When I arrived in Detroit four years ago, I was surprised by how I was the only Black person in the restaurants, galleries, and bars I visited. I came home with hopes to experience the blackness I remembered growing up but was simply denied because I chose to frequent places of interest to me. I would note the lack of people of color in the room and ask: where is everyone?
My concern was further exacerbated by the narrative of Detroit’s future being driven by White men. Their future threatened to erase blackness in this majority-Black city. What happened to the beautiful, Black city I reminisced about as I traveled around the world? Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to witness the absence of Black people.
A year ago, journalist Nolan Finely wrote an article in the Detroit News asking, “Where are the black people?”1 Blacks, according to his estimation, were not participating in “post-bankruptcy era” Detroit. While we are not present in the way that reflects the statistics of the city, I’ve witnessed the patronage of Black people in the new White-owned restaurants, bars, cafes and art spaces rise significantly over the last two years. Groups of us intentionally and actively disrupt symbols of “Columbusing” and reject this notion that all Black people are disengaged from the new Detroit that is emerging. But even though acts of resistance show up all over Midtown, Downtown and Corktown, Blacks are the minority within such spaces. Why? We presume the food is unaffordable, or people may not have heard about the newest restaurant or co-working space. It takes time for the word to spread; however, have we considered that the majority of the Black people residing in Detroit are simply not interested in engaging in these predominately White spaces? Perhaps it is not as appealing as I think it is.
When I return home from traveling abroad, one of my favorite places to visit is Baker’s, a one-stop shop for Black Detroit culture and food. Baker’s helps me to readjust to this Midwestern piece of paradise. There is a safety and comfort I feel being around my “family.” I know within the Black enclaves I will not be profiled or made to feel unwanted. This sense of comfort is why I returned to Detroit. A majority-Black city has the potential to provide mental and physical health for the Black body.
Out of a deep desire to participate in Detroit’s transformation, I created AFROTOPIA. AFROTOPIA has evolved into a space where I research and experiment with various methods of healing for Black bodies residing in Detroit in order to create new visions of the future and thus control destiny. The experiments span from esoteric activities--meditations, rituals, and readings-- to more formal events-- film screenings, parties, a book club, exhibitions, and festivals. My research focuses on healing the mind using Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is an evolving, international arts movement and cultural aesthetic, and most recently a form of activism. Afrofuturists tend to be interdisciplinary and experiment with speculative modalities such as science fiction, horror, magical realism and fantasy to re-imagine the Black experience. Since Detroit is majority Black, it is imperative Detroit engage Afrofuturism. The cultural aesthetic provides a window to the entire world from a Black perspective, culturally and politically. If Detroit is to become a global player beyond the automotive industry, while remaining a majority-Black, American city, Blacks must participate on the global stage. Black children need to know their options. They need to know how big the world is so that they can choose their destiny. Afrofuturism fills this need, hence, the reason I use it as a portal in my AFROTOPIA events.
As a cultural producer, I curate art events for AFROTOPIA. It doesn’t seem to matter the venue-- it could be the Charles Wright Museum of African American History or the Detroit Institute of Arts-- the audience for my events is primarily Black. I have thus shifted my ask to, where are the White people? Are the ghosts of the 1967 rebellion haunting us? In January of 2012, I developed AFROTOPIA and gave a lecture for Creative Mornings, I was asked by a White man, “is there space for [him] in AFROTOPIA?” I was asked the same question two years later during Sigi Fest, a performance art festival I produce through AFROTOPIA. I guess when Afro- is the prefix, it signals that the event is specifically for Black people. Strange how when a space is predominately Black, the question becomes “are Whites and others allowed to enter?” It seems permission needs to be given. This confuses me. The question presumes that predominately White spaces are neutral spaces where all are welcome. At the very least, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has reminded us that this is not the case. All too often White spaces are void of the #AllLivesMatter approach. And yet, in Detroit, I witness more diversity amongst the People of Color community within predominately White spaces or White-owned businesses.
The City of Detroit is 82% Black, a statistic repeated often. I find myself saying it almost every day. I tend to lean heavily on the statistic because it also serves as a reminder to me and others that there is an imbalance growing within certain neighborhoods. Even more frustrating, the city has fallen back into a Black-White dichotomy, yet again. It’s like playing ping-pong--Black, White, Black, White. After traveling to over 30 countries, I crave more diversity than Black and White. My Black contemporaries and I crave a cultural diversity that is usually found in a cosmopolitan city.
On a recent trip to Paris, I was standing on a subway platform waiting for the Metro when the station made an announcement in four different languages. Paris is a city that recognizes that it is host to many cultures although majority-White. I’m not ignorant to the racial disparities and injustices in Paris; however, one cannot deny that Paris cultivates its global status. As I stood on the platform, I imagined waiting for the new M-1 Rail on Woodward Avenue listening to an announcement spoken in Arabic, Spanish, Bengali, Japanese, English and as many languages it takes to acknowledge the rich diversity that exists here.
As much as I feel safer in a predominately-Black city, I know Detroit will flourish when it recognizes itself as a global city, an Afroglobal destination if you will. Only then will Detroit return to its status as a cosmopolitan metropolis filled with the beauty of the world, hopefully without being forced to transform into a majority-White city in the process. This is the Afrofuture that can and will materialize if we want it.
Finley, Nolan. “Finley: Where are the black people?” The Detroit News. 15 December 2014. http://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/nolan-finley/2014/12/14/black-people/20322377/
1 Finley. The Detroit News. 15 December 2014.
This article was first published in the art journal Infinite Mile at infinitemiledetroit.com.