Mr. Tale’s current adventures in middle-management-stooge-dom have him stationed in Detroit. In early February, I joined him there for a couple of days, but it was far too cold and blanketed in snow to really get out and about. In fact, all I could really do was chitter chatter down the Riverwalk a few feet, and then make snow angels on top of the Renaissance Center. I wanted to explore the joint more, though, so we arranged a visit in early September to do so. And, also, to play Mario Party. (Priorities, etc.)
Now, much has been made of Detroit recently; it’s bankrupt and struggling, and it’s fighting a war on two fronts: Gentrification and criminalization. On the one hand, you have new recruits digging up empty lots to plant pea patches, and on the other you have gangland generals digging up moats around their neighborhood to keep the police out. You can see how the two might disagree with each other, but, in the middle, you have a grip of perfectly normal, brilliant, intuitive and creative individuals who love their city.
Historically, Detroit was arguably a one shop town, and while it hasn’t suffered as much as some other rust belt cities (I’m looking at you, Flint) it was largely built on property taxes. When the jobs to pay those taxes left, so did the people who owned that property, ultimately resulting in Detroit’s meager coffers. But if the same thing had happened in, say, Tampa, I don’t think we’d care as much; no offense to Tampa, but Detroit is a hallmark city — it represents some of the best elements of American ingenuity and intellect. There was a time when it was what we as a nation wanted to see reflected back at us when we looked in the mirror — economic strength, innovative might, intense creativity, progressive social values. And its fall reminds us that we are fallible, that we can make mistakes that reverberate across generations, that our own best intentions absolutely can pave the road to hell … and, in Detroit’s case, sometimes quite literally. How people act about Detroit also says a lot about us: Some of us are more than ready to dismiss it as a lost cause, while others are putting on the hip waders, rolling up our sleeves and digging in.
In many ways, it reminded me of pre-Katrina New Orleans, with a blend of immense wealth and abject poverty from neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street. It happened to be terrifically humid and warm while I was there, too, so I’m sure that lent something to the comparison … but there were also pervasive cicadas, lush tropical grass lawns, crumbling brick and freshly painted clapboard, endless crops of flowering hostas, gritty streets. And always a welcoming, warm smile from everyone I met.
With just four full days to spend in the city, I decided to focus on walkabouts and museums. Detroit has an impressive offering of museums and tourist sites, especially if you dig cars and tunes, but, given my schedule, I prioritized two to visit during this jaunt: The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The Detroit Institute of Arts
The DIA’s collection is pretty awesome, and I spent a few hours strolling through their different selections. In addition to the usual Euro suspects (Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Picasso) they also have pieces from all over Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central & South America. Particularly of note in these more regional collections were the Arabic calligraphy collection and video installation, and the variety and in depth analysis of African tribal masks. They also had some lovely Islamic art, and an interesting presentation on how the Silk Road trade influenced the art and crafts along the route.
Their contemporary art selection was pretty kick ass, too, with both pop and abstract examples, and their African American collection was particularly gorgeous. One of my favorite pieces was To Disembark: Billie Holiday, which visually doesn’t look like much, but which contains an audio player within the crate that quietly — hauntingly — plays Billie Holiday’s catalogue. Can you imagine having that piece squirreled away in your own home, for guests to discover as they stumble to the bathroom? It resonated with me deeply, but maybe only because I’m predisposed to having Billie Holiday playing in the background all the time, anyway.
Because it’s Detroit, they of course had an epic mural painted along the walls on either side of an atrium, detailing the history of the auto industry and labor movement. It was so expansive, I couldn’t really do it justice with my snapshot, but you get the idea.
One area of their collection that was particularly broad and deep was American art spanning the early 1600s through WWII. I haven’t seen as expansive of a collection of this style and era before, and it was easy to get sucked in. While I think, ultimately, I prefer more pop / modern / experimental art, I do tend to become rather engrossed in the basic technique employed in photo realistic paintings of aristocracy and landscapes. The brush work is always fascinating to me, and I was even chastised in Dallas once for standing far too close to a painting — I needed to get up in its grill to decode the artist’s masterwork! The content and historical cultural commentary isn’t as interesting to me, but examining how an artist rendered a perfect nose or leaf is quite riveting.
