Black in the Midwest

Finding My Home in Motown’s Margins

Detroit may be changing but it is still full of Black culture and history

A photo of two Black youths walking down a street in Detroit.
A photo of two Black youths walking down a street in Detroit.
Two youths walk past a boarded up building on Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images

Last month we published a special series on what it’s like to be Black in the Midwest, and invited you to share your own experiences. Following is one of several submissions by Medium writers that we are excited to share with you.

I’I’ve always had this thing about real estate. I live in the South Bronx, where I will likely never be able to afford a home, and so I spend late night hours when I really should be sleeping scouring Trulia for homes in more affordable markets such as Baltimore and Detroit. Ironically, when I was growing up in Detroit the ’90s, I often scoured the real estate section of Sunday papers for homes outside of Detroit. For working- and middle-class Black Detroit back then, upward mobility entailed moving to Southfield, buying in Farmington Hills, or hosting after-church barbecues in West Bloomfield. It seemed that those of us who still lived in the city were left behind. I didn’t want to be in Detroit because I didn’t want to be poor, and in a deeper sense, because I didn’t yet want to be Black.

My parents were adamant about remaining in Detroit, however, and I overheard quite a few conversations tsk-tsking friends and neighbors who were fleeing the city for the suburbs. I didn’t know what to make of them — the conversations, or my parents. My relationship with Detroit was love-hate at best, and it was mostly hate — but this had little to do with the city and much more to do with my feelings about myself. I wasn’t interested in Black liberation when I was 10 years old, after all; I wanted equality, access, power, wealth, and beauty — all of which were eluding me.

A bit of history is helpful at this point: My grandfather was born in Georgia and moved to Detroit as part of the Great Migration, working the Ford assembly line before earning a degree from Wayne State University and eventually becoming the pastor of a local Church of God in Christ, a successful real estate entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. My grandmother was born in Detroit, growing up in Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood, and was a graduate of Marygrove College. She and my grandfather opened a school along with the church, and both remain in the community today. My aunts are educators, physicians, engineers, and classically trained musicians. They were among the early beneficiaries of affirmative action policies that allowed them to attend college and grad school for free, launching them squarely into the Black middle and upper-middle classes.

My mother, Valeria, is a proud lifelong Detroiter. She is the fifth of eight girls profiled in Jet and Ebony magazines when I was a young child — I remember them getting dressed up for a photo shoot at my grandparent’s modest, but proud home on Detroit’s Northwest side — because all of them had, at that point, earned doctorate or medical degrees. My mother — a flautist and Francophile — was the first Black woman ever to earn a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Michigan in 1984.

My father was from Jamaica. He came to the United States for university, and then seminary, where he learned to cope with cold weather by wearing thermal underwear for at least six months a year for the rest of his life.

Before my parents married in Detroit in the mid-1980s, my father had served as chaplain at All Souls’ Church in London; this was a first for a Black man, but he ultimately returned to the AME church and was sent to build one in Bermuda. My mother joined him there just after the wedding and I was born there 10 months later. I became sick and my mother grew lonely; we would all move back to Detroit within a year, and my three siblings were born at the hospital around the corner from where we lived.

Classmates laughed at our old car, my kinky hair, and my bulky corduroy pants. The ’90s — the era of the Huxtables and Living Single — were about upward mobility, conformity, and respectability amongst the petit bourgeoisie. Amongst my peers, my father’s Jamaican accent was equally verboten; my peers mocked me mercilessly about the way he spoke both at church and at school until I reached high school. There were other families of African or West Indian descent in Detroit, but the city was much more culturally homogenous than it is today. I felt terribly out of place and began to dream of moving to New York, where much of my father’s siblings lived, seemingly living their Jamerican lives in peace. In ninth grade, my father got a tentative offer to pastor a church in Mt. Vernon, New York. I prayed he would take it so we could move. We stayed.

I had tested into Detroit’s premier magnet school — Detroit Renaissance High School — and high school proved to be my big break. In the eighth grade, I was told that I couldn’t be valedictorian because I hadn’t attended my inner-city Lutheran middle school long enough, even though I had the same 4.0 grade point average as the student selected to be valedictorian. She was white, and her father was pastor of the parish church and the principal of the overwhelmingly Black school. He decided I couldn’t be salutatorian, either — that honor was bestowed upon another white student, too. Our families were friends, or so we thought until we realized that a condition of the friendship was our acceptance of their white supremacy.

Many Renaissance students — myself included — considered Michigan to merely be a safety school. Black excellence was common in Detroit. It was at Renaissance that I first read DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk, and began to understand the double-consciousness that plagued us — our pride in who we were as Black Midwestern Americans, weighed against the visceral bigotry and structural oppression of American Midwestern white supremacy.

The City of Detroit has, since the 1980s, been a Black oasis surrounded, and often interrupted, by some of the most deeply racist, anti-Black people and forces available. When Detroit elected its first Black mayor, white residents fled. Hizzoner told them to turn the lights out behind them, and they called his bluff, taking every opportunity possible to blight the city they’d abandoned because they would not share it on equal terms with Black people. They’d pop in whenever convenient for concerts, the Auto Show, and sports — all the while trafficking in a narrative that Detroit was deeply unsafe and that one only drove through with one’s windows rolled up.

