Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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Words In Her Hands – Mrs. Elizabeth Banton, Latin Teacher

Latin was one of my favorite studies in high school. It seems odd, in this day of sorely challenged school curriculae, but believe it or not, in those days – the 1960’s – Highland Park, Michigan had one of the best school systems in the whole country. This was before the disintegration of the city’s tax base with the decline of the automotive industry that was headquatered there -the city’s core of support.

In those days many of us took Latin, and many of us who took Latin truly loved the subject –  due, in no small part,  to our teacher – the dear, genteel Mrs. Banton. She looked a little like Rosa Parks, and though she was surely younger then than I am now, she seemed really old to us, even back then – for she joined none of the other teachers in their late-60’s’ efforts to be hip, slick, cool or even “relevant”.  

She wore her hair in a wavy chignon at the nape of her neck; loose wisps of hair a grey halo ’round her head. Back in those days when we girl students desperately fought and marched for the right to wear pants and mini-skirts to school, she unwavering stuck to skirts well past her knees and sensible oxfords. But she never ridiculed or scolded us for our 60’s protests; she  merely admonished us to “think” and to not forget our studies.

In her classroom at Highland Park High, she would tip-toe ‘round the room, glancing at papers, checking pronunciation; the tips of her fingers together as if in prayer, holding a tiny baton for the blackboard. She had a slight overbite that gave her a tiny, charming lisp, and one could tell she’d been a beauty in her youth – though to think of her as carefree and young was inconceivable, as proper and mannered as she always seemed to be. She spoke in a singsong voice in an absent-minded kind of way that disguised her utter attention to every move that we made and every error in person, time and place.

I learned, many years later, that she was actually a renowned scholar in  Latin and the Classics,  one of the few African-Americans to be degree’d in such studies in the United States. Eventually, after marriage, she made her way North, for in the segregated South, there were few “Colored” schools that could hire her to teach such subjects to Black children – and none of the Whites schools would, of course. 

When I grew older, I looked back and understood that our ceaseless, raucous Black student protests during high school neither offended, nor distracted her – she had probably faced more challenges in a single episode of her younger life in the days of segregation, than we – middle class children of the integrated North – could ever conceive of, in our agitated outbursts of dissent.

Just to attend school or teach, in the days in which she started her career, doubtless took an immensity of courage that was rarely required even on our most boisterous picket lines and marches.

She was fervent in her love of language, and her syllabus was tailor-made for the most useful application of Latin possible – she was less concerned with merely teaching us the phrases of another time, than to cultivate a love of language, to provide a cornerstone in the construction of vocabulary. She supported my love of writing, she gave an intensity and direction to my obsession with words, and instilled in me the curiosity to trace chains of words through centuries, to their varied and often unexpected origins.

In the spring of 2005, it had been more than 40 years since I’d seen her, when I was in the Fisher Building and turned around and there she was, walking on the arm of her son. She was 92 (!) and quite frail, but there was no mistaking Mrs. Banton. Her hair – now white – was still in it’s prim, wispy bun and she spoke with the same whispery overbite.

I was as bashful as a child, hoping she remembered me; I wanted so much, out of thousands of students, over the decades of her teaching years, to have left an imprint on her memory. She looked up at me and said, “why I course I know you Marsha! The other teachers and I just CRIED when you left school, there was NOTHING we could do to make you stay!”

Yup, I gulped, she knew me, she remembered well – I left school a year before graduation, much too young to be large with child, never to return. Even so, I told her, I’d had my child, and in fact eventually had two, but I was writing still. She was proud and glad to know that her lessons had come to some good use, that I had ended up a writer after all, thanks in part to her gentle exhortations of person, place and stories of Rome, centuries ago.

Her son, middle-aged like me, stood quietly by her side as we chatted; it was time to say goodbye and as we parted she turned to introduce us. Much to my surprise she leaned close to him and began to speak to him by signing, their fingers flew in the language of the deaf and he looked at me and smiled.

My goodness! In a 60 year career she had shared her love of language with countless children, yet she spoke in silence to her child. Oh, how fortunate was I to have been her student; how fortunate was she to have mastered another, soundless tongue. How blessed was her son to have a mother with such a love of words, who was gifted enough to make them fly from her hands to him, like doves.

_______________________________

Post Script:

It was a lovely, warm evening in Detroit, in May, 2010, spent at a book signing  at the Palmer Park Golf Club, a verdant enclave in the midst of the city.

I met a delightful group of ladies, including a wonderfully lively  little octagengarian named Norma Goldman (center, in photo above), who delighted us with her stories. When I asked what she did, or rather,  had done,  for a living, among her numerous avocations was her decades long career as a teacher of Latin.

 This revelation gave rise to my mentioning  my own beloved high-school Latin teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Banton. In the serendipidous, small world, three-degrees-of-separation Detroit way, it happened that the lovely, white-haired woman whom had just met – Mrs. Goldman – was a best friend of my former teacher – Mrs. Banton – whom, it turned out,  was alive and well and living in the area. 

Mrs. Goldman invited me to an annual potluck in June 2010, celebrating Detroit area Latin/Classics teachers, where, as it turned out,  Mrs Banton was to be the honoree, for her years of service in the teaching of Latin and the Classics. She asked me to come and read this story that I had written about Mrs. Banton at the event, and I did. Mrs. Banton was astonished and tickled that this prodigal student had returned to her life,  to say thanks and to acknowledge the role that she played in my life. 

At the time of this event, in 2010,  Mrs. Banton was still spry, bright and lovely 96 years old. And yes, she still remembered me.

________________________________________

Epilogue:

Mrs. Norma Goldman, one of the great women I have encountered in my life, passed away in 2011. I have not heard about my dear teacher Mrs. Banton, since but I trust that she is doing well – here, or in the hereafter.


