My White Family

Growing up in Detroit in the 70's

/ by Geoffrey C. Howes

I was born at Harper Hospital in Detroit in 1955. My parents, my older brother and sister, and I lived on Seyburn Street in the East Jefferson area, near downtown. In those days, streetcars were still running, and there's a family story about my mother taking my infant brother (born in 1950) by streetcar to play on the lawn in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The joke was that this is the reason he become a painter. Diesel buses, more to the liking of the main local industry, replaced the electric streetcars 1956. Not all motors were equal in the Motor City.

 

Before I was three, our family had baby-boomed to the tune of two more sisters. Needing more space, my folks rented a house on Mohawk Avenue in the northern suburb of Royal Oak. Except for one auditory memory from Seyburn Street — a ship's horn on the nearby Detroit River — my earliest memories are from Mohawk. I recall a gray house with a screened-in porch across the street, and a neighbor kid my brother played with named Jeff Paul. My developing brain was impressed that our names sounded the same, and that Jeff Paul had two first names.

 

My developing brain was too young to know I was part of white flight, the exodus of European-Americans to the suburbs in the 1950s and 60s. Abandoning Detroit was made easier by the new freeway system and the new middle-class status of working-class whites, powered by the postwar boom and the unions. White flight was also aided by redlining: Systematically, if surreptitiously, refusing house sales to minorities in certain neighborhoods. Eight Mile Road (the one in Eminem's movie) became the border between Detroit, black and getting blacker, and the "Detroit area," white and getting whiter.

 

Good schools were another reason for fleeing Detroit. School funding in the US comes largely from local property taxes, so more-affluent communities generally have better schools. The falling value of Detroit property, of course, contributed to a downward trend in school quality in the city.

 

My parents moved farther north within Royal Oak, from Mohawk to Grove Street, into a house that looked across Lockman Park to Lockman Elementary School. My mother could watch us and make sure we got safely to school. We could easily come home for lunch. By 1962 there were six of us kids, and school was the center of our family's life.

 

The first time I got an inkling I was white was in the mid-60s, when we rode a New York Central train from Detroit to New York to visit my Aunt Betty in Connecticut. The Pullman porters were African-Americans. They were dignified and kind, so my first interracial encounter was with middle aged men in a service profession, with soothing voices, very polite and helpful.

 

This image was reinforced by Aunt Betty's housekeeper Thelma, who was black, nice to kids, and funny. One story goes that when she served us chicken, I asked her where the wings were. She laughed. Chicken wings, loved by little boys, were beneath the dignity of a fine household. Thelma's laugh, in retrospect, was a spontaneous reaction to a complex intersection of class, race, and age.

 

In the late 1960s, soul music further boosted my positive image of blackness. My brother bought albums by the Supremes and the Four Tops. We listened to a Detroit soul station, WCHB. I loved hearing a commercial for Louis the Hatter on The Avenue of Fashion, which was a stretch of Livernois (silent "s") Avenue near Seven Mile. I can still sing "Cool Jerk" by the Capitols and "Some Kind of Wonderful" by the Soul Brothers Six (not Grand Funk's version), and "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, where "we don't only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk."

 

In 1967 and 1968, my family became even whiter.

 

In the summer of 1967, the so-called Detroit Riots (subject of the recent film Detroit) broke out. We were visiting family friends in the western suburb of Plymouth on a Sunday afternoon when we found out (by radio? TV? word of mouth?) that we should avoid the usual route home through the city. That week we saw National Guard helicopters over our neighborhood and watched and read about the African-American uprising and the military response just a few miles south of us.

 

There were other "riots," of course, including those in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in the spring of 1968. We heard about the Black Panthers, and we saw Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics.

 

African-American entertainers were breaking into mainstream popular culture. On sixth grade safety patrol, we'd trade lines from Bill Cosby comedy routines. We saw Flip Wilson on "Laugh-In." Because mainstream popular culture briefly flirted with the counter-culture, we saw the edgier comics Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory on the Smothers Brothers' TV show. My mother liked Dick Gregory, whose humor subtly addressed race.

 

I knew no black people personally. My junior high school had no black students, and my high school had just one black teacher. I met my first black peer when I started at Michigan State University in 1973. Ray was also gay, which might help explain why he hung out with white people too. He was an unwitting one-man diversity initiative in my young life.

 

My parents, otherwise unreligious, modeled respect for other people, and even before I could think about it, African-Americans were included in this respect. But since we knew no blacks, it was respect at a distance, an abstraction. The school busing question would put this to a test.

 

In 1970, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the state of Michigan to redress the de facto segregation of Detroit schools. The court ordered that suburban and urban students should be bused to schools in other districts to distribute white and black pupils more equitably.

 

The thought of busing distressed my mother. Hadn't her children's education been foremost in choosing her town and neighborhood? Now she might have to see us go off on buses to distant schools and have to worry about us in a new way.

 

My family's whiteness had always been a default mode, unmotivated by racism even as it participated in a system that was racist at its core. Now the implicit racism became explicit. Whatever our rationale might be, resisting desegregation meant actively accepting an inherently unequal system. My mother even talked about moving to Canada to avoid busing. In the Detroit area, moving to Canada seems like an option because it's just across the river.

 

The busing plan was delayed by an appeal, and in 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled that because the Detroit area segregation was not intentional, busing was not required. This neatly fit my family's unintentional, de facto self-segregation. My mother could relax as her younger children finished school.

 

But now I knew what I had the privilege of not knowing as a child: I'm from a white family.

....
Geoffrey C. Howes

, professor emeritus of German at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA, has published widely on Austrian literature and culture, as well as book-length translations of Robert Musil, Jürg Laederach and Peter Rosei, and many shorter translations. He is assistant editor of No Man’s Land.