Where You From?
Six years ago, I'd left the only home I'd ever known in pursuit of a college education. I'd moved out of my parents' during high school - my high school, Cranbrook Kingswood, allows students to stay on-campus, which was 87% of the reason I wanted to be there in the first place - but the school was only a half-hour away from the house, which meant I could basically go home whenever I wanted, which was nearly every weekend. And even more, I was a black boy from the westside of Detroit in an environment that was nearly exclusively white. I couldn't run from my blackness or my Detroitness even if I wanted. Those two concepts largely defined my high school experience, for better or worse.
But during my high school experience, I recognized fairly quickly that there was (and I'd be willing to wager still is) this perception of my city amongst outsiders that isn't commensurate with reality, especially as it pertained to the black kids who made their way out to the suburbs. I recognized I'd probably get a better education out in Bloomfield Hills than in Detroit, but at no point was I ever afraid of the city or ashamed of where I'd come from.
I was fortunate. I was raised in a home with my mom, my sister, one of my uncles, and my grandparents. When my granny and grandpa moved into our house in the 1960s, they were simply achieving the American Dream, and they'd managed to work their way into the middle class, which wasn't supposed to be a positive for them alone, but for my mom and my two uncles, too. But, as the story goes, Detroit started to tank, and neighborhoods that were once middle-class began to deteriorate. By the time I was born, our neighborhood was less than desirable, which meant my mom and grandma were apprehensive about letting me leave the house unless it was for school or church. The only friend I ever had on our block lived directly next door to us, and he moved away when I was 7. When I was 11, while I was taking out the trash, one of the dopeboys on the block asked me if I was interested in making a little money. My mom saw and quickly got me back in the house, but I recognized then how easy it is for kids to get caught up in that life. I never went to the front of the house without my mom or granny again.
On the flipside, my dad and stepmom lived in North Rosedale Park, one of the three or four best neighborhoods in Detroit. Life was totally different when I'd go over there for the weekend. I'd leave the house at noon, grab my bicycle out the garage, and probably wouldn't be back home until well after sunset. I was friends with everyone on my block and seemed to make a new friend every Saturday. Folks could come over, I'd have sleepovers, and I'd sleep over their homes, too. That freedom was so important to my development. And even though I'd get in trouble a lot for toeing the line, it was important to my dad and stepmom that I learn how to interact with people. Without those two as a counter to my mom and grandma, I'd probably still be living at home, incapable of dealing with the everyday problems of the world.
Notice that at no point was I ever in a dangerous spot. There was absolutely no peril at my dad's, and I never left the stoop at my mom's. So even though I was aware of what was happening around me, I'd never been directly touched by it. Yeah, I grew up in the hood, but I was never a hood kid. My parents and my grandma made sure of that, and I've never pretended to be that when it's always been very clear that I'm not.
By virtue of my skin color alone, I was adequately black in high school. But somehow, once I got to college, my lack of hoodness somewhat invalidated my blackness, which also somehow made me less of a Detroiter too.
During my Freshman Week at Howard University, all the incoming students met with our Campus Pals, folks assigned to help ease our transition into the school. We went around the classroom introducing ourselves and I, articulate kid in a Polo Ralph Lauren jacket, announced that I was Larry Sanders, Political Science major from Detroit, Michigan.
"Like, Detroit Detroit?"
Yeah, the westside of Detroit.
"Are you sure? Don't lie. You don't look like you're really from Detroit."
I've developed this foolproof method for handling my problems: taking a nap and avoiding them altogether.
(I'm joking. Sort of.)
But in all honesty, that's the route I've chosen for dealing with this crisis in Flint. I am admittedly ignorant about all that's happening up there, and that has been intentional. I'm having a difficult time reconciling the notion that a Governor would intentionally poison an entire city - one that is superduper Black, by the way - but I also refuse to believe that he was completely ignorant. Bomani Jones tweeted this on January 30:
It's unfortunate that I totally agree, considering I live 90 minutes from where all of this is going down. But I've been fine not knowing the depths of this insanity.
