Tuesday, September 23, 2008

explaining loving michigan

Most people who know me, know I carry an almost unhealthy love for my home state of Michigan. I say unhealthy because there's not much, really, to love about Michigan. It's packed with religious fundamentalists on one side of the state, corrupt union officials on the other side and libertarian radicals in the north. The KKK still has a presence here, the Minute Men movement (of the 'we hate mexkins and illegals' type) started here, and if you're queer, about the only place where you won't get your ass beat up or prayed over on a regular basis is Ann Arbor.

And then just yesterday, I saw the following video:

The video's sponsors, Freedom's Defense Fund, is an org that (among other things) is working to prevent Washington D.C. from getting the right to representation in the Senate. Why? Because the thought of Senators Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton terrifies them. Why? Because obviously two black Senators would bring about a welfare state, outlaw guns, and over regulate everything. In short, Senator Jackson and Sharpton would bring about the Apocalypse. Thus, is it necessary to deny thousands of U.S. citizens representation.

These are the people I live next to and send my kids to school with. Fortunately, right now, I live in an area of the state where there is a nice strong mix of union folks, libertarian radicals, psuedo-liberals and people of color. Although you'd think that was reason enough to send me screaming into the abyss, oddly enough, it's because of this mix that I've learned to love Michigan, to appreciate everything about Michigan from the decaying factories with no workers to the strange white folks that refuse to fly the U.S. flag next to their precious confederate flags because it'd be just too much of an injustice.

I didn't feel this way for a long time. Like most people, I grew up dreaming of getting the fuck OUT of Michigan rather than imagining how Michigan could change the world. I grew up on the religious side of the state--a place was built on the principles of separatism (Hardline Evangelical Christians in the form of Christian Reformed left the Netherlands to find a new world where they didn't have to listen to or accommodate moderates in their religion) and that made a big difference to my Michigan experience. Unless you went to church with the rest of the crowd, you were basically an outcast. And because there was no such thing as a person who did not go to church, there wasn't even much of an underground of outsiders that found each other and hung out together (although every once in a while it did happen).

I now live on the other side of the state. A place where separatism came in the form of racial animosity. White flight killed many of our bigger cities (Saginaw, Detroit, Flint, Dearborn), and both black and white kids can go all the way through high school and literally never see a white or black kid. When I taught at the local University, I can remember being astounded at the number of students (both black and white) that wanted to 'study' people outside of their own racial group for papers. I sat in my office while another grad student talked to a student that wanted to write a paper like this, and the student (who was black) said he wanted to write a paper about his white roommates because they were "weird." He couldn't explain what made a white person "weird" or why he wanted to study that "weirdness," but with the all out audacity of a freshman student, he asked, "wasn't that what this paper is for, to find out why they're so weird?"

But I think that student pointed to the beauty of Michigan. For all it's majorly huge problems--Michigan is a site of unbridled potential.

On the East side of Michigan, we are bound together in a way I think only other factory type towns could understand. The shitty economy is a great leveler, the magnificent bringer together of downfallen and downtrodden. Whether you're poor and white or poor and black, you go to the local community college or the cheap public university that you can commute to and still keep your restaurant job at home. And when you are with people who don't look like you for the first time, all poor, all going to shitty schools after graduating from shitty schools, conversations that need to happen, are *required* to happen if we ever want to confront racism in the U.S.--they *happen*.

If a rural Christian white male who signed up for the military at 17 with his parents permission can find a way to laugh and joke with an urban black somewhat religious female who would never join the military in a thousand years about what it was like to grow up in rural Michigan, if that urban black female can find a way to get said white kid to clap along to her rap about the crappy food at the cafeteria, what could two people, two communities do that aren't so far apart from each other?

Unfortunately, the economy is also the thing that can easily be used to manipulate those conversations for the worse. Living poor, struggling pay check to pay check, losing your house, seeing your kids go hungry, it causes resentment, anger, both of which can very easily be channeled into hate and violence.

And that right there is the *problem* with Michigan. For all its potential, for all the hope it offers in daily interactions, for all the laughing and joking and clapping, there is still the unanswered problem of lack of progressive/radical voices in Michigan. While the level of progressive/radical leftist discourse is very small and you must know where to look in order to find it, there is a well established overwhelmingly strong network of racist foundations, churches, newspapers, communities and radio stations that unabashedly 'guide' the conversations about race into the usual territory: Mexkins are stealing our jobs, blacks are lazy suckers of public money, 'we' are not like either of them (even if we *are* poor and beat up), and what makes 'us' unlike the Mexkins and blacks is 'our' legality and our hardworking ethics (not our racism).

