Somewhere Between Sturgeon, Graffiti, and Jubilee

jimBy James W. Perkinson. Written in preparation for the Detroit Spirit and Roots Gathering this upcoming weekend in Detroit hosted in part by Word and World. Published on On the Edge, a Detroit Catholic Worker Paper.

This summer in Detroit, some of us will attempt a new thing. Tentatively, slowly deliberately—we will convene a dialogue among three communities of inspiration. One is rooted in postindustrial soils, breaking street savvy into spit finesse, spun bodies, and tagged walls. Another is deeply historical, born of peasant resistance against ancient Roman might, itself gone genocidal and colonizing. The third, most rooted, is embedded in soils and waters, seasons and weather, enculturated by the place itself. Hip-hop, Christian, and indigenous by other names—three constituencies roughly demarked, will make common cause in concern for the future of de troit, the strait. We have named it the “Detroit Spirit Roots Gathering” and seek to serve a re-spiriting of the city in part by learning from each other’s stories.

Motor City today is indeed an emergency incarnate (though not of its own making, despite media stories to the contrary).  Among those of us in the activist community pushing back on the situation, the story is often told in a post-war frame. Counter to the way corporatized news trades in stereotypes to further agendas private and well-financed, my own collaborators in a new vision seek continually to unearth the subtext. The unmaking of Detroit, from Arsenal of Democracy in the 40s to Poster Child of Blight today, has all to do with the way race organized class. This is crucial foreground for our gathering.

The Immediate Story

White flight, capital flight, job flight, tax base and asset flight—you would think the city an aviary! (Ironically, pre-colonial contact, you would be literally right—the river bend between the Lakes was the teeming site of waterfowl and winged peoples writ large.) From a peak of 1,800,000 people in 1951, the city now sleeps barely 600,000 plus.

In the later 1940s, white GIs returning from war theaters European and Pacific, faced old neighborhoods then flush with African American workers, who had fled the Jim Crow South to contribute to the anti-Nazi effort and create a viable life for themselves and families. The GI Bill offered ready money to build suburban enclaves outside the city proper—monies gathered by tax policy from all communities and made primarily available only to one (all but 4 percent of GI Bill funds went to white applicants). U.S. tax dollars at work, over time effectively transferring resources from communities of color to those of lighter hue! The result: today, the largest black metropolis ringed by 86 independent municipalities, 47 townships, and 89 school systems. Most of them created by quite purposeful policy—using FHA red-lining, VA exclusion, restrictive covenants and vigilant (and vigilante) real estate practice to contain “blackness” inside the city proper.

Detroit today—the poorest big city sitting cheek-by-jowl with the 4th most affluent county (Oakland) in the country! The conditions in both “produced” by way of each other. “We” who grow up white and entitled in this society, do not like to face this fact: much of our prosperity and opportunity has been coercively gathered from those who do not look like us. Clearly the case in violently taking native land and piling up wealth on the back of shackled slaves! But also the case by way of a continuing operation of plunder carried out through policy details and intricate practices, difficult to see without a lot of in-depth analysis—both here and abroad. The very substance of the suburb—its streets and building materials, and the highways connecting its dwellings to jobs still located in the urban core, all “concretize” flows of resources brokered by racist policies and practices. White flight relied upon taxes and subsidies and mortgage-finance that gerrymandered public dollars disparately toward majority white use and ownership.

Meanwhile, inside the city, black families, mid-century, continuously sought to escape tightening conditions in the three “catchment basins” where black folk were allowed to settle. Life in these areas grew increasingly crowded. City support services were minimal or abusive; school systems struggling with little resources. And living there meant foregoing any possibility of gaining equity through homeownership, as FHA policy red-lined any neighborhood with someone of color in it (as supposedly “unstable”) and banks followed suit by refusing to grant mortgages there for less than 50 percent down. As families tried to move into white neighborhoods in hopes of realizing value in their homes, they were met with concerted violence, organized across whole blocks. Housewives and mothers picketing, kids on bikes doing reconnaissance, teenagers throwing bricks and epithets, fathers and husbands after work, massing in mobs, burning crosses on lawns, hanging black figures in effigy, pouring gas or salt on grass, torching entire houses, while police stood by watching, or arrested black home dwellers. More than 200 incidents from late 40s to early 60s!   None of which gets cited in the mainstream narrative about Detroit.

