Some memories seem to rise on their own from nowhere, faces slowly appearing in deep water. This is how Gloria came back. One day in my middle age, I remembered that I had had a “colored” baby doll.
This was our word then, the polite word. It would be over a decade before we haltingly said “black.” She had a hard vinyl body, arms and legs that swiveled, and molded hair, with a ridge of brown plastic on her head, coming to a curl in front. In memory, she was golden tan. When I recalled her, it was like suddenly confronting an alien: Where did she come from? How did she find herself in the young white suburbs of Detroit in the mid-1950’s?
Gloria took decades to return to me, having been taken from me long before. Given, then taken: a mystery that may be ultimately as simple as childhood confusion or the vagaries of memory. Or it may not be simple at all. Gloria surfaced trailing long strands of questions.
The year I was born, in the exact middle of the twentieth century, Detroit’s population reached its height of nearly 1,850,000, fed in part by the wartime industrial boom which brought some 350,000 southerners north, 1/7 of them African American. That year, 1950, 83.58% of the city was white.
Now the war was over; millions had been made by men like my father who fed the Arsenal of Democracy, as the city was called. They led their families out of the city, south and west but especially north, up Woodward Avenue toward the receding edge of rural Michigan. My father put us in the front ranks of white flight. He bought an acre lot along the Franklin River, just off 14 Mile Road, six miles beyond the city’s northern border, later made famous in an eponymous Eminem film.
Dim flashes of our duplex in Detroit curl deep in my memory. But the imagery that grounds my sense of myself is all from that lot in Franklin, which seemed huge and provided ample room to run and climb, room for imagination. The surrounding yards and streets were mine; being out after dark was innocuous; friendly neighbors co-parented me and every other kid in the neighborhood. A neighbor’s pool was open to us virtually every day in summer. Everyone had at least one bike. Down the street in both directions there were horses. Speeding along on my blue Huffy over this groundwork of immense privilege, I grew up with a sense of safety and freedom probably unexceeded in any place at any time in recorded history.
We were a little planet out there, but we revolved around Detroit. It is telling that we always referred to the city as Downtown, as if we lived in another part of it. We knew ourselves in relation to the city humming at the edge of consciousness, its energy pulsing through our lives. It was where many of the fathers drove in the morning to work, of course, so it fed us directly. There were closer shopping venues—the year after we moved out of the city, the first enclosed mall in the country, Northland, opened in Southfield, an inner-ring suburb. But for serious shopping, mothers went Downtown. The center of any shopping trip was J. L. Hudson’s, who sponsored the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Our parents went Downtown for fancy dinners. The Tigers and Lions both played in what was then Briggs Stadium, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. We were part of a big organism of which Detroit was the thrumming heart.
But we didn’t live there. In the first decade of my life, the city’s population dropped by 180,000. By 1960, the white population was down to 70.83%. And when families like mine left, they took the tax base with them. The African Americans who made possible my father’s fortune and Detroit’s reputation as the nation’s engine could never have acquired sufficient property to fund the city, even if they hadn’t faced housing segregation so fierce that when Rosa Parks emigrated north in the late fifties, she said Detroit was no improvement over Alabama.
Gail Griffin is a nonfiction writer and poet whose most recent book is a study of a campus tragedy called “The Events of October” (Wayne State University Press). Her essays have appeared in anthologies including Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes; and Southern Sin: Tales of the Sultry South and Women Behavior Badly. Nonfiction and poetry have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Southern Review, Sweet, Quarter After Eight, and Hotel Amerika.