ONO’s Red Summer
IT’S BEEN RED SUMMER FOR OVER A HUNDRED YEARS.
The term “Red Summer” refers to the race-driven violence in the Summer of 1919 across the United States, but its repercussions, its facial expression, its vocabulary can be felt or heard on every street.
In her book A Few Red Drops (winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award), Claire Hartfield tells the story of the Chicago Race Riots’ first victim, told through the eyes of a friend, John Turner Harris. It’s July 27, 1919 and over ninety degrees – Harris and a few friends have hopped aboard a produce truck from the city’s “Black Belt” heading to a heavily frequented Southside beach. Chicago had no official rules about geographic segregation – unspoken ones, though? Hartfield writes “The boys knew, everybody knew: blacks frequented the beach at Twenty-Sixth Street; whites swam at the beach by Twenty-Ninth Street.” But there were also less-clear areas, like the little island nestled between those two beaches that Harris and his friends went to.
Harris and his friends were playing on a raft, one that seemed to drift closer and closer to the Twenty-Ninth Street beach. Earlier, white bathers had chased away and thrown rocks at blacks who had come to stretch out on that area. As they drifted closer to the sand, a young white male began throwing rocks at them, too. The boys were not adept swimmers, and when one of the rocks struck Harris’ friend Eugene Williams on the forehead, he went under, and did not come up.
So set off Chicago’s bloody Red Summer, but as Cameron McWhirter tells it in his book Red Summer, the catalyst came earlier. McWhirter points to April 13, 1919 when the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Millen, Georgia was burned to the ground. Joe Ruffin, a land-owner and leader in the Millen black community, was outside the Carswell Grove church at the time of a gathering. Nearby, he ran into two white police officers on the road, W. Clifford Brown and Thomas Stephens, who had arrested his longtime friend Edmund Scott, and held him in the back of their vehicle.
There is little agreement between ensuing reports. Ruffin attests he was offering a bond to the officers to release Scott before being shot, whereas the leading white man in Millen, Jim Perkins, says something different – ‘Mr. Brown shot [Ruffin] and it made [him] so mad, [he] jumped up and emptied [his] pistol at him.” What is certain is that Ruffin was struck by Officer Brown’s pistol, which then went off and grazed Ruffin’s head. The blacks in the area responded to the officers in kind. Both police were killed, as well as Scott, who was caught in the crossfire. When area whites heard, they ran over to the Carswell Grove Baptist Church, incinerated it, and began a string of racially-based lynchings, starting with Joe Ruffin’s children.
Things get worse. Since the Red Summer took place across most of the continental United States, and racially-charged murders were especially hard to keep track of in 1919, it’s hard to know exactly how many people were killed or affected, but estimates put the number of deaths around one thousand, the vast majority of which were black. Though cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Charleston erupted in racial violence, Elaine, Arkansas’ death count was the highest with estimates of black deaths put between one hundred and two hundred forty.
These days racialized violence is ever present, ubiquitous. New instances of blacks treated unfairly, violently, murderously by police officers and government officials is the status quo. We’re incensed, but not surprised.
ONO members are expected to grapple with history. When ONO leader, producer, and instrumental craftsperson P Michael founded the band alongside front-person, vocalist, and diegetic enabler travis back in 1980, travis was adamant that he did not want to create music – he wanted the band’s noise to be a vehicle for confrontation with the darkest corners and dramas in history and the gospel tradition.
Every ONO practice begins with us sharing a meal at travis’ house in Chicago’s deep south. The food is outrageously good, and we will spend about two hours getting right with each other, engaging in heady conversations about subculture, philosophy, literature. This is where we began working through Red Summer. There is magic in food and conversation.
Can you convincingly know songs about colonial trauma, lynchings, and government experiments if you don’t know the background? I don’t think so. There’s a reason that travis’ words use exact dates. Listeners and participants are pushed to research. ONO also makes the background available to listeners – in addition to printing lyric sheets or including them in album inserts, the majority of ONO lyrics are available to find online.
