Everyone has a “growing up” story. Mine begins in an obscure township on the outskirts of Detroit, Mich. My parents’ little asbestos-shingled bungalow sat amidst a hodgepodge of …
Everyone has a “growing up” story. Mine begins in an obscure township on the outskirts of Detroit, Mich. My parents’ little asbestos-shingled bungalow sat amidst a hodgepodge of other small single-story dwellings on a dirt street called Linville.
I was lucky. Our lot had trees. This matters because at a very early age, I discovered the sense of shelter that only trees can provide. When things got crazy in my house, as they sometimes did, I could climb to the tops of those trees where thick branches of maple leaves or pine boughs provided privacy and protection from the chaos. Like some other children, I would occasionally dream of “running away.” I remember the day I drummed up enough courage to actually announce it. I pulled my skate case from under my bed and headed toward the door. I was surprised when my mom, mildly disinterested, her hands still in dishwater, called to ask if I’d packed clean underwear. I never made it very far.
In my innocent ignorance as a young girl, I paid no attention to the fact that everyone in my neighborhood was white. One day, someone pointed out that most of my friends’ families had come to Michigan in search of work and the dream of a better life. They spoke a little different from us because they came from “down south-” places called Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Detroit was known as a place of opportunity.
One summer day, my grandmother took her grandchildren to tour the Henry Ford Museum. It was one of my earliest history lessons. Our grandfather worked on the assembly line at Ford and according to Grandma, the company had “saved our family” during the Great Depression. Assembly lines were revolutionary- mass producing cars for a “new middle class.” A lot of people were needed to run those lines. They came in droves from far-away places. Henry Ford provided steady work, lifting many people out of poverty, while he became an extremely wealthy man.
It was my grade school classrooms where I first met people of many shades of color. It was a curiosity for me. That’s when the discussion about “race” began.
My parents were good people. Young, and aware of their own heritage. My mother’s father fled Greece to escape civil conflict. He sought refuge and prosperity. I’m sure he endured many episodes of discrimination. My father’s family were Irish immigrants escaping famine. America would be their “land of plenty.” But instead, they found signs reading “No Irish need apply.” My parents carried a strong value for justice and compassion for people who struggled, not to mention a sense of gratitude for the opportunities afforded to them. Their messages in a nutshell were, “Don’t forget your roots.” and “Stand up for the underdog.” That meant, “people who were rejected just for being different.” We got strict orders that we were to defend their rights to equal respect and fair treatment, and never were we to refer to Negroes as we heard others call them. This was the early 1960s. Because of their guidance, I felt no hesitancy to befriend kids, regardless of their background or color, if they were friendly back to me. And for most of my youth, that system seemed to work.
It was in 1965 that my recently-widowed mother was offered a decent paying job as a librarian’s assistant at the General Motors Company, an hour’s drive across Detroit. She moved us to the “east side” which was like moving to a foreign country. Detroit was comprised of distinct ethnic neighborhoods, where clusters of people shared customs and cuisine. It wasn’t unusual in initial introductions to be asked about your “nationality.” My last name identified me immediately as an “outsider” in my new neighborhood, made up of folks primarily of Polish and German descent.
Detroit was defined by its “neighborhoods”, and then there was “the ghetto.” Gradually, parts of the inner city neighborhoods became “mixed” which triggered a phenomenon called “white flight.” This led to the development of strictly white suburbs. Over time, larger all-black neighborhoods grew, much to the dismay of many racist Detroiters. Like many other major American cities, it instituted a system called “red-lining” into its real estate industry. The goal was to keep people racially segregated.
When kept apart, we were deprived of “getting to know one another,” experiencing our common humanity by sharing our histories and cultural traditions. This made it nearly impossible to develop mutual understanding and respect. That move introduced me to the ugly face of racism and my innocence quickly shattered. Not one black family lived in our town. Not one black student attended my school. Overt expressions of disgust for people of color were constant. It literally made me ill. A short bike ride away was the boundary line dividing blacks from whites. The signs of disparity overwhelmed me.
I was a teenager in 1967 when a racial uprising swept Detroit. My teachers openly preached that “blacks were coming to invade our neighborhoods.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I remember the day I walked out of class and headed for home. I felt nauseous from rage. That evening, my mother looked into my eyes and gave me a warning. In her scolding voice, she told me that I must “learn to ignore those remarks.” She gave me reasons that only made me feel worse. And then she added, “I’m telling you this because I love you.” Those words made me heartsick.
That year, I joined a local chapter of “People Against Racism,” a group of black, brown and white people, committed to understanding and exploring ways to heal our “war-torn” community. But nothing seemed to offer real hope. Tired of feeling helpless in the midst of hate, at eighteen I left home.
Looking at today’s headlines, it may seem that we’ve made little progress. But I don’t believe that’s true. Since 1967, we can find many signs of change. Popular culture is more diverse than ever before and even relies on the creative input of our racially diverse population. Our ideas regarding intelligence, beauty and creativity have broadened as we increasingly experience our diversity in a slowly-growing more equitable society. But no doubt, we’ve a long way to go to reach that “more perfect union.”
We still lack assurances of safety and security for people of color so they can live their daily lives freely and fully. Their voices are still not equally heard and valued, not yet integral to the fabric and “doings” of American society. We do not yet truly honor their diverse histories, their essential role in birthing this nation, nor their inordinate contributions of labor spent building America’s infrastructure and economic success.
Honest self-assessment is never easy. Ending entrenched systems of racial injustice will be even harder. But each are necessary if we are ever going to be the “exceptional” country we claim to be. We have so much yet to learn. And it is with and through the eyes of people of color that we will succeed.
Our work is far from done, but we mustn’t be overwhelmed. We’re not at the “beginning” but rather at a critical juncture on a long journey. Many agree that we’ve lived divided long enough. And now is the time to commit to “real change.” The movement has already begun. We’re being called to cast our fears aside. I want to believe it’s a brand-new day, and voice a triumphant, “Yes!”
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