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The Techno Fest and the new “Movement” of Detroit

Photo by 2010 Kresge Arts Fellow Corinne Vermuelen, with her generous permission.

Prologue: I wrote this piece in the early 2000s, after the first two or three Electronic Music fests on Detroit’s riverfront.  After years of undergound raves and a start at Joe Louis Arena in the 90’s, the Techno Fest on Hart Plaza started in 2000. An attendance estimate for this first gargantuan event was 1-1.5 million*, and though some mainstream sources opined that the estimate was inflated, I was there and I didn’t doubt it one bit.

However, the attendance in 2012, years after the imposition of entry fees, dropped to 107, 343.* (*Wikipedia estimates) But the numbers in 2015 were way back up again, though alas, I never went after they began charging fees after the first few years – way out of my budget. 

So here I was, in the youth of my old age, looking at another generation take its place in the musical history of Detroit – and I was clear that their presence marked not only a massive dance party, but a sign of  the future of the city.

(Btw, this was one of my submissions for which I was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, in 2012.)

                                                    The Techno Fest And The New “Movement” In Detroit

Detroit is the home of the annual Electronic Music Festival, aka Techno Fest – now officially named “Movement” – held on Memorial Day weekends on Hart Plaza. It is one of the seminal events in Detroit as it transitions into a new, post-industrially-dominated city.  From the inception of this festival in 2000, the “movement” that was taking place on the Riverfront was not only to the music, but a synergistic spark in the movement of young whites not only coming to – but  remaining in – Detroit.

Detroit is an overwhelmingly African-American city, yet for this event, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. After decades of their parents’ fearful avoidance of the city, a new generation of suburban kids is not only refusing to be afraid of the urban center, but refusing to leave, setting up residence in downtown lofts and apartments, partying in downtown clubs, and skateboarding in the night on Woodward Avenue.

At the first festivals, there were enough black Detroiters to give the Techno Fest – as it is known – the edginess and cool to make for an exciting musical event for the whites who have come to the city, for up to this point the blacks in attendance have been mostly members of the Detroit’s black cultural and musical intelligentsia. Techno music, with its pan-continental DJs and audience, is not viewed as a “black” dance music of choice in the ‘hood – rap, hip-hop, and the new R&B were the genres that were marketed to blacks.  Doubtless, the African-American founders of techno music, accustomed to mostly white audiences in the US and Europe, were surely glad to see so many brothas and sistas here in their home town, dancing to the music that they created.

On the other hand, too much hip-hop and rap throughout the festival weekend runs the risk of attracting too many of its fans from the ‘hood – which might make this neo-hippie fest a little too “diverse” for comfort to the whites who are pouring onto the plaza; so a balance is necessary.  Fans come to the Techno Fest from many miles away – not just the suburbs but from Australia, France, Japan, Germany; backpacks full of provisions for this new electronic Woodstock.  During the festival, thousands of kids – mostly white – rest and hang out near a monument on the promenade dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a massive bronze sculpture of a group of slaves fleeing toward freedom to Canada, in plain sight across the river. Only those familiar with the intense divisions between Detroit’s city and suburbs truly appreciate the lovely irony of this scene.

The music could be heard from three main stages and a dozen booths at once, banging off the high-rise buildings that rim the plaza. The DJs use the archetypal beats and sounds of R&B, funk, disco and pop culture – the building blocks of our contemporary aural heritage – to create a transnational dance genre. Multiply these samples and sounds by tens of thousands of culturally recognizable beats, phrases and riffs, rearrange them into new configurations; these artists are as creative as the original makers of the music from which they sample.

The turntable technicians transform electronic sounds into music, and many, with their sampling, display a prodigious knowledge of the vocabulary of modern cultural sounds. Detroit’s Motown sound developed in part from the relentless rhythms of the mechanized clash and clang of assembly lines of the auto plants in which Berry Gordy and his contemporaries toiled. Today’s youth grew up with different sounds – the ambient noise of video games, computers, cell phones; technology with its hums, bells, bleeps and blips, the aural wall that surrounds today’s environment. All of this electronic sound engendered a musicality that is based on – but is inevitably unlike – the sounds of the rock and roll generation.

Techno music evolved from black middle-class Detroiters able to afford – or hustle up on – the turntables, electronic equipment and voluminous libraries of vinyl record collections that were the original tools of the DJs craft.  I remember when my young brother and cousins – Lawrence Battle, and Bruce and Carl Martin – among that first group of  DJs in Detroit,  were suddenly immersed in sound snippets of records that we grew up with, lugging car loads of milk-crates filled with records to weekend parties.

Masters of the Dance

On the last day of the first Techno Fest, a new element changed the character of Movement, so that its final day was different than the first. The police had abandoned bag checks and let the crowds pour in, and they showed no sign of thinning. For the first time all weekend, pouring into the main entrance was a growing phalanx of bristling “young Black males” – from the neighborhoods. The mostly white crowd had gradually become “Blacker” and it wasn’t clear what this would mean. These new arrivals crowd the plaza in excited agitation, some with the sullen defiance of the unwanted, the mask to hide their fear of being unwelcome, their knowledge that their presence is cause to tighten jaw lines and police lines, both.

It is understood that this festival is not for them, but rather for the visitors, though doubtless, Techno’s founders are gratified that, finally, the music that they created will have an audience of Detroiters from the ‘hood. Over the three days of the festival, word has spread through Detroit that the music is “live” and worth risking the possibility of suburban and police hostility. They know that their arrival is akin to crashing a gigantic private party; nevertheless, they come. They flow into the bowl of the plaza; and the air crackles with their young black maleness. Yet instead of fleeing – as may have happened a decade ago – the young suburbanites jelled into a concentrated mass of excitement and awe.