Red Summer has been in the pipeline for many years – nearly a decade. The earliest lyrics from the Red Summer sessions are from 2011 – they’re on “Mercy,” which does not appear on the final version of the Red Summer album, but will appear later this year on a seven-inch single alongside “Kongo.” For these songs, travis dug through his archives, memories, and history-based research to craft lyrics that were poignant, personal, and striking. Red Summer congeals and hits like a ton of bricks.
The album opens with “August 20th, 1619,” titled after the day Dutch ship Pearl arrived at Jamestown, VA. travis begins “SOLD! 23 ‘Negars!’ N-E-GA-R-S!! FIELD ‘Negars’ good as Gold! Money down!,” invoking old world spelling and dehumanization. It’s ugly, and the carnivalesque background is disorienting. You wonder – “Did I hear that right?” This song is companion to one taking place three hundred years after – “26 June 1919,” which considers the John Hartfield lynching in Ellisville, Mississippi, a few hours from travis’ birth place in Itawamba County. Hartfield was lynched for allegedly having a white girlfriend. “In A Black Man House?” Travis asks, “‘Sendem’ Home!’”
Those two points of narrative are important as signposts, and their sonic qualities instill a necessary pause, but one of ONO’s most subversive tools is making the disturbing into the kinetic, putting unsettling content in catchy packaging. Take the groovy funk track “I Dream of Sodomy,” an ONO live staple for nearly six years. P Michel’s earworm bassline is a persuasive siren, so much so that when the chorus – “I Dream of Sodomy” – hits, somehow it’s hard not to sing along. In a performance, the crowd will scream “I Dream of Sodomy,” too. It’s hard not to feel a seismic shift.
Other songs like “Coon” transform from glacial, elegiac mood-pieces into danceable numbers, musing on race-based violence in the U.S. history and militarism. It considers new futures, new universes. “Early morning, greasy spoon,” travis incants. “Possum fat for the hainty coon.” The song shifts to a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the potential for a [Future] all-Black NSA/SAC U-2/SR-71 fighter squadron that turns revolutionary mid-flight! In an email between travis, me, and other band members, travis illustrates his inner worlds:
“Consider this additional/illuminating data re: ‘COON’: =‘COON’ explores the potential for a [2119/Future] all-Black NSA/SAC U-2/SR-71 fighter squadron that turns revolutionary mid-flight!=
“Think about it:
(i) To become NSA/SAC affiliated, Black pilots (and their Black social class), were perceived in the Global South as Faustian ‘Coons.’ All they have achieved amounts to ‘possum fat’ and pretense. Fiction!
(ii) In their brave, new, unimaginable world, they achieve a Hi-Yella simultaneous post-apocalyptic [for Blacks] epiphany! In the heavens! Even the Sabbath (‘SAT.’) has not ‘Humanized’ them. They have risen. They know they will never be equal. Their very aircraft depend upon AFR slave mining: Uranium, Cobalt, Iron, Gold, Silver, Manganese, ETC! But most of all, all war machinery depend upon Poverty, Illiteracy and Death of Black Africans! Death from above! They’ve eaten w/the Association of Old Crows in Alexandria. ‘Freedom’ festers in Parchman Penitentiary. They listened to teachers, preachersand presidents.Examined Ravens from the Holy Roman Empire to The Second Reich. Finally: Fiction!
(iii) They throw down the gauntlet! Try on their Black ‘neighbors’ machetes (mindsets and microwaves) in their last stand. Redemption deserving of the very humanity that produced them!”
Spend more than a few minutes here – colorism, militarism, colonialism, religion, afrofuturism, the Red Scare. The list goes on.
Originally, Red Summer was created to be released in 2019 to commemorate the centennial of the Red Summer riots, but for more than a handful of reasons, it didn’t pan out that way. A story for another time.
We did this album on our own terms. There was no limiting of creativity or content, and when we saw an opportunity, we took it. We crossed those imaginary lines and split for the horizon. We hope you’ll meet us there. This one’s for those who lost their lives in the Red Summer.
– Jordan Reyes