- Brian Smith
- Somewhere in Detroit.
In my last Tucson Salvage column (Aug. 22), I used multiple times the uncensored n-word in a voice not my own to quote hatred directed at a woman I was profiling. In the wake of protest and support of that, I am truly sorry to have triggered trauma in some Black readers. I must thank those people kindly for well-argued protests and the kneecapping. It will teach me to be a better, more effective writer and to use extreme caution and a careful consideration of the wording. As a close friend, a Colombia doctoral candidate and expert in African Diaspora Education reminded me after reading the piece, "words matter."
In hindsight would I have neutered the language before filing the column to the Weekly? Yes, at the very least including a trigger warning at the top. Because it was heavy-handed, its usage completely overshadowed the story of Goodwill, the overcome-the-odds tale of African-American Tawana Brown, her story, which is beautiful. If one reads the entire thing, not just the first few paragraphs, the column's overriding context is love and acceptance, and Brown's own—toward her family, toward Tucson and her hometown Detroit, toward the world at large. How she landed at a place of peace and ended her circle of poverty. I now realize a trigger warning is essential when enlisting politicized or hateful language to that effect so readers can choose to confront ugly words.
That said, an element of "checking other white people on their shit" goes on, white folks versed in the art of taking offense, which, to me, harms the greater advancement of unity and is even accidentally pejorative and counterproductive to the minority group they are "speaking on behalf of." To those persons who anonymously wrote hate mail in response to "hateful language," what is the point? Sparking unkindness in the "real world," in the name of promoting abstract equality furthers Trump and racist agendas of generating derision and in-fighting.
Also, one person, who hid behind the pseudonym "Sundowntown," said in an email I should be "lynched with the rest of them." Nice.
Overall, in the context I was penning, many other readers, Black and white, deemed the use of the word acceptable.
Look, I was born white as a Finnish winter and no matter how much I kick and scream and work at it, there shall always be a "white lens" in my work, like anyone born white. I miscalculated the powder keg explosiveness of the n-word and how it can circle back in hate, toward me and even my family. In the decades I've lived, I've seen the definition and impact of that word change and morph, in song, in literature, in pop culture, in Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, in different American cities.
* * *
My white privilege? Here's a couple of interminable examples:
Back in the late 1990s I lived in one of the most impoverished Phoenix neighborhoods, then, the Garfield. It was mostly brown folks, some Black, the number of whites I could count on one hand. Low-slung dark adobes with bare bulb porchlights, tin lean-tos and few streetlights. Lovely Mary of Guadalupe altars observed nightly cop lights and gunfire. Many of my neighbors on Polk street were undocumented laborers, regaling the street with nightly Bud Light-fueled choruses shouting along to booming waltz-time ditties on porches. The occasional quinceañera celebrations, the harmless laughing at my hair and gait. I was the white boy methhead alcoholic scarecrow.
Spun out on a multi-day jag, I had counted out my last $20 and some change, enough for a meth bag and a 40 of Mickey's Big Mouth. Didn't own a car so I bicycled to score the meth and hit Circle K for the 40. No easy tasks when you are spun the fuck out, the shakes and the psychic-catastrophes, dry-mouth tooth scum and fetid body odor make it about impossible to face anyone, an effusive dealer, much less a brightly lit store. I was a frightened insecure singer in a rock 'n' roll band and that earned me a few nickels. I had just begun writing and porn magazine work kept other nickels rolling in, was only beginning with the above-ground outlet scribbling.
Peddling home from Circle K with one hand, the 40 in the other, I got pulled over by a cop car, flashing lights and all. It was the second time this happened in those days on my bike, but the first time a cop pulled a gun. It was dark, black hair, black clothes, they likely thought me brown. I stopped, my worn heart pounding straight out of my temples. One cop pointed his gun at me from behind his squad car door while the other walked over and shone his flashlight in my face. He saw panic, speed pupils expanded to full dark moons, and he knew what was up. He said, and I'll never forget, "What the fuck are you doing in this neighborhood?"
The other cop holstered his sidearm.
I said, "I live here," and gave him my address.
He stepped back, conversed a moment with the other cop, returned, said, "Go home. This isn't a neighborhood you should be in." I mouthed kudos to Phoenix's finest in some grossly fawning way, and he replied, "You shouldn't drink that shit, it'll kill you." I made it home and thanked my lucky stars and all the Mary altars in the neighborhood the cops didn't search me, I'd been tossed in jail before. The meth stashed in my sock would continue jacking my heart for days.
I remember thinking later that if I was brown or black I would've been searched and at least tossed in jail, or shot. But I am a white boy in North America. Brown and Black folks were getting shot by cops in that hood with alarming regularity.