The festival had blown off the hook – it was electrified. The black youth crowd the plaza, huddle in tight, dark circles. No cute rainbow-hued costumery and Hackey Sack looks for these new arrivals – they are from the shirtless, bedraggled school of urban poverty. They felt out the crowds, spotted locations, sized up adversaires as they worked their limbs into cudgels or stood stock-still in Zen concentration. They were the Masters of Dance and they had come to take their rightful positions. The battle had begun. It was a war, not of weapons, but of strength, grace and mental acuity. The crowds parted like the Red Sea as these new participants step into the whorls of dance that had formed in the ocean of people.

Bass was bumpin’ through to the bone marrow. These new dances defied any concept of what was known as dance decades ago but then again, this is not the movement of courtship – as in the Motown days – but of power, motor skills, and muscular control. Their bodies replicate the movement of computerized machines, and it is not romantic, nor really sexual. Thirty years ago black dance broke out of partnered confines into robotic motions of machinery and mime. After they had been embedded in the dance lexicon of the Black community for years, Michael Jackson displayed these moves to the world.

“Poppin’ & Lockin’” the abrupt, mechanized, stylized imitation of robots, is familiar now to generations of Black dancers, mastered even by small children in the ‘hood. Body waving, Breakin’, Moon Walking, Runnin’ Man, Robot and Tickin’ – the bizarrely elegant quivering of every joint and muscle at conflicting angles – all these dances grew from hip hop’s beginnings and even before. Most black dancers at the Techno Fest displayed their mastery of  “Jittin” , a matrix of extreme, skillful foot and legwork, with its origins in Detroit.

The great racial rhythmic divide doesn’t exist in the same way as in generations past, what with music videos, MTV, BET, et al, and whites are exposed to black music at exponentially higher levels than previous generations. The white kids, most as segregated as ever in real life, are profoundly integrated regarding music and dance – even if they are learning moves that black kids mastered almost 40 years ago. The first Techno Fests were the bar exams of  dance.

 Dance Wars on the Plaza

The white kids who could “Lock” and Break Dance had dominated the festival’s dance circles and entertained the crowds all weekend – but with the arrival of the Detroit dancers they now stand back in humility and awe. The blacks have come to “take them to school” – and they all know it.  Many of the suburban boys rarely got a chance to see – in real life – the rippling pop of brown limbs and muscles and they study these moves with as much concentration as college entrance exams. Emboldened by attention and recognition, the black dancers from the city challenged one another to ever more physical flights of daring and skill.

The suburban kids and visitors were mesmerized by this urban drama. The blacks were sure of their dominance, suffering no fool gladly to step into the ring with them unprepared, but they were generous as well. The white kids who proved their mettle and went toe to toe with the brotha’s are given respect – smug, serious nods of approval, or wild high-fives, as each dances into the ring and out again.  Dancers strip from the waist up, every visible muscle like rhythmic pythons under the skin.

Added to the layers of consciousness, physicality and race at the festival, I saw the whites whose forebears would not or could not flee from Detroit –  the white boys from the ‘hood, lighter facsimiles of the young blacks; skin color alone differentiated them from their darker neighbors; indistinguishable in speech, dress and attitude. They too were stars in this game of bravado and skill and their combination of  urban-ness in white bodies makes them fascinating bridges between the two worlds – humble enough to accede leadership to their dark brother mentors in the ‘hood, but cocky in their dance mastery and urban skills in comparison to the suburban boys.

Then came the girls from the ‘hood. All weekend the moves of most of the white girls was a kind of Brittney Spears’ hip-hop lite, and they stepped back in excited incredulity to watch the arrival of the “ghetto fabulous” home-girls. The allure of these new arrivals is primordial; the suburban girls – some of them probably real stars in their hometown schools and malls – are agog at the nubile finesse of these brown, urban females.  There is nothing coy about their moves; this is the hard core “booty shake” of Senegal via Luke Campbell and the East Side of Detroit. Their rhythmic undulating was intense and incredible to behold. As their bodies roiled they stared straight ahead in the dead seriousness of trance. After minutes of these pelvic machinations, they collapsed in childish giggles – just young girls havin’ fun.

The boys from the ‘hood danced in tandem, transferring waves of rhythm to one another, staging mock vignettes, sexual simulations and Chaplinesque parodies for the crowds. Watching this populist art unfold, it is clear that there is a deep, adult intelligence at play in this display of skill and wonder. The battles intensified all over the plaza and black, white, yellow and brown dancers established victories in recognition of their mastery – they are the Shaolin warriors of dance. There were no guns shot, no violence – dance alone was the measure of will and negotiator of the social contract.

At the edge of Hart Plaza the huge, dark figures of the Underground Railroad sculpture stood larger than life; massive, bronze figures fleeing from the ancestors of some of these very young people in their ceaseless, ecstatic movement on the plaza. I stood and reflected that during my own youth such an edifice would be unthinkable; much has changed within my lifetime. This statue of slaves on the verge of freedom stood in the midst of a scene that years ago was only a dream – kids of all colors dancing in Detroit’s dark night.

Photo, on the sculpture on Hart Plaza: by photographer Corrine Vermuelen, Detroit, with her generous permission.

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Epilogue:

The fact that there is now an admission fee for entrance – and a steep one, by Detroit inner-city standards –  virtually guarantees that the innumerable circles of young, Black dancers from the ‘hood – schooling their young visitors and reveling in the partnership of dance – will never be seen in the same numbers again.

But let me tell you,  it was a beautful sight to see.

Me in a moment with DJ Spooky, who performed at the first, and subsequent Techon Fests. This pic is not at the Fest, but at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where during the Q & A, he and I had a….shall I say…. difference of opinion, regarding his redux of the movie Birth of a Nation. But afterwards, as you can see, all was well.


