July is a time when we often reflect on our place as individuals within the collective that is the nation especially as we think about the legacy of the American and French Revolutions.
It seems like a fitting time to post William Heath’s poem, “The Hough Riots.” The poem considers how we understand those who are suffering in our community by looking back the 1966 Hough Riots in Cleveland. It appears alongside his “Active Shooter” and “A Life More Abundant” in NDQ 88.1/2.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.
The Hough Riots
Some call it blight. I call it tragedy.
—Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland 1967-1971
That summer I am a graduate student
at Western Reserve University
teaching bonehead English at Fenn College
as it morphs into Cleveland State.
First day I tell my class the authors
we will read specialized in
depicting human suffering and pain.
“Write a paragraph,” I tell them,
“on a book that changed your life.”
Within minutes a gaunt figure strides up,
slaps a page on my desk, and leaves,
slamming the door. Here is what he wrote:
“I denounce you and your decadent books.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand taught me
that human suffering is an illusion.
Each man is the captain of his soul,
success comes to the strong of will,
those who fall behind are to blame
for their failures and so-called pain.
You shall not see my face in class again.”
My debut as a college teacher
is off to a splendid start.
I live near University Circle
by Murray Hill, known as Little Italy.
My route downtown on Euclid
to Fenn Tower, the campus skyscraper,
runs along the edge of Hough,
a middle-class neighborhood turned
by white flight into a black slum.
The trouble starts in a café at
79th Street and Hough Avenue.
The dispute is about a glass of water
and a bottle of wine. Rumors fly
that the owner insulted a customer.
A crowd gathers, throws rocks,
tries to burn the building. Firefighters
on the scene are shot at,
forced to retreat. The riot spreads
across the business strip of Hough,
windows broken, stores looted and torched.
Police use tear gas to disperse the mob
are fired upon from nearby rooftops.
Next night people toss Molotov cocktails,
tip over and burned police cruisers.
In response all of Hough is sealed off,
a helicopter hunts arsonists and snipers.
A fortuitous thunderstorm puts a damper
on the volatile situation, next morning
the National Guard arrives in force.
Driving down Euclid on my way to teach
my class, an armed jeep on each corner,
.30 caliber machine gun mounted
on a platform in back. Young guardsmen
in combat gear, helmets, fixed bayonets,
check my car for weapons then
wave me on. From a window
in my room high up in Fenn Tower,
I can see the extent of the damage.
Block after block Hough is smoldering,
dark smoke billows up, sporadic shots
sound amid the cries of sirens.
The riots last three more days.
For years the official story blames
Black Nationalists, Communist subversives.
If any radicals on the scene sniped
at firemen from rooftops none are caught.
Two cops who infiltrate the movement
find no evidence to convict—the cause
rooted in racism, poverty, years of neglect.
Four blacks die—one gunned down by punks
from Murray Hill in a car—fifty people injured,
far worse inner-city riots take place
in the sixties. What happens at Hough
I witness from a safe-enough distance.
The suffering and pain are not mine.
William Heath has published two chapbooks, Night Moves in Ohio and Leaving Ohio; a book of poems, The Walking Man; three novels, The Children Bob Moses Led (winner of the Hackney Award), Devil Dancer, and Blacksnake’s Path; a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest (winner of two Spur Awards); and a collection of interviews, Conversations with Robert Stone.