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by R. L’Heureux Lewis

Detroit: The city that represents the prospects and failures of American industry.The city that is the punch line of a million jokes. The city that is Blacker than nearly any other in this country. Detroit is under intense scrutiny as of late and the flashing lights of attention may have served to take the life of seven year old Aiyana Jones as a TV crew filmed a home-raid by the Detroit SWAT.

With all the fascination with Detroit around the nation we get the problems of the city beamed into our homes via satellite, but it makes me wonder, is there more there than what we normally see? What responsibility do we bear to Detroit?  And what opportunities are there for us to contribute?

Detroit is a microcosm of Black America. I believe if you cannot love Detroit, you cannot fully love Black people. The Detroit Metropolitan area represents the best and the worst that Black folks in this country have to offer. The Black middle class was solidified in and around Detroit with steady unionized blue collar labor in the auto industry.

The middle class expanded as more Black folks with college educations occupied managerial positions. Detroiters experienced and vigilantly fought the racisms of housing redlining, riots, as well as White and Black flight. Detroit has benefited and suffered at the hands of White and Black leadership. If there is a city that tells us about the promise and perils of Blackness, it’s Detroit.  I’m so interested in what happens in Detroit because if we can turn it around, we can turn around the rest of our cities.

We will soon reach the one-year anniversary of Time Inc. buying a house and settling up a field office in Detroit to document the city. When Time dedicated dollars and staff to exploring the city, I felt both hope and concern.

As a representative of the news media, I knew that Time would have a huge audience, given that it owns over 100 media outlets. At the same time, I knew they would likely take a traditional perspective and try to document the “tragedy of Detroit.” You know, run stories about a crumbling governance structure, emotive pieces on poverty, and the city-suburb divide which has crippled collaboration and deepened racial tensions.

Along with those stories, however, are other stories. When I lived in Michigan, I  hung out in Detroit and fell in love with the rich activism taking place. The strength of Detroiters and their voices are often missing from the reality shows and headlines. I often dream that the media would capture the voices of strength and struggle that fill Detroit. Maybe if they did that, Detroit would be the punch line of one less joke or serve as an example of how communities respond to tragedy with strategy.

For over a week, I’ve been reading stories and hearing about the loss of 7-year-old Aiyanna Jones’ life. She was killed as the Detroit SWAT used a no-knock warrant and a flash bomb, and a gun discharged as they searched for the murderer of 17-year-old Je’Rean Blake. The police were accompanied by a camera crew, so we could watch them “catch the bad guy.” Instead, they captured a reel full of reality that our communities are faced with all too often.

Detroit communities are addressing the consequences of poverty – like violence – and more importantly, the roots of poverty  – like education. On the ground, Detroiters are fighting back by forming the vanguard that is rethinking education, the media, health and youth issues. During the close of June, Detroit will host the Allied Media Conference, the United States Social Forum and the National Hip Hop Congress Conference.

These gatherings center on re-visioning how we write, talk about and imagine our communities.  All three of these gatherings will bring a groundswell of folks to Detroit to do more than watch decay; instead they will grapple with the perils of poverty and work through blueprints for changing Detroit and other communities from spectacles to spectacular loci.

It’s about time that we stop looking at Detroit and begin doing something with and for Detroit. As legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs said, “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” It is time that we demand more of media, more of ourselves and help turn around the sullied gem of Black America.

R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being.

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