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Black Mother/Bi-Racial Child – No Imitation of Life

 
                                                                      
                                                                                                                    
 
                               marshacrop-small-21      
When my son was born, he was a remarkably lighter color than me – make that white – due, it was obvious, to his father, who is Irish-American.
 
But apparently, there was also a colorful mix of genetics in previous generations in my own light-skinned maternal family.           

His father and I were both, nevertheless, rather amazed, for we had envisioned one of those caramel-colored children who clearly mark the melding of two races – and here we had a child who looked like a 50’s Gerber baby.

Since I am an unmistakably Black woman, this was often the cause of crazy situations of which slapstick comedies or headlines are made. From the start, Hutzel Hospital nurses would not believe he was my child and for security’s sake requested armband checks at nursing time – years before this became common practice.                

joe-half-crop-small4  Later, bizarre faux pas and mixups were routine; strangers, accustomed to  “matching” families, tried to fathom our relationship, wondering if perhaps I were the child’s nursemaid. Often people would ask if I was  “babysitting” my own child.

Detroit is on the Canadian border, and once, on our way to a dinner there, border officials detained my car, for they suspected that I was kidnapping my toddler who sat next to me.

They would not believe I was his mother, and only a frantically produced birth certificate convinced them otherwise. Only those perceptive enough to look at people behind their colors, could see he looks like me – but a different hue.

As he grew older his Saxon looks darkened to a Semitic beige, but his baby curls turned straight – no closer at all to being “Black” in an obvious way. I began to worry over this – in a society in which racial identity is paramount, what would happen if he could not clearly identify himself as one race or the other? Preferably mine.

I had visions of the old move tearjerker “Imitation of life”, where the beautiful, “mixed” young woman rejects her Black mother and “passes for white”, until the death of her mother brings her crying to the funeral hearse, too late to claim her mother’s love. A morality play if there ever was one. Then there is old “tragic mulatto” theme of  the misery of “misengenation” and crossing the color-line; meant to strike fear into the mere thought of inter-racial unions.

When he became a teenager, I began to gingerly ask him about “passing”, but he had no idea of what the term even meant. He’d ask, in complete puzzlement, “now why would I want to do that?”, so different is our society now in some respects.

He felt no need at all to disappear into a permanent White life. I felt a little foolish; this is not the days of Sally Hemmings, watching some of her children with Thomas Jefferson escape into White existence forever, nor is it the times of segregation’s hide and seek – my son simply lives his life without demand for racial identification under most circumstances. He, likewise, felt no need to “prove” that is is “black”, despite looks to the contrary. 

It doesn’t occur to him I guess, to purposefully, permanently, give up being one or the other – or give up loving one parent or the other, which was, of course, my real fear.

I also wanted to protect him from the slings and arrows of racial hurts, in which he would be compelled to be “Black” by society, whether he looks like it or not. But as all parents try to shield their children from all number of hurts and harms, I can neither predict future wounds, nor protect him from life itself.

***

This is not to say that he has not had his challenges, for on the contrary, a life in racial ambiguousness is not easy. When it was decided that my son would live with his father for a while, there was only one problem – in my eyes at least – he would be living in an affluent, overwhelmingly white suburb. I feared that this could only give rise to conflicts that I wasn’t sure my preteen son could handle.

But over time he learned that friends are friends regardless; that peers can be jerks no matter the color of your mom or dad. I grew out of the need to make him “choose” what color he would be, for the love between mother and son cannot  be erased by color.

***

He tells me stories of his life as a “White” Black person: the open and ugly prejudice that is expressed right to his face from those not knowing his origins; the curious phenomenon that Whites can never guess what he is, naming a hilarious litany of ethnicities – Italian? Jewish? Indian? And even on occasion – Chinese!?!

Rarely, if ever, do they venture to say “Black”, for perhaps the very thought of this is too discomfiting. The idea that a Black person could be so firmly embedded in their midst, that there are Black” people who look so much like them – this is perhaps too much to fathom, for some.

There are many arguments made against the mixing of the races, including the fact that “the children are the ones who will suffer”. I know that he has had times when he has been wounded, but all children have been in one way or another, for there is pain in life.

He surely lives a different, more complex life than I will ever experience, but at times, I’m sure, it is a richer one too, betwixt and between races, enjoying the best – and witnessing the worst – of both.

I have long since given up debating with him on whether or not biracial folks should maintain identity/designation with Black people, on forms or census and such; for I do not live in his reality and accept that I cannot know the vagaries of race when experienced at his level.

I don’t use the old term “mulatto” which means “little mule” (the mix between a horse and a donkey), a part of the absurdist, demeaning racial designations of the old days, in favor of the term “bi-racial” or “multi-racial”, which is perhaps a more accurate reflection – though I’d argue that most Black people (and many Whites) are of mixed race, whether in the immediate, previous generation or not.

There is a current spate of bi-racial “relationships” such as seen on Jerry Springer and other talk shows, in all their dysfunctional, impoverished, fighting glory, that both exposes the sheer numbers of mixed unions while at the same time defames such relationships as underclass bi-racial insanity, which is not indicative of most bi-racial relationships.

Regardless of such talk show ugliness, society is perhaps ever more tolerant of the union of human beings across the “color line”. Halle Berry is not a star despite her heritage, but because of it. Barack Obama is regarded as an elegant amalgam of humanity itself.

***

My son has had some poignant moments. He is the namesake of my father, who was a Detroit record producer in the 50’s, and my son carries on our family name in the music business.

While working backstage with Aretha Franklin – my father produced her very first record – my son, not knowing of this family connection with her, was introduced to the Queen of Soul.

She mused aloud, “I used to know a man with the same name as you, many years ago…”, and her unspoken statement hung in the air “…but he was Black”.

How stunned and delighted she was to discover that this young “white” kid was the grandson of the first man to record her voice, a peculiar irony indeed.