All in all, a wonderful collection, and even after spending the whole morning there, I felt like I only scratched the surface. I will definitely return on my next visit.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
When I asked my brother’s coworker if I’d be able to visit both the DIA and the Wright in one day, she answered with an unequivocal, “absolutely!” But I’m assuming that she isn’t someone who really spends time in museums, examining each exhibit, reading every element. I am the type of lady who does.
So after spending the morning in the DIA, I walked a few blocks over to the Wright, prepared for a couple hours of adventure. Before entering, there was a large plaza with a wonderful lion sculpture, and while I had walked into the DIA under overcast, steely gray skies and 149% humidity, I was now under blindingly bright, silvery overcast skies and 275% humidity. I sat in the plaza for awhile, soaking it all in: The sounds of the construction along Woodward Ave, the smell of the moist heat reverberating off of the pavement, cars impatiently honking, and one solitary, forlorn bird chirping. I tried to find it; I couldn’t.
Now, let me tell you: From the outside, the Wright is a commanding structure by any definition, but what’s truly impressive is that they have laid out the And Still We Rise… exhibit in a spiral fashion, with paleolithic Africa serving as the origin point. You are handed a map with 30ish separate exhibits, from the origin of the planet through the election of Barack Obama. And each of these exhibits are meticulously crafted. I immediately realized that I would be there for the rest of the day.
Some of the tale I was familiar with — we all are (or, at least, I assume we are, but yo, I don’t know what they’re teaching in schools these days) — ice ages, the origin of man, Lucy … but the Wright offered a detailed analysis of the origin of man without a Eurocentric bent. From there, they moved into an example of a West African city — Benin City, actually — at or around the time when the Portuguese first arrived as they searched for a way to get to the east. I loved that each chapter of history was laid out in a terrifically detailed, beautifully immersive experience: From the square in Benin City you walked into the smuggling forts on the West African coast, onto the deck of a slave ship, then down into the ship’s hold, packed with bodies, out into small town squares auctioning folks off, through slave quarters, Civil War battlefields, sharecropper’s homes and finally onto the streets of 50s Detroit.
I learned a lot. While I knew the basic gist of how the Atlantic slave trade came to pass, I didn’t know all the gory details — or, at least, the gory details according to the Wright.
They propose that the Atlantic slave trade began with the Portuguese showing up in the early 1400s with some super tight shit that the dudes from a West African tribal kingdom really dug. They wanted their fabrics, their jewelry, their cowrie. They had some things to trade in exchange, but not a lot; so the HBIC of the tribe offered up a grip of indentured servants that he had from raiding other tribes. These people were essentially slaves, but they did have a time limit to their contract, so the HBIC offered them to the Portuguese as contract labor.
As the Portuguese had just started farming sugar on the island of Sao Tome, they needed a lot of labor to help with the planting and harvesting, so they took them; and as their sugar interests grew, so did their labor requirements, and they wanted more of these servants. But the HBIC had a limited supply, as they were the spoils of war and weren’t that numerous to begin with. Eventually, the Portuguese had depleted the number of indentured servants already on hand, so they asked the HBIC to start kidnapping bitches. And the rest, as they say, is history. Only, really, it isn’t, because that kind of trauma doesn’t just fade, especially when there are reminders of it every damn day.
On this humid Wednesday afternoon, I was the only person in the museum, so the experience was rather absorbing and quite solitary. At one point, I was pouring over the spidery writing of a ship captain’s journal while standing on the deck of the mock slave ship: The floor boards were creaky and moved when I walked over them, giving me the proprioceptive illusion of actually being on a creaky old ship, and there were recordings of waves and wind and gulls, as well as the terrorized screams of a slave being branded in an installation at the ship’s bow — all which served to effectively put me squarely in a certain space.
