ewing) once wrote, “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”1 There is perhaps no better context for people of faith to discover beauty and hope amid brokenness than in a city like Chicago, and these two books are signs of hope springing up in what might seem like unlikely settings. But both Ewing and Kotlowitz suggest these are not unlikely settings for hope at all, but rather the very places where, amid all of the grief, loss, and death, we see perhaps the most raw and real image of the Christian narrative of living between the now and the not yet. Ewing’s and Kotlowitz’s books provide a glimpse into beauty—simultaneously subtle and powerful—in the stories of grief, loss, and mourning that are, in the end, tied together with love. Death is not the end. It never leaves, instead forever marking the lives of the people shared by Ewing and Kotlowitz, whether it is the death of an institution or the death of a family member or friend. As Kotlowitz states in the opening of his book, “Indeed, this is a book about death—but you can’t talk about death without celebrating life. How amid the devastation, many still manage to stay erect in a world that is slumping around them. How despite the bloodshed, some manage, heroically, not only to push on but also to push back. How in death there is love” (7).

Cite this article
Lenore M. Knight Johnson, “Death and Life in Chicago —An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:3 , 287-294

Footnotes

  1. Studs Terkel, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times (New York: The New Press, 2003).

Lenore M. Knight Johnson

Trinity Christian College
Lenore M. Knight Johnson is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-director of the Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.