And in one of his life’s more amusing episodes, as he got older he experienced the shock of realizing his Banana Republic pants no longer fit on his increasingly Fubu sized behind.

*** 

My son looks like me, or rather, a sort of white male version of me. It’s both unnerving and exhilarating to think that one has had emerge from one’s self a human being not of your race, so to speak, in a society when race really matters.

There are times when I feel I have contributed to an eventual caramelizing of the world, a blending of we racially separated humans into one color. Though truthfully, even now, in all of our divisions of colors and physical forms, I believe we are really only one human race.

I’m glad I’m his mother, and that I helped to create this intelligent, beautiful, racially indefinable young man. My son is not “White” yet I accede that he’s not “Black” either; he is both.

He in his 30’s now, smart as a whip and funny, works incessantly, treats airplanes like taxi’s, thinking nothing of jetting across the country or the world, unlike his aerophobic mother. He’s a loving young man with very good manners (from good schools and good families on both sides). He’s all the things a mother wants a son to be (except he likes to ride motorcycles. Scary.).

He works in both the White and Black music worlds and depending upon his environment, he just blends in. His speech and walk shift an almost imperceptible shade towards “Blackness” usually, but in general – even though it is not always easy – he moves confidently between the worlds of Black and White, at will.

Perhaps he got that naturally, for after all, he’s my kid – I’ve have always had a comfort with “humanity” in all of it’s colors; perhaps I passed this gift on through his heart, not merely his skin. 

I know he’s proud that Barack Obama, another who has experienced the challenges and gifts of bi-racial existence, has ascended to the Presidency of the United States, one who personifies the gifts and dilemmas of many bi-racial citizens.

I love my son with all my heart, and I’m grateful that he can move with ease “between” the races, living a life based on the content of his character, rather than the color of his skin. 

 Marsha Music copyright

 

Photo: Original photo of  Marsha and Son, by Harrison Smith Sr.


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Ode to John R. – The Red-Headed Girl

 

One day, I started writing about my trip to work each day down John R., the street that runs through Detroit, parallel to Woodward, the city’s East-West divider. A paragraph turned into an epic poem, just havin’ fun.

I had lived on the Highland Park end of this street since my 50’s childhood and remember when the downtown part of it was part of Paradise Valley. 

In the 90’s I moved back to the old house, that sits on a corner of John R; on the way to work each day I began to see a young girl with red hair.

I’ve never been sure why it’s called “John R”.

***
This all started when we moved to my family home,
several years and a few thousand dollars ago.

 

Much too big for my Ma, she decided to move
my then-husband and I moved back to my old ‘hood.

The community was built about a century back
for execs of the first Model-T Ford plant,
the plant still stands – though still, for sure
just a few blocks away from our front door.

 

 
Renovation fever left before our work was done
no extreme makeover, and the work isn’t fun,
But you can easily see that even dis-repaired
the beauty of the house is still clearly there.
  
All oaken doors, floors, and mantles and beams,
it’s a classic, even falling all apart at the seams,
a stucco behemoth in the Mission-Style,
built by the first disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright
(in fact, a house built by him is just nearby).
My family moved here in the core of Detroit
back in the mid-fifties, first Blacks on the block;
the streets, homes and lawns so familiar to me
that on a day of perfect weather it can seem to be,
as if I don’t happen to be outside,
but in a tightly sealed globe of memory and time.
Some blocks unchanged since I was a child
every house and tree familiar as lines of my palm.
***

I’m close to my job – no rush hours for me.
I walk out the house, drive onto John R street;
Twelve minutes most days, though I’ve made it in nine,
when I’m running real late and make every light.

There’s a lot of good memories on the drive,
same route my Daddy took back when I was five,
in his whale-sized Buick with the gills on the side.
like an big ocean-liner it was quite a ride

With the giant fins that made the car look sweet,
as we drove to his record shop on to Hastings street.
Sometimes he’d stop, and to defy my Ma,
we had hamburgers for breakfast at the Piquette diner,
the old wax paper in a greasy bag kind.

I pass a cop station that was there in those days,
with its red-brick stables where police horses graze.
How I’d beg my dad to let me see the giant things,
nostrils flared big as baseballs as they studied me.
And even today, if I’m not running late,
I watch their slow, quiet movements in the noise and haste.

I pass rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods like mine
That were once great places all lush and fine.
With grand homes and lawns back in the day,
and even with the problems of the last decades
some of the city’s awesome housing stock stands today.

I pass the leafy neighborhoods of old auto barons,
majestic brick as well as giant sandstone mansions;
and over the years the transition was seen
when these became the homes of Detroit’s elite
a rich Black professional’s and working man’s town,
The people of the auto and the Motown sound.

***

These years however, time has brought on change,
and there are now suburbanites who are less afraid
of the Black center city than their parent’s day,
who are tired of commuting from such long, long ways
and are glad to renovate an old, majestic place.

Some of the blocks I pass are scarred and maimed,
one house gone for each three that remain,
‘hoods barely left standing since crack had its way.
The blocks look bombed, blown asunder in war;

Yes, battles were lost against jobs that have gone
and the drug trade that came and made itself at home.
But some houses have lawns and new bright paint,
owners still try to “make a way from no way”.

The Blessed Sacrament is one of the first things I pass,
a magnificent cathedral where the Pope held Mass,
and where at night crack hoes rest at the stairs
flagging down the tricks who are diving pass.

Those blocks pass and there are hip new lofts,
a Potemkin urban village with a gentrified gloss,
the quasi-quaint homes of the artsy classes,
surviving next to the impoverished masses.

John R makes a curve past Northern High,
where I long ago marched, my fists held high,
as I raised my voice up into the Sixties sky.
I see school kids from blocks harder hit than mine;

Unlike middle class black kids from down the way,
they’re not chauffeured by folks on their SUV’d way,
but some maneuver the streets un-chaperoned,
bold and boisterous, to hide the fear being alone.

