If I had to pick a song that defines my hometown of Detroit, it would be Dej Loaf’s “Try Me” because white supremacy has been trying to stamp a nigga out of this fine city since the Great Migration landed us there at the turn of the 20th century. We came up to Detroit to escape the failures of Reconstruction and the inhumanity of Jim Crow only to be herded into the Black Bottom neighborhood, where most black migrants were segregated from the rest the city. We were never supposed to have risen out of the Black Bottom.
The city back then, under its racist mayor, Albert Cobo, razed the Black Bottom in the early 1950s to make way for “freeways, hospitals, housing, the Cultural Center, the expansion of Wayne State University and a renovated riverfront,” according to the Detroit Free Press. The black-owned Michigan Chronicle called it a “Jim Crow project.”
Indeed, a nigga tried us. And failed.
Black Detroit has been making white supremacy catch bodies ever since. In 1910, black people made up 1.2 percent of the population at 6,000 residents; by 1950, we were 16 percent of the city’s 1.8 million Detroiters. By 1980, we were more than 60 percent. Now, even after race riots, decades of gentrification and state-level neglect, housing discrimination, and white flight, black Detroit is still standing at a phenomenal 79 percent of the population.
White supremacy tried a nigga. And black Detroit been making ‘em catch body after body after body.
Black people weren’t supposed to move out of the Black Bottom, but we ended up integrating the biggest automotive companies in the world to later create one of the most prosperous black middle-class communities in American history. We built homes in a city in which black folk were historically barred from federal housing loans.
Up until 2000, the black homeownership rate there was nearly 55 percent, a miraculous number given how severely black people were targeted with anti-blackness.
And there is not a better convergence of black entrepreneurship and music than Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown. Starting with an $800 loan from his family, Gordy would go on to sign the biggest music acts the world has ever known: the Four Tops; Marvin Gaye; The Temptations (and later David Ruffin); the Jackson 5 (and later Michael Jackson); Gladys Knight & the Pips; The Supremes (and later Diana Ross); Stevie Wonder; Rick James; Smokey Robinson; Mary Wilson; the Pointer Sisters, and Tammi Terrell, just to name a few. And those are the old school acts. Let’s not even forget Another Bad Creation; Erykah Badu; The Boys; Boyz II Men; DeBarge; Johnny Gill; Brian McKnight; MC Trouble; Lionel Ritchie; Queen Latifah; Rockwell; Shanice; Sparkle; and Tony! Toni! Toné.
And, of course, Aretha Franklin, arguably the most talented singer in American history. She’s from Detroit, too. When our queens transition, we don’t have funerals, we have homegoings worthy royalty—with a mix of ghetto.
If there was no Motown, you’d likely lose most of your remix material.
Detroit is the prettiest city, too. No black woman in America is as creative with her hair than a sista from The D. And money is no object. We are the only people in a city with a 35 percent poverty rate who can step out on the block in fur coat and shout, “Pink gators, my Detroit Playas.”
I wish a PETA would!
We are the most country big city up North. Don’t think so? Go to any black-owned restaurant and see if they don’t have sweet tea—no sweetener needed. And if you want some Southern food, go to Steve’s Soul Food, one of our many culinary icons that’s survived decades of economic upheaval.
We keeps catfish on our breaths.
Most importantly, we’re survivors. Detroit is one of the few cities to tell the white man to go fuck himself and still be standing. Back when Coleman A. Young became our first black mayor after the 1967 Riots, which left dozens of people dead, he started building the black political power structure that would see unprecedented black control of Detroit up until 2014 when a white mayor finally reclaimed the throne. But between those iconic moments, there was no place in America where a black person could be more comfortable in their blackness than Detroit.
Growing up in Detroit during the 1980s, blackness was scenery.
Our schools were mostly black, so I really didn’t grow up around “microaggressions.” That was for Negroes who attended integrated schools. And even with white suburban politicians vowing to see Detroit fail, Young handled the city’s finances better than any mayor that preceded him the previous 50 years. Black excellence wasn’t a catch phrase for Detroit; it was a way of life.
And when Coleman got tired of those racist-ass reporters asking him dumb-ass questions, he cussed they white asses the fuck out. If Dej Loaf coined “Let a nigga try me,” Coleman provided the preamble: “Let a cracka try me.”
Most black politicians tend to kiss the white man’s ass. But I grew up with a mayor who told the white man to kiss his. Coleman even called Ronald Reagan “prum face” when he was running for president. After he won? “President Prum Face.”
He had a name plate with “The Head Mothafucka In Charge” on his desk.
One of our current congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib, is continuing the tradition by calling Trump a mothafucka. Detroiters are not well-believed people—especially to racists.
Detroit was so black, I never really spent anytime around American white people until I went to the Peace Corps—at age 23. My nigga, did you hear me? I DIDN’T HAVE TO HANG AROUND WHITE PEOPLE UNTIL I WAS 23-YEARS-OLD. Young set up a foundation for black kids in Detroit to attend HBCUs on scholarship and I was one of them, so I was around my people for another four years. Coleman wanted us to be surrounded by blackness for as long as humanly possible.
That shit was glorious, yo.
White people were the backdrop in Detroit. Black people were the foreground. That was Detroit. No other major city can claim that—not even Washington, D.C. I love Marion Barry, but the nation’s capital was not the real chocolate city—Motown was and still is.
You can’t call yourself the blackest city if you’re city is mostly white. Sorry, Damon. You are a very smart brotha, but Pittsburgh is the suburbs compared to Detroit—if you need hot sauce, we can express mail you some. Free of charge. (Or perhaps you need shea butter instead) And sorry, Chicago. I love ya, but you can’t be the blackest city if the last time you had a black mayor was when She’s Gotta Have It was in theaters. Besides, if Chicago is supposed to be so black, why y’all got wind and temperatures that feel like you walking around Neptune without a space suit? You know niggas don’t like the cold! Besides, Chicago AND Harlem Negroes is uppity. Y’all are the Jack and Jill kids of the black community. As for Atlanta, y’alls mayor can’t even make mac and cheese.
What? Y’all got something to say? I didn’t think so. Don’t let me sic Judge Greg Mathis on you!
Oh, and on the civil rights front, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lead 125,000 people in the “Detroit Walk to Freedom” on June 23, 1963. It was considered a practice run for the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
At the time, it was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.
Black Detroit ain’t what it used to be. We’re hurting. We’ve been hit by decades of white flight that has amounted to nothing more than an economic boycott. Unfair tax codes are forcing us out of our homes at alarming rates. The city experienced the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history back in 2013 that hit its retirees especially hard. In a city that once boasted 1.8 million people, Detroit is barely struggling to hold on to the 700,000 people who have stayed. Nearly 80 percent of that number is still black.
That’s a miracle.
Because black people are a miracle. Black Detroit has given the world so much, but the world has given Detroit so little in return. It is the most abusive relationship between a major black city and the nation America has ever seen.
But Detroit is a loving city, one that will stand. One that, once someone tries her, she’ll fuck around and catch a body.
Detroit is that beautiful, black city that stands firm in her blackness. It is the rose that lives amongst the dead weeds that have tried and failed to kill her joy.
Detroit is Gawd’s country, no matter how much the Devil tries to prove otherwise.