Detroit: The Antidote to Self-Pity

I read Arc of Justice with my ears while raking leaves in the parking lot of a half empty office building. Less than raking leaves, I mostly thrust them into small piles the wind soon blew away. My MFA from NYU proven fruitless, I was feeling nice and sorry for myself; the real flamboyant Adele-esque self-pity parade that only comes to town when alone. I couldn’t believe I was raking leaves, I couldn’t believe I was doing real estate in Mississippi, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t received an Oscar for my first short film that basically predicted the Black Blue All Lives Matter movement, highlighted Police Brutality, and explored the racial complexity of sports adulation and poverty in a deep southern town. You can see it here. I predict after 5 viewings you will get past the bad acting, shoddy sound, and mediocre direction and discover much much less than a masterpiece.

Arc of Justice slapped the self-pity off my face. The non-fiction book tells the story of the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet. If you live in Detroit and you have not heard of Ossian Sweet, buy the book here and get your life together. You live in the D. For those outside Detroit, Dr. Ossian Sweet was an African American doctor in 1920’s Black Bottom, Detroit. Read about the Black Bottom here. This is what it looks like now (You tell me). Dr. Sweet moved to Detroit after medical school at Howard, started his own practice, got married, and decided to buy his wife and young daughter a house on the East side in a working class ethnic neighborhood; his family the only black one on the street.  (Well except the folks who sold him the house, but they were passing.)

His first two nights a mob forms around his house, and the second night the mob threaten to attack and throw rocks against the house. Neighbors screamed for them to leave their street, and not in those words. (Tupac, To Live in Die in LA) His younger brother shoots outside into the mob and accidentally kills someone. The subsequent trial for this shooting involves key figures in Detroit history like judge Frank Murphy who went on to become Mayor, Governor, and US Supreme Court Justice joining the unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Read more about him here. Maybe even bigger than Frank Murphy, the trial brought world famous Clarence Darrow to Detroit to argue the case, using the whole trial as a profound human statement against racism. Never heard of Clarence Darrow? Please read about him here and think about joining a book club or you know just keep directing messaging strangers. Your life. 

Arc of Justice tells a larger than life story about a larger than life city. The book covers so much more than the trial. It tells the history of Detroit, its climb to the pinnacle of wealth and innovation, and the conditions pre-cursing its demise. I fell in love with Detroit for the first time in that book. I fell in love with the struggle that is Detroit. I wanted to move to Detroit to do my art thing. I wanted to maybe save a couple houses. I talked to David Alade about the idea and he had jokes for days. Detroit, blah, this, blah,dangerous, that, blah. (He gets a pass because he didn’t know better.)  A year or so later, David reached out to me, trying to convince me to give Detroit a look again. And like a girl you are going to marry, she looked even better the second time.

David and I have lived in Detroit for well over a year. We’ve biked to meetings with whoever would see us, walked through tons of vacant homes, waited in long lines for new restaurants, and danced the sundown and back up during Movement. Me: I have only fallen more in love with Detroit, its history, beauty, and people - new and old.

Last weekend I finally made it to the original home for Dr. Ossian Sweet on Garland Avenue, one of the few houses remaining on the block. Many of the others had already been demolished; maybe for the best, but The Ossian Sweet house remained; a plaque in front of it and a family living there. Looking at the house and staring at the street where a mob once stood, I kind of started getting that feeling that is the opposite of self-pity, an itch to see more houses renovated on Garland, an imagining of a whole neighborhood reborn and redeemed right in front of my eyes. I wanted to get back to work.