By 1967, the lid blew. One too many police raids and belligerent arrests struck a match. The rebellion thus ignited refused “business as usual” and especially targeted local institutions predatory on black life. Did they “burn their own neighborhoods?” Deep question about ownership and land in the core city! Who did “own” Detroit at that point? In any case, the upshot of the upsurge was a profound change in policy.   Almost never clarified in stories told since, the flames in Detroit and Newark compelled the convening of the Kerner Commission, whose explicit exposé of the way racist real estate practices created “ghettos” in the first place, led to the Fair Housing Act abolishing Federal red-lining and challenging segregated housing. While doing little to dismantle the racialized Eight Mile divide, the new legislation at least made it possible to challenge some of the practices legally. The ‘67 Rebellion was indeed powerful politics. It changed the law.

Needless to say, white flight went hyper in the years following.   By the mid-70s Motown had a black mayor and was fast consolidating a black majority. While de-industrialization continued apace—re-locating jobs and infrastructure “outside”—creative leadership and ordinary family care made good use of a bad situation. The years of Coleman Young witnessed a beleaguered city administration assert what control it could, push back on a corporate sector using its clout to extract concessions (like GM in Poletown), and at least secure a modicum of pride despite the impossible economic headwinds. Certainly the influx of crack devastated an already difficult situation. Market penetration through TV did the rest. Was there malfeasance on the part of city officials? Of course—as there is at every level of government in every domain in this country. But much more damaging was abuse by the state. Take-over of newspapers in the 90s throttled independent reporting. Take-over of DPS by Governor Engler and cronies in 1999, seeking to steer 1.2 billion in bond monies to outstate contractors, shifted the school system from a $100 million surplus to a $100 million deficit when “handed back” in 2003 and flipped test scores from gaining ground compared to the state average to plummeting.

The rest is (near term) history. Emergency managers imposed over school systems and over the city itself (the latter against citizen will as expressed by the ballot). Bankruptcy declared by the Governor and his acolyte manager, securing big bank interest established by debt swaps illegally negotiated five years into the new millennium. And putting pensions up for grabs both here and nationally (by setting precedent).   DPS ripped apart, buildings pirated for Educational Achievement Authority and charter use, yielding profit towards Wall Street hedge funds (backing the charter movement); students lumped together in huge classrooms as “guinea pigs” for testing new software (again yielding corporate benefit). City finances largely a cash flow emergency generated by unilateral state withholding of revenue sharing commitments and a two-tier city tax policy, allowing those working, but not residing in the city, to walk away without contributing to the municipal tax base in a city that yields their livelihood. Throw in the post-2008 mortgage and tax foreclosures and the 2014 “ethnic cleansing” of neighborhoods by water shutoffs, and you have the human-made “perfect storm” of emergencies that has allowed “disaster capital” to feed like a vulture. All of this is a familiar narrative among those I know who act to make the future otherwise.

The Roots of Possibility

But what we generally have not engaged is the deeper infrastructure of this history of disaster. Or the multiple ways the Spirit-Haunts of this riverside haven are stirring to create otherwise. Putting it thus invokes an Agency beyond the merely visible. Among the three groups coming together this July, it is this latter concern that summons. What might we learn in listening to each other’s “take” on what is trying to surface in this hour? Emergency can enable birth. In our day, a whole new vision has convened under the rubric of “emergence” (as in “evolution”). Rhyme spitters, jubilee preachers, and indigenous healers alike are finding intrigue with each other in seeking to perceive possibilities not dictated by the obvious Powers.

I write here as one little voice in the ensemble, anticipating what I am able. But also certain I will be surprised. I would stir my musings here into the mix like so much mulch. Writing as “compost.” (Inevitably part of what any of us ever says or writes is BS. But it is a quality of the wild economy of nature that even our waste does not go to waste—about which more below.) A notion those of us “Christian” must re-learn from those with greater experience. Both hip-hoppers and indigenous dwellers bring perspective to bear that begs listening here.

