A FEW RED DROPS: An Interview with Claire Hartfield

Claire Hartfield

Claire Hartfield’s first book for teens outlines the events leading to a Chicago race riot that caused 38 deaths and more than 500 injuries. But A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, out last month from Clarion Books, doesn’t stop there: it also provides a detailed and accessible history of the growth of Chicago as a meat-processing center, the formation and influence of trade unions, the influx of European immigrants, and the WWI-era black migration from the South.

Hartfield came on the scene in 2002 with Me and Uncle Romie, a widely acclaimed book for young readers about landmark Harlem Renaissance painter Romare Bearden. She spoke with me from her home in Chicago.

 

KATHLEEN McBROOM: What inspired you to bring the story of the almost 100-year-old Chicago race riots to a young audience? 

CLAIRE HARTFIELD: I first heard about the riot when I was a little girl sitting at my grandmother’s knee, listening to stories about her youth. In the summer of 1919, she was 20 years old, had recently moved from New Orleans to Chicago, and was excited to have landed a factory job. Every day, she rode the streetcar from home to work and back. One evening, instead of opening the doors to let her out near home, the streetcar driver kept right on going. Outside, mobs of young men, black and white, pushed and shoved and threw rocks at the streetcar. My grandmother was scared out of her mind. She made it home unharmed that night, but later found out she had gotten caught in the middle of a riot that would last an entire week.

A few years ago, as I watched news footage of police clashing with protestors in cities across the country, I thought about my grandmother’s story. I wanted to know: What was the same? What was different? How can we do better? I want to share this story with young people to give them perspective on the world they are facing now and tools for shaping better ways to move forward.

 

You took your attention-getting title comes from Carl Sandburg’s poem, “I Am the People, the Mob.” At what point did you decide on A Few Red Drops? Did you have it in mind from the very beginning?

I did not arrive at this title until well into the writing process. While researching, I learned that Carl Sandburg worked as a reporter covering the riot for the Chicago Daily News. I took a sidetrack to look at some of his poems from that period. It was then that I found Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob.” Though published in 1916, three years before the riot, it spoke about the oppressive conditions of working class life, the cycle of complacency and rage—the spattering of “a few red drops”—and the central importance of remembering our history to avoid repeating it. A perfect fit.

 

The deep red and black cover art is arresting, and the archival photos and other graphics compliment your text perfectly. Did you choose these images? Were they part of your research and overall vision?

I did choose the images, spending much time in Chicago’s resource-rich libraries to find them. I saved this part of my work for the end, when I knew the flow of the text and could be intentional in choosing images that best complemented the language. I struck out looking for a cover photo that would project the essence of the story but ended up striking gold with my publisher’s choice of a powerful red and black image of Chicago’s skyline.

 

Your story-like text is compelling, and your language is completely accessible to a young audience. How did you create a history / economics / urban studies nonfiction title that would appeal to such an audience? 

When I was in school, I was bored by history class. The texts were very dry and seemed completely unrelated to my life. Then, in college, some friends pulled me along to an anti-apartheid rally and I wanted to know more, so I read a book about the life of [South African anti-apartheid activist] Steven Biko, and I was hooked. Not only did this history teach me something, but it compelled me to act. This, I believe, is what history should do.

Giving a human face to the history of ordinary people is challenging because their stories often die with them. I was able to open a series of windows into their lives through stories I found in old labor journals, letters, and interviews. I then tried to channel their voices in the text, breathing life into the events they lived through. My hope is these stories will resonate with and give new meaning to the reader’s own experience—and will compel readers to act.

 

In both A Few Red Drops and your iconic children’s picture book, Me and Uncle Romie, you seamlessly blend in historic details that might resonate with readers, or plant inspirational ideals that might influence your readers’ future choices (Carl Sandburg’s poem, brief nods to Henry Ford and Jack Johnson, the passing comment that Uncle Romie was a star picture on his college baseball team). Do you find that these comments are always planned, or do they sometimes find their way into your writing unintentionally?

One of the things that drew me to writing about the great collage artist Romare Bearden was his perception of the interconnectedness of life—across families, communities, nations, and cultures. We all have so many “six degrees of separation” experiences in our lives; I love finding these gems in my research. They shape my understanding of the people or times I am writing about. And often, they find a way into the narrative. Like a conversation with a good friend, you might not be thinking of the detail at the beginning, but there comes a point when it seems perfect to throw it in for a little extra flavor.

 

I’ve spent my entire life in the Detroit area, and visited Chicago too many times to count, and yet was totally ignorant of these race riots until I read your book. Do you find this to be a common gap in readers’ knowledge? 

Generally, the early 1900s are not well-known in the way of World War II or the Civil Rights era. In part, I think this is because we don’t have video from 1919 comparable to the war films of the 40s or the Bull Connor clips that splashed across our TV sets in the 60s. In a very visually oriented society like ours, film can bridge the distance of time.

Another reason could be that, unlike those two periods, 1919 did not end with a feel-good clear gain for justice and moral right. In that regard, it is very timely to reflect on as we move through our current struggles. Our challenge is to write a different ending in 2018, one that moves us toward a more just and equitable society.

 

What do you hope your readers take away from A Few Red Drops?

Knowing our history helps us make sense of our present and gives us tools to make a better future. I hope that readers will learn from the 1919 experience and join together in action to address our current issues in a bold new way, moving us forward in realizing our nation’s foundational promise of equality.

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About the Author:

Kathleen McBroom has worked in public, academic, and school libraries, with students ranging from preschoolers through post-graduates. She currently works with the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, Michigan, and with the Wayne State University School of Information Sciences as a School Library Media Practicum Coordinator.

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