There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood. Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.
The loss of my mother’s biological child. One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it. The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.
The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.
It was the summer of 1967. The city of Detroit was on fire — literally. Residents rioted and looted. Police unleashed with unrestrained force. Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.
My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.
She did. Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs. It felt close. Too close. And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away. So they went.
I don’t recall any more of the story than that. How it ended. When it ended. When they came home. Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.
Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots. They hypothesized. But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain. Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.
I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.
The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it. That I needed to see it. I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood. I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.
The audience is mostly older – boomers and above. Mostly African American or Jewish. I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel. And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people. Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.
Martha and the Vandellas. Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”
It is the music of my childhood. The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.
The couple behind me is singing. They know every word. During the performance, they respond to the actors. More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either. I like it. I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.
Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.
This is what I learn:
Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.” (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club. Artist Date 47.)
The raid itself was not unusual. Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.
But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly. And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city. To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.
Five days later, 43 people were dead. More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested. Half of those arrested had no criminal record. Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.
Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.
But I don’t see any of it.
Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe. Who want something better for themselves. Not unlike my own family. In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.