Conversations on Race


Conversations on Race

By Shea Howell

Miichigan Citizen, Nov. 14-20, 2010

Americans cans don’t like to talk about race. Woven into every fabric of our lives, it is usually unmentioned. When it is, people often rush to say how much it doesn’t matter to them. Most of us recognize that deeply-seated, historically rooted racial dynamics are swirling around our first African American president. But neither he nor any one in the public media talks much about them.

Yet something new is happening in Detroit.

A few weeks ago, the Michigan Round Table for Diversity and Inclusion hosted a talk by Tim Wise, a well-known, anti-racist activist of European descent. The Roundtable expected about 250 folks, but scrambled to find room for the 500 people who flooded their registration. The Detroit Food Security Network held a weekend workshop, part of its series of conversations about race and racism. Many in the LGBT community have been meeting regularly for Race Talks, inspired by the work of Michael Lerner and Cornel West.

Last Saturday MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit) hosted a community conversation entitled “Art, Race, and the Image of the City of Detroit.” A diverse crowd of over 50 people attended. The meeting was in response to the pressure people in the arts are feeling from the media. Almost every day, it seems, there is another news story casting Detroit as the new playground of the “creative class,” depicted in the media as young, white and male. As local filmmaker Oren Goldenberg, one of the panelists, said, “You know that any time you read a story about Detroit, you’re going to find the phrase ‘It’s a blank canvass.’ It’s so predictable. Can’t they think of anything else? Really.”

This comment was echoed by Ron Scott who encouraged folks to look beyond the easy phrases provided by the media, to the long legacy of creativity in the city, especially in the arts. Chazz Miller, an internationally-recognized mural artist and director of Public Art Workz, talked about how he has been using murals as a way to build and restore community.

Everyone agreed we need a very different narrative than the one in the mainstream media. The first step in this narrative is to challenge the idea that Detroit is empty, dead, filled with ruins–a blank canvass, just waiting for young white male artists to come fill it. Instead, we all need to understand, share and celebrate the extraordinary creative legacy of this city, produced by people of many backgrounds, but especially by African Americans who created art in song, poetry, painting, dance, theatre and daily life, often out of almost nothing. African American culture in Detroit not only made a way out of no way, but that way was often forged in beauty.

This legacy of creativity was fueled not only by individual artistic vision, but also by new ideas of human possibility unleashed by the movements of the 20th Century. Detroit as a city of movements inspired these visions.

Our new narrative begins with the creative impulse of the people of Detroit to recreate urban life, based on new values of cooperation, sustainability, community engagement, joy and beauty. This impulse is seen everywhere, in efforts to turn war zones into peace zones, vacant lots into gardens and pain into poetry.

It is also this impulse that is compelling those of us who love the city we live and work in to find ways to talk together across boundaries of race and time. These conversations will often be difficult and messy, but there is a growing recognition that unless we take charge, others will define and divide us. The fierce urgency fueling these conversations is a sign of hope in our future. ___________________________________________

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