The Insurgent Beat

Hip-hop first. What emerged in the early 70s in South Bronx, led by locals such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Master Flash, was not a flash in the pan. In neighborhoods destroyed by policy and dissed by cinema treatments like “Fort Apache, Bronx,” youth with old spirits and ancient savvy made urban decay yield beauty.   Probing the terror-dome with deep rhythm, they channeled the street ghosts into boasts and realities of life writ large. Bodies choreographed into limb tangles and freezes that would make even James Brown laugh!   Head-spinning inversions granting a bottom-up vision of an upside-down situation! Legs mimicking the choppers doing nightly surveillance on the ‘hood!   This was judo performed on an impossible condition. Gang-warfare here was transfigured into break-battles waged on cardboard at the corner!

And before long, fourteen year old Grand Wizard Theodore had bumped his stereo needle while removing a record during a practice session in his bedroom. He heard the “burb” not as mistake, but language—one of the “tongues” spoken by turf abandoned in city policy. He was not wrong.  Two generations later, DJs globally cruise the nethersphere of our time, lending fingers to techno-energies as if the cyborg could speak! Making meaning from absurdity; articulating skronks and squibs, chirps and tweaks, as if some galactic orisha had descended out of another astral zone to speak the future of the machine. Here too, battle-mode transmutes energies otherwise likely to combust into violence into communal recognition and appreciation.

Likewise, with both MCing and Tagging. Lips made into instruments, spitting rhyme like lightning! Hard-edged consonants clipped into rapid-fire velocity, making the mouth an uzi, shooting back at a supremacist world, insisting Black Lives do indeed Matter! And cityscapes the globe over, bearing tats and tags, announcing architectures of control as contested! Scribing fat-bellied syllables onto middle class eyeballs like the second coming of color. And all of it refusing the grave! Refusing ownership! It is no wonder so many “proper folk” wax red-faced and vitriolic in response—and have the wall whitewashed. Or the DVD crushed. The country does understand this message!

Once this genie had broken ground in the Bronx, it could not be put back in the hole.   Certainty, it has since been bought off in the commercial, big white-owned corps deciding to make money on the back of what they could not contain. Yes, the re-packaging is perverse—the game re-made in the image of the ad: bullets, booty and bling, a salute to mainstream Amerikkka. The thuggish image is a mirror—way more damage has been done in the national history of policy than any summation of gang violence over recent decades. (Never mind that hip-hop is at least as much a prophylactic for gangbanging as an accomplice.) Think Native genocide (approximately 95 million killed off)! Think African slavicide (another 30-50 million)!   Witchicide perped onto females with impunity from Puritan days! And all the deaths in all the neo- and post-colonial theaters since (like the Philippines and Iraq)!

But beneath the glitterati surface of corporatized rap, underground hip-hop continues its quest. It speaks truth. From the intersection of machine and human, where African genes meet their global offspring, insurgence! Body cubism on the rise! Taking the bullshit of the era and composting genius. How shall we read it? In major cities around the world today, hip-hop serves as a kind of Esperanto—an idiom of percussion shared by youth who splice its bombast into their own cultural style. From the ashes of neo-liberal plunder, a Phoenix of grandeur! Multi-cultural in appeal, taking no prisoners. Spirits of the Mother Continent possessing whoever is open to the black vein of ancestry! And what gathers under that beat, in those varied theaters of innovation, approximates Martin King’s Beloved Community hope like no other trans-global assemblies yet seen.

This is part of what the July gathering will sample: the Mother DNA of the globe, never yet entirely stamped out, a cosmic “bang” echoing still in the recesses of memory carried by everyone. But the gathering will also augur local memory.

The Feeding Fish

For the site of the strait, this means going “under” the story of black migration north to the history of native struggle. Here where the upper Great Lakes pulses like an artery into Erie and the Atlantic beyond, 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water flashes in the summer sun. For Ojibwe, the bend was wawiatonong, “where it (the river) goes around.” For the Wendet/Huron, the place was oppenago, “where the waters meet.” Each named the water-course for itself, unlike Jesuit romance of the flow as a “strait” between other places, re-making the site in the image of global capital and Euro-trade.

