American History · Native Americans · slavery

Detroit days meet important monograph

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I took this photo of a frozen fountain on Detroit’s Belle Isle late last century.

I am so looking forward to an upcoming meeting with my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” graduate students. After Spring Break, we turn to Tiya Miles’ recently published historical study on Detroit.


Last fall, I told Tiya, a cherished colleague, about how her book helped me see why I felt strong as a woman of color upon moving there in late 1992. At the time, I was a reporter for The Detroit Free Press. Then-mayor Coleman Young, former union organizer and mouthy politician, had long told white Detroiters to march to Eight Mile Road (the same one Eminem also made famous). My then-husband and I rented a loft above Niki’s Pizza in Greektown. This was on the eve of the gentrification set partly in motion by new casinos that has since taken place in this city.

We could feel change in the air back then. We experienced how “strongly black” this city had been and still was. As it turns out, it had long been that way – if we take seriously Miles’ effort to fill in the historical storytelling gaps.

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My first home in Detroit was a loft in this building on Beaubien in Detroit’s Greektown, a couple of blocks from the Detroit River.

Her book examines the way in which Detroit was made on the labor of exploited African and indigenous people. But power seeped up in interesting and persuasive ways for these same individuals.

As Miles tells us, Ann Wyley, an enslaved woman of African descent, found herself as a victor of sorts. She was forced to execute a poor white French laborer after it was discovered that she, he and another man had stolen some items likely taken out of desperate circumstances. Wyley was essentially doing the government’s dirty work in showing her oppressed onlookers, among them other enslaved people and white laborers, what their fate might be if they dared to do as the accused had.

While some might look at the two pairs of women’s shoes and flannel, which were among the goods they had and ones she needed, as merely stolen items, a more critical eye will  think through the way in which native and non-native people in a once frontier town vied for a power with Europeans, high among them, French merchants, slaveholders and other businessmen. Some were better positioned than others.

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The house in which the late jazz guitarist Grant Green, my former father-in-law, lived in the 1970s on Detroit’s west side.

I’d seen other examples of such conflict upon moving to Detroit. Though the particularities of time must be considered, the house in the photograph immediately above serves as an example of how power manifests for the most unlikely via the built environment on the city’s west. It was once owned by musician Grant Green, my former father in law.

The subject of a documentary I co-directed, he  lived close to many Motown greats, unveiling how far an African American man could go in the postwar period. The house next door had been earlier purchased by Stevie Wonder for Wonder’s parents.

Just a few years earlier, the city had been on fire as seen in the video clip below.

Not even a decade earlier, Green had penned “Selma March” in homage to the 1965 marchers for Civil Rights in one Alabama town.

Me on the far right learning about filmmaking with other greater Detroiters in the early 1990s. This photo displays the diversity of this city that is  also on display in Miles’ book.

Although the city would be the site of white flight and black rebellion, as the experiences of Wyley and other oppressed people demonstrate, Detroit was a contested space since the mid-1700s. Relying on slaveholder legal documents, correspondence and other material, Miles shows how this works. She inserts slavery, something generally thought to be an institution better suited for the study of rural spaces and the south, into a needed narrative.

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This side street, near Detroit’s busy Gratiot, always felt “Old World” to me.

It is  narrative that reveals how black women were brought in to placate black men whose backs were used to soften beaver fur that figured into a rising consumer culture long before southern cotton fields and northern and English textile mills.

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The rooftop of the building on which I lived on Beaubien.

And how indigenous people participated in this madness, some as slaveholders and some as women forced, not unlike enslaved women, into unfortunate intimate acts.

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Grant Green’s more modest childhood house in his native St. Louis.

But it is a narrative, too, where we see indigenous people as slaveholders and where blacks sued for their freedom, “setting a precedent for the limits of slavery in Michigan law.” We, see, routes established to permit escape to Canada decades before the better known Underground Railroad network developed in the years approaching the Civil War.

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This “rooms for rent” sign predates the gentrification presently on display in Detroit.

We, see, too the “Negro Militia,” a band of runaway enslaved men, and, most impressively, Lisette Denison, a black woman who redefined herself as a “financially savvy urbanite” before the Civil War by purchasing land. Denison poses tensions with the  propertyholders of African descent about which my students have learned while N.D.B. Connolly and Chanelle Rose‘s work on Miami.

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The hallway in the first building in which I lived in Detroit. The building, once a site for a factory making car seat parts, is on a street named for slaveholder-trader Antoine Beaubien.