But it doesn't have to be this way. And in many places just like the East Side of Michigan, it's not. During the recent Potsville raids, it was the largely white community that organized against the raids and created support networks for abandoned children and family members. And during the raids in Mississippi, it was much reported that black workers clapped and cheered with white workers as Latin@ workers were led away after arrests. But it was black women workers that embraced and hugged Latin@ women workers that were hadn't been paid because of the raids.

In spite of the hate rhetoric, the politically driven fear mongering, the well funded dividing techniques--there was still the human to human understanding between at least some of those workers. A human understanding that led to empathy, love and solidarity. A love that led a whole community of rural white folks to organize for and around "the illegals" even as more 'natural' self-proclaimed "anti-racists" allies refused to even write blog posts about immigration.

What could happen to race relations in the U.S. if just once, leftist type folks realized the same thing that everybody on the right has realized for decades: that it's places like Michigan and Louisiana and Iowa that hold the answer. That it's 'rural' hicks and 'urban' welfare suckers that are leaders in anti-racist movements?

What would happen if those leaders got a little respect, support, and funding?

Would anything change?
Would we have a different U.S.?

I love Michigan because in spite of it's problems, it shows me on a daily basis everything that is both right and wrong with the world. What needs to be fixed as well as how to fix it.

Tickets for Obama

If we started listening to the products of Flint, those who were born, raised, and make livings in Flint--how would things change? Would there be huge lines of people talking about how the anti-racist classes they're waiting to take offer them much needed hope?

Would we trust each other rather than the politicians of the world?


Nadia said...

i love michigan too. great post. what u said about commuting to the local cheap public university is SO true about wayne state. i wanted to go to school there exactly because i wanted to be around different people (i.e. not white suburban teenage burn-outs, lol). i didn't have good enough grades or the money to go to a school like u of m or msu but i didn't have the desire to either because i felt like i wouldn't fit in there and that the people there would be stuck up and rich.

i am usually irrationally hopeful about michigan, probably because i spend a lot of time working with passionate and dedicated youth activists. but sometimes it is so so difficult to be optimistic with so much shit all around us, people leaving the state all the time, and everyone being unemployed and broke. sigh...

Anonymous said...

I don't know Michigan except for music from there (which has a huge cultural importance on an international scale, and interestingly, white bands like the Stooges and the MC5 wouldn't sound the same without soul and funk bands like Parliament and Funkadelic, and probably vice versa, and I know quite a few French alt rock kids who wouldn't be the same without their MC5 and Parliament records) but I really love this post.

I also wish the left would realise that the people who they refer to as 'hicks' or 'chavs' in the UK are most definitely not part of the problem, quite the opposite. I think that's true everywhere. Progressive movements shouldn't be going round trying to enlighten and educate these people, they should be listening to them and learning from them.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Zipped in from Shakesville for the fellow Michigan love!

I have had the pleasure of growing up in nearly every part of Michigan. Born in the Sault, elementary school in Muskegon, Junior high in Jackson, HS in Coldwater, College in Ypsi, and have lived in Redford, Novi, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor...you get the point...

Everything you have said rings true to me (although, I do know that there is a strong liberal presence in the UP), and I wanted to thank you for writing this. As I am here in Hawaii I sometimes forget that there was more to Michigan than bugs and snow.

Linnaeus said...

I don't live in Michigan now, but I grew up there, and I am so glad to see a post like this. There really is a beauty in the state, not just naturally, but also in terms of the state's people.

And while Michigan certainly has its political drawbacks, there *is* a vein of progressivism in its politics. That may not look evident now, but it's still there and can certainly be revived.

I often find myself defending my ancestral state when I hear others say a lot of bad things about it. This post heartens me. :)

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Jeannette said...

Hi from a new reader... I found you when a friend sent the link to this post about Michigan.... Thought of you when I read this


this morning

Sorry not sure how to embed the link using html!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I was raised in Michigan and I love it extensively and sometimes irrationally given that I know it has its share of problems (those you outlined and others). Now that we're back here, I'll never move out of the state again if I can avoid it.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...