Detroit from 1701 forward increasingly was forced to pirate its significance from commodity traffic—first in beaver, then whitefish, then mid-19th century, increasingly, iron, copper, and wood, re-engineered into rail cars, stoves, marine engines. In short order pharmaceutical- and chemical-work gained prominence—in part due to salt long deposited under Detroit soils—as well as cigars and tobacco products. Soon to follow was Ford and autos—and all of it celebrated in a mindset hell-bent on re-tooling planetary surfaces and depths in service of the market.

Only today, with climate blow-back, are we being pushed to re-compute this story. It may turn out a tale of hubris rather than genius, plunging a globe into desperate straits. But in any case, it is clearly time to listen to the voice of the place, translated for deafened human hearing by native wisdom and custom.

On the southern stretch of the bend, indigenous experience also named the site Numma Sepee, the “Place of the Sturgeon.” This is a fish up to eight feet long, denizen of earth’s waters 136 million years in duration, seeing dinosaurs in their day! For the Wendet, the creature was kin, ancestor of renown, whose bones, once the flesh was consumed, were hallowed with burial rather than burning, like human forebears. Medicine healers indeed regularly talked to both waters and fish, honoring each with offering, in recognition of their life-gift, making human dwelling on these lands possible. Back behind this Huron symbiotics, even older traces remain of mound builders, whose line winds far south over the horizon, to the “beautiful river” people of Ohi:yo, and on west and down to Mexico.

The strait is laced with graces primordial, haunts of folk who could read the river, hear the rejoinder of finned and winged and four-legged creature alike, and build reciprocity into the exchange. They maintained the place as “commons” for a cornucopia of beings, communing in shared breathing and shared ferocities of living. As with so many practices indigenous, things in their wildness were part of a sacred presence, nothing counted as refuse and wantonly discarded. (Indeed, as native teacher Martín Prechtel recounts, “compost” itself, often enough across native cultures globally, is embraced as a goddess, “She” who makes all life possible.) A lifetime is not enough to recover the layers of palaver and the beauties of culture since silenced. What such might mean for our future remains to be conjured.

But the telling this listening solicits this summer must also not abstain from the bloodletting that continues to throb in the soils. The history of ricocheting violence unleashed in Dutch West Indies Co. demand for fur in the 17th century, arming eastern Iroquois with weapons technology and threat that bumped native groups west across the Great Lakes basin for centuries following, seeking safe haven. The struggle of groups to suss out the trade and war relations with encroaching French and British aggression that might most likely secure a modicum of survival. Tionnontati, Neutrals, Nipissings, Chippewa, Ottawa, Potowatomi, Wyandot, Erie, and Susquehanna, as indeed, the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Miami—all traversed the region in search of continuation. Euro goods rapidly replaced native crafts; subsistence hunting was deformed into rapacious commerce; ritual honoring submerged under missionary versions of supremacy and demonizing.

Ottawa prophet Neolin and leader Pontiac organize a confederacy of revolt by 1763, repudiating British arrogance and racism, forcing a standoff granting all terrain from the Allegany’s to the Mississippi, from the Lakes to the Caribbean, as native homeland. This arrangement the 1776 Revolution of the colonies ruptured, pouring white settlers desperate for land into the Ohio Valley, and pushing “Mad” Anthony Wayne hankering for glory into his war-making. Multiple battles and treaties and fraudulent land confiscations later, Tecumseh rallies native youth into a pan-tribal force of fierce opposition, galvanized by prophecy and accurately predicted sun-eclipse, and by 1812 captures Fort Detroit from the Americans in a brilliantly conducted campaign of trickster appearances and courage under fire. Only betrayal by cowardly British upends the triumph in 1813, with Tecumseh killed at Moravian Town just east of Detroit in Canada and the dream of a viable native homeland crushed forever. From thence forward, the bend will become the strait.