I was suddenly jarred out of my reverie by a woman asking me if I was touring the museum of my own volition. Her manner was almost accusatory, as if I very well might be a plant. Behind her, two employees of the museum looked on with apprehension.
“I’m with the Detroit Free Press. I’m here investigating the fact that, on Charity Navigator, the Wright has a rating of 1 out of 4. Does that concern you? Are you worried about how they’re using their money? What do you think of the museum?”
The experience struck me rather ludicrous: Two white folks standing on the deck of a slave ship, discussing whether or not the black folks are performing to expectation.
“I can’t really comment on that, but I love how comprehensive and interactive the exhibits are.”
“Can I quote you on that?”
I shrugged and walked away, down into the belly of the ship, lined with crumpled mannequins.
But those kind of reminders are punctuated by others that vehemently cement the essentially resilient nature of a people, stolen, and challenged in ways we would rather forget than face the pain of naming, owning and honoring.
One such example of this kind of resiliency touched me quite deeply, and it was centered on the lives of the early American slaves. Given that folks were actually living lives, contributing to communities and building things before they were kidnapped, they had a variety of marketable skills, such as metalworking or pottery or masonry or specialized agriculture. The United States was nascent and needed the basic building blocks of society laid down, so many of the early slaves were brought over and paired with work based on their previous skills and experience. This was before the beginning of the cotton boom, which eventually transformed the use of slaves from artisans to hard laborers, and these first slaves served to establish the entire structure and community within which the United States would eventually flourish. They made the tools, the buildings, the cookware, the roads that built a nation.
Now, imagine you have been stolen from your life, spent months on a ship not knowing if you were going to live or die, have no concept of where you are, have been forced into performing your skilled trade for free, are treated like an animal, can’t really communicate with anyone and have no hope of ever returning to the life that you once knew. That sounds like the kind of soulcrushing experience that would break the spirit of even the most ardent Pollyanna, right? How could you even begin to find joy, or beauty, or grace in a reality like that?
In the museum’s exhibit on these early slaves, they had a collection of pottery that had been crafted — pitchers and bowls and plates. These had been sculpted by people that had been completely robbed of their identities, and knowing their origin, you would think they’d be rendered as ultimately drab and utilitarian items, created under duress and without inspiration; and you’d be wrong. In fact, these pieces had all been intricately carved with designs to make them beautiful.
As I shared this experience with a couple of friends, and as I write about it now, I can’t help but be overcome with emotion (read: I’m sobbing). The purity of spirit, gorgeous resilience, unadulterated pride in themselves — in the midst of all this horror, these souls still wanted to make something beautiful. How fucking amazing is that?
My expedition to Detroit had many other highlights — delicious chow, lovely dirty bars, riveting conversations, too many gin & tonics, party stars. I was originally going to write up reviews for the eateries that Mr. Tale and I frequented, but they were all so legit, I will instead list them here:
- The Public House – Hush puppies with prosciutto and maple butter?!?! Me-yow.
- The Redcoat Tavern – If I was going to be buried alive and I could only have one meal with me, it would be this burger.
- Ale Mary’s – Their deconstructed chicken pot pie will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about chicken, pots and pies.
- Chicken Shack – Delectable fried chicken delivered to your front door? Yes, please!
But other than doing one of my absolutely favorite things in the world (hanging out with Mr. Tale,) Detroit was overall a lovely reminder about what we are, who we are, why we are. I sometimes struggle with the core necessity of art, if it has a meaningful purpose or if it is ultimately an indulgence, and this sojourn absolutely reminded me how essential artistic exploration and expression is to the nature of humanity. That without it, we have no way of redefining our perspectives, or sharing our stories, or holding out our hands across generations. That taking nothing and turning it into something beautiful is an arguably perfect way to spend one’s time, and that art is everywhere.
We just have to look for it.