Equally frustrating is that even though this stuff deserves national attention, I'm not sure if these politicians really care, or if they see this as just another thing to talk about while they're trying to convince people they should be our next President. (Probably a combination of both, but still.) I can't help but wonder how many of these folks were even aware Flint, Michigan existed six weeks ago, because if they did, I'm sure they'd know Flint has dealt with socioeconomic problems far before now. Now everyone wants to visit Flint and the Democrats are going to host a Presidential debate there and there's all this outrage. I'm curious to see whether or not any of this sustains itself past November.
Drawn into this muck has been Detroit's public schools, which have also been decaying for years but now suddenly also find themselves in the spotlight because of what's going on in Flint. I'm pretty certain we in Detroit take geographical differences to mean something totally different than other places; all the time at Howard, I'd ask someone where they were from and they'd name some urban center and if I was familiar with the city I'd ask for a specific location and they'd respond with some suburb 25 minutes out. We don't play that in Detroit. Don't say you're from here and you're really from some place that's not here. We take these things very seriously, which is exactly why I felt more offended than anything at the suggestion that I was pretending to be from Detroit. But, knowing what I know now, it's fairly common for people to claim the city everyone knows about only to explain that they really grew up sort-of kind-of-close to it. Important context.
I've been increasingly unable to avoid the Flint situation, and I've really never been able to avoid what's happening in Detroit's schools. Where this gets especially messy given the national attention this has gotten: there's this perception that Flint and Detroit's problems are intricately tied. Because Flint's water has been poisoned, that must mean Detroit's water is toxic too, right? Wrong. We have one of the best water systems in the country. If something were to ever happen to Detroit's water, I'd be more than shocked. The current plan as far as I know is for Detroit to allow Flint access to its water system. As dilapidated as many of our schools are, I don't think the kids should be too afraid to go to the water fountain.
But at the same time, are Flint and Detroit's problems not the same? Deeper issues aside, Detroit’s schools’ current (and soon-to-be former) Emergency Manager just so happened to at one point preside as the Emergency Manager for Flint. Both cities are majority African-American with high poverty levels, and the state has repeatedly intervened (or interfered, depending on your personal viewpoint) with both cities' legislative processes. I assume I'm not alone in isolating myself as a Detroiter. We have our own problems to worry about down the road, so why should I concern myself with what's happening there? And the more I consider that mindset, the more disappointed I become in myself. Pretending Flint is some land far far away only makes me something of an accomplice to the crime. What am I doing to rectify the situation? How can I be of service? Is there something in my experience as a Detroiter that I can apply to what's happening there? I wasn't thinking about any of that. I just didn't want to know. I actively chose ignorance, and I'm not proud of it in the slightest.
It's painful to read the newspaper and watch the news and see how crazy things are in Michigan right now. None of it is positive, and so it's easy for me to react in a way that suggests disinterest in Flint's issues. It's a copout. Everyone knows James Baldwin's quote about being conscious and black at this point, but that doesn't make it less true. I'm constantly annoyed. You fall asleep ruminating on one problem and wake up still mad only to find out about something else that makes you madder.
That's what it means to be black in America, if you're doing it right. And what I've learned through all these varied experiences I've had - from learning what my blackness means to non-black people in high school to dealing with folks questioning the authenticity of my blackness in college - is that even if you try to run away from your blackness, it'll still find a way to smack you square in the face. Pretend all you want. Assimilate all you want. Even lighten your skin if you feel so inclined. No judgment from me. But you'll still be as black as you were the day you were born, and that's a fact you'll never be able to escape.
So yes, I am a 24-year-old black boy who grew up on the westside of Detroit. No, I haven't lived the roughest life, nor have I had to overcome absurd amounts of adversity to get where I am now. But my blackness has been all the adversity I've ever wanted to deal with. And when you're unapologetic about it, that skin color thing can really become an issue. See: Newton, Cameron.
I'm sure there's a young black man my age in Flint dealing with these issues. There are young black mothers terrified at this very moment their children will have developmental problems because of the water, and because of those, the chances they ascend to the heights their parents have dreamed for them are very much diminished. It's not a city thing. It's a race thing.
So therefore, consequently, and as a result, I stand wholeheartedly in solidarity with Flint. Yes, I want to. But even if I didn't, I’m aware I wouldn't have much of a choice.