Today, Detroit sent off one of its finest poets and musicians, David Blair. I didn’t know him very well, but I knew him. He was working-class, Black and gay, a recipe for insight, if nothing else. His memorial service was held at the Unitarian-Universalist church in Detroit, packed to the rafters. I sat in the hot, hot balcony with my son and what felt like a million other souls. Blair’s death shook me in a way that I would not have predicted. Check out his beautiful tribute to the city at this link:
I was talking with my mother about it, and I realized that one of the things that pained me the most about the loss of this really singular voice was that it’s becoming rarer and rarer for working-class Detroiters, and especially working-class Detroiters of color, to have any sort of public voice. Detroit lands in the New York Times, but it’s because some bright new business is started by some young entrepreneur, nearly always white, nearly always middle-class and so rarely with any connection to the industrial legacy that brought us to such heights and then left us so used up. Instead, we are told that the “Creative Class” will be the saviors of the city, the region, the state, the world, the universe. That if enough artists from Denmark, or urban farmers from Germany (or whatever) come and buy these cheap houses, all will be saved. Apparently, that’s all it will take to put things right here.
I don’t really buy that line. I think that the urban farms are a frightening echo of sharecropping, and NO ONE came to Detroit to do that. People came here to work, with purpose and dignity and faith that if you were willing to work, you could. That work would be here, that enough sweat would buy a house, a car, good public education for your kids and college tuition for them after that. So that if they chose not to work the line, they didn’t have to. The deal was that if one generation came and worked their asses off, it would be enough to provide a leg up for the next one. That if you came here from Mexico, or Poland or Mississippi or wherever, and were willing to grind out 30 years in the factory, that you would have earned the right to a mighty fine retirement, and a good life for your family. Thousands of workers stood up AND sat down over the years to guarantee such things. The labor movement, from the IWW to the UAW, were the result and the stewards of such standards of living. From the 40-hr week to health care to pension benefits, our unions were the safeguards of our dignity as workers.
Those days seem to be behind us now. My benefits don’t include dental or optical coverage for several years. I make half…half… the money of some of my co-workers who do identical work. I’m not begrudging anyone their seniority; hell, I just got there. But I tell you, it does very little to build solidarity to see someone making twice what you are. Some days, I feel like a fool for being so hopeful about what we can manage. But still. How can I help it? I have friends with advanced degrees who spend 40 hours a week looking for jobs. I spend at least 40 hours a week working my job. Usually more, which is a mixed bag.
Recently, I took my son to Florida for a vacation during the fabled Shut Down. We spent three nights in a luxury resort, bought all manner of things that we didn’t need and just generally balled out. In one of the many gift shops, the clerk asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Detroit and he asked me how the economy was doing. All I could do was shrug and say, “Well, I’m here on vacation. I guess it’s not that bad.” He then asked me if I was one those “new tier-two workers; the ones that don’t get the sweet deal.” I said that I most certainly was, but hey, it’s a living. I saved up my pennies and took my son on vacation, something I had never been able to do before. Sure, I’m dead broke now, practically living on rice and beans, but that’s why we work like this, right? My son always points out the cars that we make in my plant when we’re on the road. He says, “hey Mama, you build that car.” He says it with such clear pride and with such an understanding of the honesty of the work that I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, our legacy isn’t completely lost.