All of this history—so lightly hinted here—portends possibilities other than business as usual. From the depths of our time, African Eve resounds in hip-hop beats and calls for response. From the soils under the city and the waters “going round,” Ojibwe respect and Wendet spirit still haunt the curve.   For a Christian heart committed to incarnation, the message demands foremost, confession.   The “great book” has been made to do service to the sword like no other scripture extant. More than a thousand years of Christian empire, 500 years of Christian colonialism, are clear. There is no immediate access for those of us embracing Jesus today, except through the witness of those at the other end of our violence. Africans reduced in slavery to less than their own bodies have made performance the code of the entire species’ ancestry, coming now to collect dues. Native artifact and memory return from the grave of white silence and ignorance with a huge claim on the future: unless we learn what they knew and know, we may not survive the Sandys and Katrinas to come.

The Teaching Bush

The “revelation” by which Christianity today must set its compass takes shape as a beat and a ceremony, more than a book. But the book itself also carries memory of survival “in spite of.” We who are Christian would do well to enter this trilogue with our traditions of Sabbath and Jubilee to the fore. These ideas reference way more than the labor-rest and debt-release they most immediately signify (important as those are). Indeed together they identify a continuum of practice rooted in the struggle of escaped slaves, re-learning a desert land under the hand of an African-trained Bedouin named Moses. Schooled by a bush in the Sinai outback, Moses has learned how to live on the land. Food comes in the form of aphid defecation, dripping down from Sinai shrubs into puddles of nutritious resin, known and collected even today by Arab Bedouin under the name of “man” or “honey dew” (the term here is an Arabic equivalent of the “manna” remarked in the Hebrew text).   The eco-savvy thus described gets coded into the tradition as a memorial of that 40-year-long wilderness “clinic,” where ex-slaves re-learn how to survive outside the imperial economy. It will become the central undercurrent of the biblical witness, source of prophetic critique of monarchy once Israel compromises its original vision of clan-based land tenure and de-centralized political decision-making.

Sabbath-Jubilee memory will anchor the social movements of both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth (“give us this day our daily bread”). It will designate a practice in which assets are “released” for circulation among the poor rather than hoarded for elite benefit, and land and water are re-valued as “living” gift. Indeed, the Baptizer will practice a form of water politics in his hour, challenging Herod’s policy of privatizing the Jordan flow for Roman bathhouse lifestyles (by means of aqueducts built through taxes on the peasants)—and pay the ultimate price in his beheading.

The Nazareth upstart will organize in beleaguered villages, marshal a public curse on the wealthy policies of foreclosure, occupy the Temple-Bank in Jerusalem (the Chase Manhattan of its day where all the records of indebtedness were maintained), name its money-laundering operation “thug central,” and likewise suffer retribution. Much of his teaching (in parables) will be of seed. And for the savvy, listening closely, import will show in “resurrection” of what died and decayed. When we shift focus away from how empire has re-packaged the memory to elevate a mere individual, what appears is a movement coming back from the grave as if “composted” (imperial BS made to yield vital witness in spite of itself). Urban and outlaw for three centuries before co-opted by Constantine, the early church was primarily a movement of Sabbath “feeding” and Jubilee “freedom” for widows, orphans and slaves.

Re-Rooting the Commons

And here then is the common cause of this coming July 2015 gathering. Composting multiple ways of cultivating livable futures from the ruins and garbage of the present! Combining roots and spirits. And returning to basic elements. In hip-hop these include DJing, MCing, Grafitti, and Break Dancing (with Knowledge as the overall resource). For indigenous, it means some measure of return to what is already known—ceremonies, offerings, waasa inaabidaa (“looking in all directions” in Anishinabe-mowin or “speech”) and re-discovering gakina-awiiya (“we are all related”). For Christians, it means embrace of the bloody cry of indigenous Abel, killed by agribusiness-aggressor Cain, facing our own violence and re-learning roots from those who have not forgotten. For all of us, it perhaps means a return to simple things like earth and air, fire and water, to ask all over what these gifts mean and who we are as their offspring. In any case, a body-listening, with feet on the ground. May the beat, the fish, and the bush find a way to talk and their respective lovers dance, eat and vision together with ferocity! May the river again become as it was when the Sturgeon teemed, the people dreamed, and every kind of motion was a spirit vocation!

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