Indeed, what tensions does Miles’ work pose with other books we have read this semester?

Not unlike Miami since its incorporation in 1896, Detroit in 1760 was a village “on the edge-of empires and interest groups” (28). Building on the work of Chicana feminist-theorist Gloria Anzaldua, Miles writes that the “edge is not the most comfortable space for habitation” (5).

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Cornelius Watts’ postwar jazz-turned-strip club, was a frequently seen place, as I edited the film on Grant Green. Like Motown’s Berry Gordy, Watts unveiled the possibilities of black capital in Detroit after the Second World War.

Yes, we just learned how the black Bahamians tested the limits of what both black and white Americans expected of them in Miami. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, these so-called uppity “Nassau Negroes” were sometimes deeply interested in the teachings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey of Jamaica.

Via Julio Capo Jr.’s study of queer Miami from the late 19th century through 1940, we see how “queer” bodies also upset power dynamics in South Florida. With his book and other ones, among them Connolly and Rose’s in mind, we should think deeply about which historical actors push our thinking now about Detroit and this place we now call America since European contact.

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The late Ruth Lion, an African American deejay-educator and widow of Alfred Lion, the German-Jewish founder of Blue Note Records’ on which Grant Green recorded, is a native of Detroit. Before her death, she shared many stories of what it was like to live their in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

Speaking of which, as I continue my research on the Seminole Indians’ encounters with Andrew Jackson, I wonder about resonances between this group and  the enslaved Indians in Miles’ book who were called “Panis.” This was an eighteenth century term used to designate a group of people with a range of ethnic and tribal backgrounds. The Seminoles, another word for “renegade,” were made up of runaway enslaved people and indigenous people who left their own Eastern tribes. It is one thing to leave as was the case with the latter. It is another to be “detribalized” as was true with the former. That said, both groups were left without certain protections as they themselves negotiate the possibilities of new identities.

Time separates me and my students from the historical actors in Miles’ important monograph and actors in other books we have read. But I know a bit about a forming a new identity as some such actors did. I learned about such a thing in Detroit (perhaps my students know about the new identities they have had to establish outside their hometowns. I’d love to hear about how they navigated through their “new” worlds the next time we meet). Detroit is the first city in which I lived without my family. I was 25 when I moved there. It is the city in which I “grew up,” I like to say.

With Miles’ incredible read to provide context, I can better see how and why I felt something still unsayable there. Perhaps there, on the border of Canada and while living near important waterways, I intuited a significant past for oppressed people. I remember the time the Free Press brought me and my then-fiance up for a house hunting trip shortly before I began working for the paper. They put us up in the Hotel Ponchatrain, now a Crown Plaza property.

I didn’t know it then, but it was built on the site of a European settlement. Through fog one evening, I could see clear over the river to Canada.

When my then-husband and I later left the Greektown loft for a townhouse on the fixed income side of predominantly white Grosse Pointe Park,  I felt similarly empowered walking along Lake St. Clair. As I walked one morning, I saw the singer Anita Baker who lived in the area. We merely nodded to each other (I once saw Aretha Franklin outside the Fox theatre in downtown Detroit after she sung at political event. We merely nodded hello, too. Sometimes, there is so little that needs to be said between people of African descent as we try to survive many different moments. I recall the same thing happening last December on an important election day).

In this new home, I was just a mile from Aunt Martha, my maternal grandfather’s Mississippi-born sister. She lived on Detroit’s east side in a predominantly black neighborhood. She’d arrived decades earlier with her husband Coolie who worked in a car factory. They were part of a second “great” migration of people of African descent from the South. With Miles’ book in mind, I want to rethink how many such migrations we really had. I am certainly doing that with my work on Miami.

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Another photo I took in Detroit in the early 1990s. This sign was in a neighborhood near near downtown. The ftb black-body Canon I used was purchased for $100 from a Detroit Free Press photographer who left the paper to freelance in Cambodia.

Now, my students and I attempt to find meaning in that past, present and future. Miles’ book will be paired with “Gridlock’d,” a 1997 movie starring the late rapper Tupac Shakur. It was released after his death.

What similarities and differences exist between three addicts, one black, one white and one biracial (and British) as they seek to clean up their lives? As two of them navigate bureaucracy and other systemic hurdles for the working class and racially marked, where does their power lie?

How much has changed and stayed the same since the earliest days of European contact through the opening decade of the nineteenth century that witnesses the building of the Erie Canal, which brought the east closer to the now-Midwest? We will sort through all of that and more.

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