***
So on the way to work, in my daily world,
is where I first saw the red headed girl.

She had a freckly face, all tawny and gold
what folks in the South used to call “Redboned”.
Hair red like my Daddy’s old Georgia clay,
as the bricks of the stables where the horses grazed,
or the fires that burnt half the neighborhood away.

Her hair matched the fiery trees in fall,
and beamed against the winter snow like blood;
and in the last gray and cold of spring‘s hard mud,
her head was a small, bright crimson bud.

She walked by herself almost every day,
and I’d slow down to see if she was safe on her way.
For the days are gone of nice lonesome walks to school,
like Hansel and Gretel all alone in the woods.

Oh, how I worried for her, for I surely know
how the vultures hover for the innocent souls.
How could she be allowed walk to school alone,
was there no one grown to walk her to and fro?

I wondered if her mother was a red-head too
Why didn’t she take her red-head child to school?
Did she work with a schedule that didn’t allow,
or was she down on Woodward Ave., broken and wild
turning tricks on their way to suburban domiciles?

Did her father wear red cornrows, was he freckled and fine?
Was his red-head in jail like so many young guys?
Or did her red hair appear from nowhere known,
nameless genes raising brows and innuendos?
Red heads can inspire such a primal awe,
arising so often from family unknown,

For sometimes there are no obvious kin
to explain the fragile skin and all that melanin.
They seem to constitute their own carotene race,
across the boundaries of colors and states.

Each time I passed, I’d pray she was alright,
I was relieved when I saw her walking down John R.
for winos walk our streets like Thriller at night,
and crack-heads skither ‘round in ceaseless connive.

But year after year the girl seemed fine as she walked,
an orange-red blossom on a tall, thin stalk.

One day I turned the Holbrook curve on John R.,
a car hugged the curb as she walked ’round;
she ignored a shouting driver, who wouldn’t pull off.
I followed as she rushed and grabbed her books close;
I leaned on my horn and the man drove off.

Never looking back, she began to flee;
I thought of what could happen,
and was filled with relief.
It made me wonder about all the folks unseen
like angels in my life who had watched over me.

***

I hadn’t seen her for a year when an autumn day,
I was on the way to work in the usual way,
when ‘round the John R corner her red head came,
striding tall and red as a chestnut bay.

During summer she’d grown up hot-house style
all legs and hair done up ghetto-style,
a pubescent wonder, her red hair piled high.
Oh, my how fast the pass of time!
a child turned woman during work-bound drives.

It’s been quite a while since she was in my view,
I wonder if she, like so very few
had beaten the odds of ‘hood and hue.
And was able to succeed like only some can do.

I’m a bit afraid to look for her too hard,
for fear stats and environment had won out.
I don’t to see want her freckled face dope-fiend hard
or her red-head turned street-addled and wild.

No, I choose to think she strides ‘cross college lawns,
with a bag full of books, red dreadlocks long.
She’ll never know that I watched her grow,
as I passed her by every few days or so.

And maybe she thought her safe passage was luck
but sometimes there was a lady driving in a truck
who decided to take her foot off the gas
and slowed down to make sure that she had safely passed

I think of her in my real mirror’s view,
as she walked along John R Avenue,
her hair a red afro, or braided tight,
a copper halo of urban light.

Whenever I think of her carnelian curls,
I say a little prayer for the Red-Headed girl.

Marsha Music

Epilogue:

I passed a John R. duplex one June morning, and there on a porch was the girl with red hair, standing still while a lady helped her to adjust her graduation Cap and Gown.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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Jolene

2-women-new-yorker

Cover of a New Yorker Magazine

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene. We were 17 and I had lied to get hired; we couldn’t legally work in the plant for another year.

          She was white, from somewhere around “Taylor-tucky”, a name that mocked the southern roots of working class whites of the suburb of Taylor, Michigan. I lived in Detroit (still do). I was black, and I still am, as a matter of fact. Without the factory we’d never have met.
           We were young and shapely then, which now, I’m not so much; I don’t know about Jolene, I haven’t seen her since those days in the ’70’s. She had just been hired at the plant, and – like they say it is, in prison – you depend on those who know the lay of the land, even if it’s just a day more than you.
           The factory, on a barren industrial stretch off of I-94,  was a mechanized hell of extreme temperature, convoluted steel, and people at all levels with power, the wielding of which – for us – never did bode well. Women wore hairnets for “quality control”, but mostly to prevent decapitation; the long-haired guys wore them too.
          I wore old-fashioned braids weaved to my waist; the specter of hair and heads caught in rolling gears was so horrific, we all wore the ugly nets in willing resignation; just one more theft of our outside, normal lives.
          Jolene and I circled each other with cat-like territoriality, two girls used to inhabiting the center of any attention. After a while, we relaxed in the knowledge that our appeal could be divvied up without threat – there were plenty of male eyes for the both of us. We became friends, revolving around each other like planets, the type of friendship that burns too hot to last.
          Jolene was blond, the type of blond that’s white in childhood, that leaves a fuzz of white on the arms and brows white as snow–what they call tow-headed. She had high cheekbones from a Nordic ancestor, or maybe some long ago blood of Native America that gave her face high hills and low valleys in all the right places.
          She had a mole near her mouth and perfect teeth and she laughed all the time at everything when she wasn’t mad about something. She was as beautiful as the mod girls in my teen magazines and proof that good looks were not exclusive to the rich and high class.
          Ours was a work-hours friendship, walking our fast, hip-rolling walk down the cement runways of the packing lines, lithe and nubile. We flaunted our tiny waists and drum-tight thighs and switched past the high seniority ladies with tired feet and eyes, who had left their younger bodies back in some other lifetime.