Black Detroiters drove through the Motor City with their tops down and their ‘gaters on, in the cars their parents had quite literally engineered and manufactured. We rolled our windows up when driving through certain suburbs known to harbor right-wing nationalist cells, and we knew that while Detroit was ours, we’d never be sold homes in certain suburbs like Livonia.

The City of Detroit has, since the 1980s, been a Black oasis surrounded, and often interrupted, by some of the most deeply racist, anti-Black people and forces available.

Detroit’s current mayor, Mike Duggan, was living in Livonia when he ran for Detroit’s top job in 2013. I had moved back to Detroit that year to complete a judicial clerkship and brought my young Senegalese stepson along with me. I was profoundly frustrated by the narratives created around Mayor Duggan’s rise to power. The press portrayed the election as an achievement for Detroit — the first white mayor in 40 years — and even as a civil rights victory.

His election, folks said, was proof that Black Detroiters weren’t racist and were prepared for the type of progress that only White leadership could bring. Disgraced former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was being sentenced in the same federal courthouse I worked in at around the same time, and a white judge threw the proverbial book at him. It was supposed to be democracy and justice, but it felt a lot like revenge. Mayor Duggan has since been investigated and rebuked for his own corruption.

Detroit’s woes are real, it’s true: Not only has the city’s public school system been gutted over the years, but even today’s Renaissance students are susceptible to housing and food insecurity because of ever-deepening inequality. At its best, however, White flight created a vacuum in Detroit that Black folks have filled up gloriously. The legacy of Black Detroit is John Conyers and Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer. Black Detroit is Judge Damon Keith, and a robust Black bar and bench. Detroit is Rosa Parks, Lila Cabbil, and Chokwe Lumumba; it’s Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters, and the Winans; it’s Martin, John Witherspoon, and Isiah Thomas. I’ve talked about my grandfather, but his younger brother, Robert Green — Martin Luther King, Jr’s education director, the first Black Dean at Michigan State University, and president of the University of the District of Columbia — also deserves an honorable mention. My own classmates have become accomplished leaders in their own ways, with one recently conquering the world by visiting every nation in it.

“Detroit is the new Black.” You can see that phrase on shirts and hoodies sold by a boutique bearing the same name. I’m not sure what the new Black is or who it contemplates, as gentrification and resegregation threaten the Detroit I hold dear. The infamous 2014 water shutoffs, which took place as the Flint water crises unfolded miles away, caught us off-guard when our own water was shut off during the heat of the summer. The national narrative was that the negroes weren’t paying their bills — in fact, our bill was paid up and the Water and Sanitation Department begrudgingly admitted that our water had been shut off in error.

Babacar’s summer camp had its water briefly shut off as well. The two properties are located on opposite ends of town, but both were owned by Black women — my mom, and Babacar’s camp director — and both were in high-value locations being marketed to white returnees. We felt we were being asked to leave: not all ethnic cleansing schemes require the brute force of the Tulsa massacre, after all. Human rights experts from the United Nations slammed Detroit for the water shutoffs. Mayor Duggan rejected the United Nations’ report and slammed them back.

In New York, a school like Renaissance is impossible, with only seven Black students admitted into Stuyvesant High School in 2019. If impossible is nothing when you’re from Detroit, raising three children in the South Bronx has let me know that in New York, impossible can feel like everything. A hate crime I experienced on the subway last year was covered in the city’s newspapers, but Babacar was also assailed with racial epithets, told to go back to Africa, and forcibly dunked at our neighborhood’s swimming pool this summer by a group of Dominican teenagers.

The pool staff called the police — on Babacar. He was terrified, not just because he is a green-card holder, but also because he didn’t want to be shot. It is true that our multi-ethnic Black family blends seamlessly into the social fabric of New York, where almost half the population is foreign-born. But it is also true that diversity is not a substitute for inclusion, and that inclusion is no substitute for power.

Growing up Black in Detroit gave me power, and it taught me that home is a frame of mind, but the dawn of a new Detroit may mean the displacement of the Detroit I learned to love. Just days ago, my brother sent me a flyer about a panel on — wait for it — white integration into the city’s neighborhoods. It’s a perverse framing that could only be possible in the MAGA era, and quite possibly only in the Midwest.

Gentrification will never make Detroit great again. Detroit has been great, and that greatness is rooted in the tenacity, pride, eccentricities, and ingenuity of Black Detroiters. We are style. We are substance. We are soul. Even when we are poor, we are rich, and even when times have been hard, we’ve proven resilient. I don’t know if I will ever live in Detroit again — I am still scouring those real estate websites — but I’m definitely glad that Detroit lives in me.

Human rights evangelist and legal scholar tracking legal personhood, race, gender, and political and socio-cultural movements. Twitter/ IG @MarissaEsque