Ghosts in the School Yard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side
reviewed by kihana miraya ross - May 24, 2019
Title: Ghosts in the School Yard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side
Author(s): Eve L. Ewing
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: B07H9H8GND, Pages: 240, Year: 2018
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On the surface, Eve Ewings Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a story about the role of anti-Black racism in the school closures in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicagos South Side. Ewing juxtaposes the ways government and school board officials label these schools as failing, under-sourced, and underutilized with the ways Black students, families, and teachers talk about their schools as homeplace (hooks, 1990), as places and spaces they would literally risk their lives to protect. Particularly at a time when many critical Black scholars are encouraging the field of education to push further, to think more deeply about the myriad ways schools are structured by anti-Black solidarity (Dumas & ross, 2016), Ghosts in the Schoolyard presents a conundrum: if the schools are systematically failing Black children, why would these students and their families fight so hard to keep their schools open? In order to answer this question, Ewing takes us on a historical, contemporary, and futuristic journey. Through her writing, we travel with her into the dusty library archives, to city hall and to Saturday picnics, to the empty lots where public housing projects once stood and to the born-brick complexes where they remained (p. 5). Most importantly though, she takes us into the hearts and minds of the Black students, families, and teachers most impacted by school closures in Bronzeville so that we might understand how these closings are understood as part and parcel of the ongoing assault against Black life. And ultimately, how the fight to keep these schools open is an extension of the ongoing struggle for Black humanity.
Still, if scholars of antiblackness in education are correct, and schools are a part of (as opposed to a reprieve from) the systematic attack on Black students and their families, how then should we understand the heroic struggles of Black parents fighting to save these schools, ostensibly to provide for their children what they often didnt have for themselves? Perhaps it is because 87% of the schools slated for closure were majority Black and parents were clear that these closures were part of a racist plan to push Black residents out of Chicago. Perhaps its because students themselves equated being poor and African American with being viewed as expendable and they had to watch while loveless jargon-laced voices spoke their schools into an early grave. Or perhaps its because more broadly, Black folks felt like they were under attack, again, and much of the language they use illuminates this sentiment. For example, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union publicly referred to Rahm Emanuel as the murder mayor. Parents likened closing their school to killing a school and to killing a generation. Parents questioned how these folks could sleep at night and referred to their plans as evil and devilish.
Perhaps most significantly, though, Ewing points to a moment when a parent accused school officials of being a gang: By calling them a gang, Curtis evoked something much harsher: a coordinated, collective attack inflicting terror on the community, and a cavalier act of violence with no regard for who is caught in the crossfire (p. 115). And children were literally caught in the crossfire. As a result of school closures, students were often forced to relocate to welcoming schools that were anything but; rather, these new schools often had profiles similar to those officials were closing but were located miles away from home in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Many students had to cross gang territory as a part of their routes to their new schools, and Ewing notes the connection between the fear of school closures and the fear of actual student death, with parents perhaps feeling completely powerless to protect their children. One parent notes, I sat right there on the corner and I cried my eyes out. Do you know how it feels for me as a mama? I have raised my kids and my grandkids. And for them to do them like that you can hurt me. I really dont care. But you dont have to hurt the babies. You dont. This is a hate crime (p. 141). And this grandmothers words cut right to it: we are accustomed to being despised. We are accustomed to navigating the various violences of antiblackness, to shouldering the weight of being positioned in opposition to humanity. But we try, for as many years as we can manage it, to shield our babies from these realities, from the litany of attacks on Black life and living. When readers understand this, they can understand why a school is much more than a school, and why parents, students, and teachers would fight so hard to keep them open. Flaws and all, these schools are for our babies.
