One of my main motivations in founding InsideOut Literary Arts Project in 1995 was to give the lie to prevailing stereotypes of urban youth. As a classroom teacher, I had come to know firsthand the spirit, joy, talent, quirkiness, individuality, hope, humor, dreams, intellect -- you name it -- of our city's young people. Encouraging them to "think boldly, create bravely," as our mission states, and sharing their voices with the wider world could surely dispel toxic mindsets that lead to unspeakable tragedies like Trayvon Martin's killing. Detroit youth, almost by virtue of the name, are set up for these stereotypes by the media and society at large.
So when I was invited by the Detroit Institute of Arts Department of Learning and Interpretation to join Desiree Cooper, Bill Harris and Vievee Francis on last Saturday's LIterary Panel giving writers' takes on "Detroit Revealed," a current photography exhibit that has provoked not a little controversy about the image it portrays of our city, I came to the panel with the voices of youth in mind. Voices of youth like Joshua Tuck, winner of a Michigan Youth Arts Festival Certificate of Merit in Poetry, whose poem we published in 2007 in Ambiance, Cass Technical High School's literary magazine.
"Detroit is a downtrodden woman
and she is crying right now
her tears reflecting the lost skyline
the glamour and jazz
that once graced her aura
become tarnished, her skin
has become like dry pennies
her lipstick smeared sloppily
over chapped lips
revealing concrete cracks..."
Or Justin Rogers, of our winning 2011 Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam Championship team:
"Detroit is not heartless
our waters flow like
the blood pumping
through a mother's heart
when she clutches her newborn
for the first time..."
Justin's and Joshua's words join the work of thousands of young voices, all of them catalogued and calling out from a set of floor-to-ceiling book shelves that line the InsideOut's offices inside Wayne State University's State Hall. The shelves are full of the titles of the over 330 school literary magazines that IO has designed and published since we began in 1995.
I have long felt that our students have a somewhat different relationship to their city than children in other parts of the country, that they take Detroit as their muse and that the city actually becomes a character, a persona in their work. I doubt that young writers from, say, Boise or Toledo have the same relationship to their cities. I decided to examine this question in light of "Detroit Revealed." We have thousands of poems by Detroit children to examine. It's an ongoing project. Interested readers are encouraged to find and friend us on InsideOut Literary Arts Project's Facebook page, for weekly updates from this rich archive, and we welcome volunteer readers. I'm delighted to have the help of students from WSU's Irvin D. Reid Honors College, who earn service learning credits by reading through our books on a treasure hunt for Detroit poems with lines that pack a punch, such as this excerpt from a high school student.
"I'm from box mac & cheese and homemade pie.
I'm from broken porches and board windows.
I'm from loud mouths and comedy.
From bloody knuckles and closed fists."
Last week, WSU Honors College's Adam Patrick pored through 15 separate school magazines, using over 75 Post-its to mark pages where he found Detroit-referenced poems. The stack makes a visual treat. I asked Adam to share his reactions. What did it mean for a kid from the suburbs to encounter the voices of so many Detroit youngsters? How had that been for him? The first word that came to his mind was honesty, followed quickly by frustration.
"Trying to have some peace
You can barely go to sleep
Because your eyes open up
Every time the horns beep.
No stopping cars rocking
Can't you hear the bass?
Driver bops in black tints
So you can't see his face.
People scrapping. Goons jacking.
On the low down dudes macking.
The wind blows full of
Trash talking in the air.
It's all good, life in the hood.
Whips pass. What you asking for?
You better keep your mouth closed
You don't want to end up a victim of Joy Road."
Frank Cody High School, 2009
Adam also commented on the quality of the writing, which of course made me proud, and said that he had found a strong sense of hope in the kids, hope in themselves and in the future.
"I am the grass of the field.
I am the rock of the mountain.
I am the soul of the food.
I am the spinning wheels of the Charger.
I am the hotness of the sun.
The king bee out of the hive.
The brain of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Obama of my neighborhood.
The treasure of the chest.
Coffey Middle School, 2009
Finally, Adam identified a strong emphasis on family.
YOU (FOR MY DAD)
"You, my father, are like a bodyguard to me.
You are the shooting star I see in the middle of the night.
You, my father, are like a house that protects me from the rain.
You are the dog that loves me no matter what.
You are the map that leads me to my destination."
--Johnathan Lozano, Grade 4
Mark Twain School and Academy, 2011
So just from this, a quick take-away -- not only do the honest, talented young people of our city give voice to the frustrations of youth growing up in the face of decades of urban abandonment, but they also sing of their hopes for the future and their own role in it, a sense that they can make the future happen, all grounded in their love of family.
I have purposefully selected the voices of young men, which we are fortunate enough to have plenty of, for this post because, again, of prevailing stereotypes, and because, in my own heart's core, I hear echoes of the speaker in Langston Hughes's "I, Too" who proclaims "Besides/They'll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed--".
I end with the following poem written by 12th-grader Joseph Verge in response to "Roof Marsh, Roosevelt Warehouse, Detroit" -- one of Scott Hocking's photographs of abandoned cityscapes in "Detroit Revealed." A recent InsideOut Sun Life Rising Star scholarship awardee, Joseph performed this poem for the "Detroit Revealed" Teen Panel that also featured photographer TaSeanby Calderin (Focus:HOPE) and musician Hunter Muldoon (formerly of The Muldoons) -- three creative young men whose shining talents show how they, too, sing America.
"In Southwest Detroit
Life grows best on the roofs of abandoned buildings.
Outsiders look at the graffiti juxtaposed against islands of grass
but don't understand that art and science create wonders.
When I moved near Vernor St.
it took me a while to blend in with the community.
Like oil paint submerged in water, I always stood out.
Maybe I never understood the environment.
Learning the culture was like trying to decode
the meaning of a Van Gogh painting,
except my neighborhood was more like a mosaic
of different backgrounds glued together by struggle,
to prove that those abandoned buildings aren't abandoned.
Our city's hopes live there, like dandelions
yawning beneath the sun on Sunday morning.
They grow on city roads and in schoolyards,
on the surface of children's minds,
in the hearts of people who've been left behind
by everyone else. But they stand tall, their wild hair
blowing seeds of change across the horizon,
taking root in places they were told they'd never grow.
My dandelions have been the poets who've shown
me that weeds can be beautiful in their resilience,
that everything planted won't choke the sunlight out,
that just because they get overlooked doesn't
mean they don't exist.
They learn to adapt,
refuse to die quietly beneath
Citywide Poets, 2012