* * *
By 2002, I'd somehow managed a career in journalism and moved to Detroit for an editor gig at Metro Times, a white dude in the center of a city 93 percent Black. I sobered up a year later and afforded a house, put 9K down on a 30-year mortgage. Area stores and markets and gas stations featured bullet-proof glass to protect cashiers, few streetlights worked, boarded up houses on either side of beautiful kept Victorians, an intermingle of poverty and some archaic version of middle-class. I was elated I bought in Detroit, not the sparkly white suburbs or in Detroit's mighty-gentrified ivory enclaves like Corktown.
The city is still deeply segregated. My neighborhood near 6 Mile and Livernois was hardly diverse. I was the only white guy in many square miles of Black folk. Never had I felt more vanilla in that culture. I never once felt threatened, on late-night walks, in the ill-kept liquor stores or even the few times I scored drugs, before I got truly sober.
I'm no religious dude but I made gods of the old ladies in AA meetings, and I've written about this stuff before. How these women's experiences saved me in ways when drink had me yellow. When I detoxed the booze and hit the all-black meetings in local churches, these women, all this grace and acumen and life-affirming cackles, this generation that suffered through wars against them, ruin brought on by ideologies of exclusion and hatred, progeny of ex-slaves on the Great Migration who landed in Detroit for work. So many of my neighbors were old enough to remember days long before the Detroit riots of '67, the segregation, could tell stories passed down from generations. Some had sons and daughters murdered, even by cops.
My longest-running Metro Times editor was W.K. Heron, first cousin to Gil-Scott Heron, a fiercely intelligent gentleman who taught me much about compassion, and journalism, and he reeled me in often. I sought and hired some really great Black writers, each one a wildly different voice, from street to academic, much more diverse than the white writers. Ones I worked with taught me much more about Black culture, especially in Detroit, its music and arts, the linguistics and humanity. I met brave radicals, and white and Black academics who left the classroom and engaged in true community. I wrote stories of Black people and their worlds.
Fell in love with all of it. The city, its people. My plan was to never leave Detroit. After 13 years on staff at the paper I got laid off. Lost my house. There was no other work in Detroit for me. Couldn't teach because I don't have diplomas, not even high school.
But when I bought my house in Detroit, Black neighbors brought over welcome-to-the-neighborhood gifts, plants, baked goods etc. Never happened in any white neighborhood I lived in. I figured out later the kindness was in the name of unity, in the name of experience, in the name of community and inclusion. Gestures of hope itself. How these folks welcomed a different race and background into their world soothed. This was privilege, to be accepted. That was my neighborhood for more than a decade and that alone taught me more about humanity than anything else I've experienced.
* * *
My point in this is not to say I understand the Black experience, or what it means to be a Black person in America. How could I? (If anything, in truth, any racism I can actually feel in my gut is toward white nationalists and like-minded ilk; I fall left of Bernie but will vote for Biden.) My experience is hardly academically inclined, no sensitivity training inside a university classroom, more from living. What I am saying is my grasp of the understanding of the ideological weight of the n-word, it's ugliness and hate is why I used it uncensored, even in this zeitgeist, in this mad territory of Trump race-bait and attendant murder, caught in the rising insanity between anarchy and lunacy, in this "woke" call-out culture. I knew it insensitive, and I understand the job of the white ally is to listen. I knew white writers can no longer spell out the n-word, even quoting voices of hatred. But in my heart I didn't want those dehumanizing pricks to get a pass by somehow sweetening their insults with asterisks and dashes. I wanted the impact of the language leveled at Tawana Brown left at full volume, and it didn't work.
For the record, Tawana Brown did not object to my representation of her life nor the hateful words levied against her.
My point, however hopeful, of the on-going Tucson Salvage column is for readers to learn of folks of all classes, races and sexual orientations and discover an underlying humanity and maybe celebrate their triumph over whatever suffering. I strive for observation without judgment, and I make mistakes.
I recommend all folks step out of their class and ethnicity and meet others who are radically different from them. Hear their stories. I do, and I listen hard. I see only people, and the stories are remarkably consistent. I'm lucky to be able to write about some of these people I meet. It is an honor. There's wonder in the bleakness in the beauty.
Black lives matter. We, as a family, me, my wife Maggie, young Reece and baby Rickie Rose contribute where we can. We are all just improvising now, adjusting, hunting for some forever elusive endgame of inclusion, unity, and respect for diversity. I came up on punk rock, and Joe Strummer said, "Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings." It sort of calls on the Zen Buddhists, "instructive to find your needs in front of you by rejecting the negative." I do my best and it ain't perfect. I do know we are not getting anywhere tearing down one another. The inhumane Trump wants division on our side.