We ate in the lunch-room, laughed and drove men crazy and pretended we didn’t know. We held court with the tradesmen and machinists, flirted our way through the long, hard overtime days. Even so I was dead serious, in ceaseless examination of my surreal, hard surroundings – Alice fallen onto the wrong side of the looking glass, wanting to know just where and why I had landed.

I was forced into the blue-collar world by pregnancy at 16 and a hard-headed refusal to return to school –  my post-sixties rebellion against the strictures of formal education, but also – though I’d never admit it – the humiliation of too-young motherhood. These were the days when there was still shame in such a thing.

The prospect of the factory met with the dismay of my businessman father and my mother (whom at that point, had never worked a day in her life except a brief stint in his employ).

Mine had been the first black family on the block in Highland Park, a then prosperous “suburb” in the middle of Detroit. My father was a record shop man amidst white bankers, salesmen, doctors–the solid middle class, in the days when that term didn’t apply to blue collar folks, before proletarians had stock options and portfolios. As more of “us” moved into the neighborhood, my Talented Tenth peers were preparing and poised for success in the form of a piece of the professional American pie.

The bottom line is, working in a factory was not exactly what was expected of me.

Jolene was a young mother too. Though for me, young and unwed meant abandoning my destiny–for Jolene, from the poor and working class “down river” suburbs,  it meant not escaping hers. If work in the plant was for me the fall from grace, for her it was the height of good fortune, key to a future other than trapped in a trailer home.

***

There were a handful of blacks in the plant, among them Miss Loretta, a bashful, hard-working woman from Down South who called our job at the plant the “plant-ation”; Indiana, small and yellow, who could work faster than anyone but fell behind on purpose so they couldn’t her wear out like the machines.

Fast Freddy dressed like a Technicolor pimp before he changed from his dancing clothes into his uniform each day; years later he had a 6-page spread in GQ magazine – largest in its history. There was brown-skinned Edna from Yazoo City, Mississippi, bright and funny, with sad eyes blacked from a husband’s fists, before she finally got tired of it and he went to jail.

Big, slow, tie-tongued Bob, who never missed work; he was so soft-hearted that any woman so inclined could take all of his money, and we often did. Fine as wine Lynnette, who looked like a movie star and knew it; who dreamed to be a flight attendant and leave us behind in the factory (which eventually, she did).

In the plant, the Blacks were an island in a sea of  suburban white and they kept their eyes on me, lest I prove to be too smart and fast for my own good or theirs, causing trouble with my brick sh…house body or rebelling against the ways that they’d learned to survive.

I was unaccustomed to the whites of the working class, and I eyed in amazement these folks at the plant too – Willadean with a Tennessee twang and black-dyed hair, who knew the most important things one could have were good work shoes and a good man.

There were white men born in towns Down South that had aimed dogs and hoses on brown girls like me, bikers in full regalia with chains on long wallets holding money and Zig-Zags, for long days of work and nights of play.

There were engineers and machinists, exacting and smug in the security of their skills, who more or less looked out for all of us–the machines and people–and we grudgingly looked up to them, even if some of them spent hunting season with the supervisors.

I managed a wary co-existence with all my new co-workers at first, then settled into the realization that they were all “just people”. Eventually, I became their leader. But that’s another story.

***

We wore skin tight, high-waist Levis, denim corsets that noosed our torsos into tight circles small enough for a man’s hands to wrap around and touch fingers front to back. Even childbirth could not destroy our strong, young curves; motherhood only gave us more of what got us in trouble in the first place.

Our jeans were threadbare in all the right places that implied rubbing against all the wrong things. We were locked together in beauty and failure and rebellion. We never buttoned our uniforms; the white lab-coat hems flew behind us as we sashayed down cinder block halls. We raced past the women with wisdom and seniority to get to the source of real attention – the guys we looked right in the eyes as we smoked cigarettes on the loading docks, letting them think they were smarter than us and might have a chance, never letting on they were wrong on both counts.

Bra’s burned on TV and we didn’t wear them, proud that no one could make us, and mostly, because they stood quite nicely on their own. A supervisor, Phil, had his eye on Jolene and I, and when we’d burst into his office to report a mishap on the line or stomped about some new imposition on our lives he’d sit up, unable to tear his eyes away from breast level, calling us “High Beams” as if he was being original. We’d roll our eyes and swivel back to our machines, letting him know that whatever he was thinking, it was out of the question.

When the line broke down or shut down early, we jumped in cars and hit the gravel road behind the plant, and flew to the bar where we’d we stay til last call. By closing time we’d be knee-deep in beer and Southern Comfort and 7-Up, or Jack Daniels with a Pepsi chaser (this was back in the days when I still ruined my liquor).

By closing time we’d be sloshed and stumbling, the bar full of eye-lined, hard-drinkin’ women and wanna’ be cowboys chained to assembly jobs and wives who read Harlequin Romances. Sometimes we’d sing, drunk and off-key:

“You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille…with four hungry children and a crop in the field….I’ve had some bad times been through some sad times, But this time the hurt it won’t heal…You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille”

The jukebox was full of those Kenny Rodgers songs, and ballads of Elvis and Patsy Cline. Some barmaids could fight you like a man, and, by night’s end,  sawdust and sickness lined the bathroom floors.

I know I was watched by some God I didn’t believe in at the time, on those nights after last call–a drive home to the Far East Side cold drunk on a coal black highway, hand over one eye to keep the center line of 1-94 from blurring into two.

That I didn’t die or kill, I now attribute to a force miraculous.

***

It was June – suddenly summer – and I’d been at the plant for six months. The weather turned glorious and I left it outside each day while I went in for the afternoon shift at three. Day after day I was missing the summer, getting off work at midnight, or two or three a.m. I should have been graduating, going to the prom, and here I was, punching a clock.

