“Getting the chance to build a brand new department from the ground up is a historic opportunity,” says the professor and author.
In conversation with Sarah Steimer
Designing a course, as any instructor can attest to, can be quite the feat. And helping to build an entire new department? That takes a near-endless supply of knowledge, creativity, and vision. Lucky for the new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, it has the energy and vision of sociologist and award-winning author Eve L. Ewing.
In addition to her work at UChicago, Ewing has written four books, co-authored a play about Gwendolyn Brooks, written several projects for Marvel Comics, and recently saw her poetry collection on the 1919 Chicago race riots turned into a play at Steppenwolf Theatre. She’s joining the department with grand hopes of creating a deep, inclusive, and imaginative community.
We spoke with Ewing about RDI, her current projects, and the fluidity of her work inside and out of the university — along with the importance of protecting some space in her life for consuming art purely for fun.
You’re part of the new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity — what are your hopes for the department both for students and faculty?
Getting the chance to build a brand new department from the ground up is a historic opportunity. I can't believe it's something I get to experience — I'm still pinching myself. The department represents the dreams, demands, and hard work over many years from countless students, faculty members, staff, and community members. My personal hope is that we live up to those expectations, and that we can be inclusive and imaginative in the way we do so. I'm especially interested in deepening our connections to community and the many sources of knowledge and wisdom that lie beyond the walls of the university.
How do you see yourself playing a role in the department’s goals? Is there any particular element — teaching, research collaboration, etc. — that you’re most excited about?
Well, right now, it's all hands on deck, so every one of us within the department is working on everything. But I'm most focused on curriculum — as the Director of Undergraduate Studies, I'm trying to stretch my brain and also engage students in a lot of conversations about what teaching and learning look like for us, and what it symbolizes to be an RDI major. As an alum of the College, that work is close to my heart. I'm also working on matters of accountability-- what systems we have in place to keep ourselves accountable to the values of the department and the folks we serve. And of course I'm continuing my own robust research agenda, but also doing a lot of scheming about how to take advantage of an interdisciplinary department to really integrate my own work as a writer and a thinker in the humanities with the work I do in the social sciences.
Where is your research focused currently?
I'm focused on finishing my next book, Original Sins: The Miseducation of Black and Native Youth and the Construction of American Racism, which is a historical sociological look at the ways American public schooling has played a vital role in normalizing anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity as cornerstones of the nation's functioning. And about ten thousand other half-done projects.
Your work, of course, extends far beyond UChicago. Your book 1919 was adapted into a play by J. Nicole Brooks that’s running at Steppenwolf Theatre — what was that process like?
It was amazing. I love working collaboratively with people who are at the top of their game, and everyone involved in this production, from J. Nicole Brooks and her absurdly brilliant script, to the directors, to the cast, to the crew, has boggled my mind with their skill and the level of heart they put into it. It's been thrilling and a privilege to see my work reimagined through a different lens. It's both refreshingly new and achingly familiar. When I first saw it, I thought my heart might burst from my chest. It's an amazing play.
How has your research inspired the work you produce outside the university?
I don't think a lot about the boundaries of inside the university versus outside. I see all of the work I do as of a piece, more or less concerned with the same recurring questions: How did we come to live in a world structured by the systems of power and harm that currently shape our lives? How can we imagine other ways of being and doing? What roles can schools, young people, and educators play in challenging structures of power and harm? And within that ecosystem, how can I tell stories about Black people, about Chicago, about joy, about play, about resilience, about young people and elders, and about love?
Does producing the content in different formats (poetry, comics, novels) or for different audiences (young people versus fellow academics) change the way you digest the topics yourself?
No, not really. The biggest challenge is that it's hard for me to find time and space to read those things for fun. Most of the comics I read nowadays are comics I'm reading to prepare for something I'm working on. Most of the nonfiction I read is to prepare for teaching and research. I do try to protect some space for poems, novels, and video games to exist in my life in a way that is purely just for fun. Results are mixed!