One such school in Ewings work is Dyett High School, located in Bronzeville, South Side Chicago. While featuring community members discussing the closing of various schools, Ghosts in the School Yard centers on the story of Dyett and the intense elongated struggle against its impending closure. Although Dyett is repeatedly described by school officials as failing, under-resourced, and under-utilized, those who attend the school, whose parents and grandparents attended the school, see Dyett in a completely different light. Ewing elaborates on how Black people who are connected to Dyett see it as a home, as a place where you find family, as a stabilizing force, as a site of history, as a safe space, as a pillar of black pride in a racist city (p. 155). Thus community members are clear that labeling Dyett a failure is also labeling the students, parents, and teachers failures as well. Hence the fight to save Dyett was literally a fight for the lives of everyone who was condemned along with the school. It was the community proclaiming their continued existence, their right to their home, to their family, to be safe and secure and happy. Ewing notes, It was about saying this is not a failed school, and we are not a failed people. We know our history. We will prevail. You will not kill us (p. 5152). And yet, while the people in Ewings work who engaged in a hunger strike to save their school ultimately won the battle to keep Dyett open, they eventually ended their larger strike (to develop their own vision for the new Dyett) because they knew that if they continued, the mayor would undoubtedly leave them to die.
In order to help her readers understand the intensity with which folks both grieved and fought, Ewing leaves us with the notion of Institutional Mourning, which she defines as the social and emotional experience undergone by individuals and communities facing the loss of a shared institution they are affiliated with especially when those individuals or communities occupy a socially marginalized status that amplifies their reliance on the institution or its significance in their lives (p. 127). Ewing notes that mourning is a way to refuse erasure, to insist that our lives matter, and to remember. To be clear, Ewing is not arguing that no schools should ever close; rather she questions, given the highly racialized nature of these school closures, and the extreme segregation that persists in Chicago public schools, what would it/does it mean to ensure change happens in ethical ways? Importantly, as much as she paints a picture of Black communities in Chicago literally laying their lives on the line for their schools, she also acknowledges that CPS is an institution too steeped in its own racist history to ever truly transform (p. 162). She alludes to various anti-Black policies and practices that become acts of violence against Black children. At the same time, she maintains the importance of imagining what a liberatory Black educational project looks like. Quoting Audre Lorde she notes, It is our dreams that point the way to freedom.
And yet, I wonder what all of this means for the students and parents who dont feel connected to their schools. For the teachers who explicitly or implicitly despise their students. For emerging Black scholars considering projects of school abolition and of educational fugitivity. In other words, given what we know about the myriad ways Black students suffer in schools, what is it about these schools in particular that Black folks connected to in a way that may not be the norm. Ewing points to the ways these communities took the humiliation of segregation and turned it into a communal space the participants cherished. Is this because the students in the schools were essentially all-Black? Was this true for the teachers as well? Can we think about this in the same way Siddle-Walker (1996) illuminates the often-overlooked ways that Black families, teachers, and administrators in the Jim Crow South grew roses from concrete? But then what of the numerous apartheid schools (Darling-Hammond, Williamson, & Hyler, 2007) that serve as dumping grounds for Black and Brown children? As dropout factories? Does Dyett High School help us better understand something about Black education more broadly? If CPS, like districts across the U.S., will never truly transform how does this inform our thinking about what the way to freedom actually is? While I think the essence of Ewings work is illuminating the ways social and education policy are informed by anti-Black racism, the ways Black folks suffer as a result, and the ways we continue this centuries-long struggle for education and for our lives, its also important to consider what these stories mean for the path we chart forward, to the ways we engage in imagining Black futurities, and in envisioning otherwise possibilities (ross, in press; Nxumalo & ross, 2019).
Darling-Hammond, L., Williamson, J. A., & Hyler, M. E. (2007). Securing the right to learn: The quest for an empowering curriculum for African American citizens. The Journal of Negro Education, 281296.
Dumas M. J. & ross, k. m. (2016). Be real Black for me: Imagining BlackCrit in education. Urban Education, 51(4), 415442.
hooks, b. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press.
Nxumalo, F. & ross, k.m. (2019). Envisioning Black space in environmental education for young children. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(4), 502524.
ross, k. m. (in press). Black space in education: Fugitive resistance in the afterlife of school segregation in Grant, C.A., Dumas, M.J., & Woodson, A.N. (Eds.). The Future is Black: Afropressimism, Fugitivity and Radical Hope in Education. Routledge.
Walker, V. S. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated South. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.