In an awful epiphany, it occurred to me that there was no more “summer vacation”, like in school, year after year since kindergarten. In this new world of work you might get a week off,  or two, but certainly not a whole summer. This revelation was a bad surprise, and hit me very hard.

Jolene and I were working in separate departments, and the summer heat combined with the inferno inside turned the plant into a sauna. Grease oozed from the gears of the conveyor belts and even up out of the bricks in the floor; both working and walking were a dangerous proposition. We toiled in a steam bath of production quotas, eight, ten, twelve hours a day.

Some vomited in the heat, some passed out, the supervisors handed out salt tablets. From the catwalk, you could see waves of heat quavering over our steaming heads; in the flat and flickering fluorescence light the sweating, moving limbs and machinery were a vision of a different kind of hell.

Angry conflicts spit into the air at the smallest provocation or supervisory order. There was talk of a walk-out but no one dared to face the wrath of the company and union both. Still, out in the parking lot on breaks and at lunchtime, parties sprang from trunks of cars and the backs of station wagons; 8-track tapes played Willie Nelson, Bowie, Marvin Gaye; the beer and weed hidden from the security guards – who got high among themselves.

In this cauldron of heat, rage and music, love affairs bubbled up among single and married alike; furtive grapplings behind storage rooms and rows of stacked wooden pallets, full-blown trysts during the midnight shift in motel rooms on the way home.

The next day was still hot – and you still went back to work.

***

One day, during a break-down on the line, I slipped away. Not far of course, for the line would start up and I’d better be there, or else. I hid behind boxes and machines to furiously read a page or two of Flaubert, Hegel, Hershey.

Not just me, for in the plant there were real scholars. Some discuss issues of the day like career diplomats from their designated spots in the lunchroom, while others study in silent, desperate reading, their brief and hungry moments of escape.

I looked for the best route to dodge the foreman and slipped through the back of the line, tipping careful on the oil-slick floors past the press where a lady had lost two fingers–one in one year and one the next, past the maintenance tool shed, over a skid of supplies, past bins of packing boxes, around the hi-lo shack. Finally, drenched in sweat, I reached my destination, the railcar dock.

Away from the suffocating heat in the plant, it was a fine June day of a hot and bright new summer. I blinked in the clean, clear sunlight, I could smell the hay used to pack equipment and the blue wildflowers and wheat that grew along the railroad tracks. The plant was built on old farmland and there was still a rural beauty to anything that had escaped the industrial maw.

The dock was a massive barn, high and open ended so train cars could be maneuvered in and out on tracks embedded in the floors. A car would be uncoupled, unloaded and emptied of raw materials, then days or weeks later, hitched up and rolled back down the tracks.

The train was a mammoth thing, wheels higher than the top of my head; a sleeping mastodon of black steel. Sometimes a car would be bright red or yellow depending on the cargo, or huge tankers filled with oil.

Young guys, restless and trapped in the plant on the hot summer days, would climb up the sides, twenty feet high, and smoke a joint on top of the car, unseen by nosy supervisors or worrisome chicks.

I listened closely; I was lucky today, all alone. I walked the length of the car and snatched off my hairnet, to feel the breeze blow cool through my braids.

A beam of sunshine from a vent in the roof made a square on the floor ahead of me, and I watched the motes of dust and grain float in a tube of light from the sky to the floor. I walked over and stood in the patch of sun, as if that square of floor-bound light held the last vestige of my life long-ago.

Suddenly, reality and self-pity swirled around me like snow in a globe–my ruined life, friends at proms and graduations, going to summer parties before running off to college, and here was I, a teenager with a child who refused to let parents or welfare help too much, now paying the price for my young lust and pride, defiant and rebellious, tying my fate to those who labored.

I looked into the light but the sun held no answers, I let the sweet June heat replace the steam-bath that I had left on the line. I saw myself, movie-like, from outside myself; a dark, lonely seraph in a column of defeat and light. In a few minutes, it was time to go back to the line.

Well, I thought, I’ll stick it out a while longer, then decide what to do.

A dozen summers later I was still there.

***

I started out telling you about Jolene. It’s been three decades since we met, and,  actually, there’s not much more to say; we stayed friends for a while before she was fired, or walked out of her own accord;  her pretty smile didn’t make up for her smart mouth after maybe too many beers or too much anger about a direct order she didn’t want to follow.

I wonder if she started going with a man, the kind you couldn’t be with and stay beautiful; you had to turn brittle and hard and ready to take a whippin’. I wonder if her face got that punched up look of too many schnapps and bar-fights, if her pretty teeth were gone; if she added many children to that first one, if she met up with cocaine.

Or, if her life turned different than the one she had; if it took an unexpected turn. She maybe ended up a lady with a cultured laugh and high cheekbones, with white-blond hair and pearls. In my memories she’s still young; raw and beautiful as the hills.

I don’t know what happened to her; after those first years of seniority I never saw her again. Even now, when I see a white-blond woman of means – or of no means – I think, sometimes, of Jolene. There’s not much more to tell about her.

So maybe I told you about her so that I could tell you about me. For looking back, of course, my life was not near over, my factory days were clearly no defeat. It was just another row of pieces in the puzzle of my life, a twelve year long stop in my journey of years.

Maybe I just wanted you to know that once I was young with a waist so small a man’s hands could fit all around, with thighs like congas and hip-length braids that blew in the breeze. Once upon a time I had another life.

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene.

by Marsha Music

[This was originally posted on the BellesLettres forum of ThePurists.com, then, in 2002, published in the online magazine Counterpunch, thanks to editor Jeffrey St. Clair and music critic Dave Marsh. It was subsequently published in the hard-copy anthology Serpents In The Garden: Liaisons with Culture and Sex. It is a true tale about working in a suburban Detroit factory, years ago, when I was young.]