From Marvel Comics to Chicago public schools, Eve L. Ewing pursues stories she sees as ‘essential’

Mission Creek Festival: Keynote Reading—Dr. Eve L. Ewing w/ Fariha Róisín, Golden

FilmScene—Chauncey, Iowa City, Saturday, April 9, 6 p.m., Free

Dr. Eve Ewing — photo by Nolis Anderson

When I mentioned that I was interviewing Dr. Eve L. Ewing to Matt Griffin, a Ph.D. student in my Communication Studies department, he recounted a moment that encapsulates her wide-ranging work that spans everything from poetry, comics and academic publishing to a recent novel for young readers, Maya and the Robot.

During the 2019 Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, this University of Chicago sociologist and Marvel Comics scribe gave a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview that focused on writing for Ironheart — all while cosplaying Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro. During the conversation, she talked about how she liked that the character of Ironheart, Riri Williams (whose stand-alone series Ewing debuted in November 2018), was a young Black girl who was one of Marvel’s smartest characters. Ewing also discussed how she and the artist worked hard to accurately represent the hairstyles of contemporary Black teens — and why that matters.

Later that day, Griffin approached Ewing at her booth, where they were selling copies of Ironheart and her scholarly book Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, which she signed while still wearing bunny ears, face paint and a white-gray top. He told Ewing that he was inspired by her work because he was a grad student who makes comics, and she was very encouraging about his pursuits in a way that speaks to her dynamic presence as an intellectual, artist, writer and teacher.

During an interview with Ewing conducted over email, she offered this wisdom for those who are charting their own path less traveled: “All of us are going to die. Prayerfully, you will live a long life, but we live on an ever-dying planet, and we are here for a finite period of time. You have to make the work that you believe is essential. And only you can decide what that is and what it looks like.”

Ewing’s journey began in her hometown of Chicago, where she was born in a hospital that has since been torn down.

“I grew up in and around the community of Logan Square,” she said, “which at the time was an almost entirely Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and now has been gentrified to the point of being more or less unrecognizable to me. I think of myself as kind of a time traveler from a place that no longer exists.”

A product of Chicago Public Schools — which is the subject of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, published in 2020 by the University of Chicago Press — Ewing encountered some incredible teachers who encouraged her creativity, as well as her fair share of not-so-nice teachers who stifled it.

“Unfortunately, a lot of my schooling experiences, like many people, focused on sort of checking the boxes you need to check to show that you’re good at school,” Ewing observed. “But I got to do a lot of writing in school, which I appreciate now. When I was in eighth grade my teacher Mrs. Sullivan had us read Eyes on the Prize and we did a lot of creative writing, and even some acting, which I now feel very grateful for.”

Ewing also credits her parents for encouraging her creativity from a young age, which she is still grateful for. Her mother made up songs off-the-cuff and composed nonsense poems about anything and everything, and her father pushed her to draw and would take her to the library to show her reams of art books that inspired her.

“Looking back on my childhood, I often was lacking material things, but I never lacked people to believe in me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I also got the message at a young age that Chicago was a city of artists, and that our artistic heritage was important and worth talking about. My parents taught me about the muralists and printmakers in Pilsen, about Oscar Brown, Jr. and the poets of the South Side Community Art Center, stuff like that.”

There is a long history within Black intellectual circles of moving across art forms and spheres of social life, and Ewing sees herself as part of that tradition.

“From Zora Neale Hurston to W.E.B. Du Bois to Derrick Bell, Black intellectuals have always moved between form and genre to make the work they felt they need to make,” she told me. “That has always made me feel like I had permission to do the same — and admittedly, a sense of confusion about the preoccupation people have with questions of genre.”

After graduating high school, Ewing attended the University of Chicago and earned an undergraduate degree with honors in English Language and Literature. She then received a Ph.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a M.Ed. in Education Policy and Management from Harvard University, after which she taught in public schools. She is currently appointed as an assistant professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice at the University of Chicago.

As I can personally attest, the academic sausage-making machine discourages graduate students from straying from their prescribed lanes, and Ewing certainly experienced those pressures — which she more or less ignored.

“Although I feel fortunate,” she added, “that my graduate advisor and mentor, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, is herself such a model in what it looks like to chart your own course that I never took such pressures from other people very seriously.”

Ewing’s approach stands as a model that can be followed by new generations of writers, creators and students, like the above-mentioned Matt Griffin, who told me, “I really admire that Eve Ewing writes engaging, thought-provoking work both in academic research and in broader popular culture, like the superhero genre. Her work is fun and accessible while also bringing an underrepresented voice to comics.”

Drawing on her experiences as a teacher, artist, writer and scholar who studies schools, Ewing has this advice for others who want to help students grow into their own.

“Be kind to the young person in front of you,” she said. “Bring a rigor and a determination to your kindness. Ask hard questions about anyone and any system that discourages you to think that kindness is paramount.”

Kembrew McLeod is a first-generation college student who failed 12th grade and had to repeat his senior year of high school, and now he chairs a nationally respected Communication Studies department. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 304.

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