Metro Detroit Unity & the Tradition of American Mythology

by Eli Day

Some traditions are as time-honored as they are silly. We largely let these live on with a bit of indifference and confused laughter. Others, however, reach near-mythical status and in the process reveal themselves as relics better left to the dustbins of history. Throughout my time in politics, we observed one in particular with religious zeal. At every turn, the rule was to parrot Metro Detroit unity to the brink of evangelism. The idea was simple enough: regional cooperation would usher in regional prosperity. All pomp and ritual. Zero room for nuance or calling bullshit. The message was clear: we are all in this together and to suggest that it’s ever been otherwise means you fail at life.

What I found most maddening though wasn’t the transparent insincerity, but the substitution of mythology for history—a tradition as American as any other. Social cohesion, though an admirable pursuit, sabotages itself when based on a falsified record of history. Here, “unity” is used as a bludgeon against unambiguous fact: this region’s mid-20th century ascendancy was wholly premised on Detroit’s peonage. Metro Detroit as we know it doesn’t exist without the exclusion of America’s most despised minority from the promises of American citizenship. From the creative class to city officials to financial speculators, talk of a unified metro Detroit is the band-aid imposed on the gaping wound of historical injury. Revision may soothe the assailant, but for the injured it’s hell. It’s an invitation to walk freely in myth. And even the shallowest of myths, by their very nature, wield tremendous force.

The tradition is safe terrain not only for the political class, but for the sons and daughters of communities that black Detroiters were historically barred from. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so damaging: the performance begins with a ruin tour and ends with Detroit’s devastation being romanticized by the progeny of its architects.

And it’s deliberately invisible. The tradition is so submerged that Livonia can survive as one of the nation’s whitest cities with few ever questioning how that came to be. It’s the sort of willed incompetence that allows one to intone ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’ but never muse the conflict’s origins, or which side of it one sits on. Be mindful, you may be member to the ‘everybody’ that Detroit has historically squared off with.

Yet the issue isn’t (nor has it ever been) juvenile sentimentality for the city’s ruins, but rather our habit of veiling its origins. Those who have an interest in concealing the past always find the necessary camouflage.

We conjure myth to explain it away. Its power rests on a sleight of hand: history is fair game when it confirms our nobility. Extra points are awarded for noting Detroit’s decaying urban landscape—the crumbling infrastructure, rows of burned-down houses and hollowed-out blocks that appear to run on a feedback loop. Harsh conditions ennoble your presence in the devastated metropolis. But the inconvenient facts must necessarily go unmentioned. We can report on the agony of the ghetto, but never its source. We can theorize about black cultural deficiency, but never look at the map that white supremacy authored. Detroit’s decay is only valuable as a force unto itself—a disaster with no distinguishable origin, an accident of history’s unthinking cruelty. The delusion becomes accepted wisdom for observers with no fidelity to the facts, but it’s a bizarre affair for anyone that’s studied history. The causes have never been mystical. Only through the annihilation of inconvenient history and the fabrication of convenient myth do we mistake our ignorance for wisdom.

Myths tempt the most human of frailties—the longing for the comforts of willful delusion. Mythology means never having to do the hard work of thinking, all while living safely in fantasy. But for black Detroit, rebranding the metro area as a haven of inclusion is little more than cheap varnish. It’s nostalgia for an era that never was. I wish it were otherwise, but the conquered can least afford the price of myth. The point isn’t that unity can never exist alongside tension; it's that unity, by definition, can never take hold where historical rifts remain. The tension must recognized and reconciled if true unity is to be achieved. Anything short of this reckoning is just cowardice masquerading as valor.

And it’s straight out of the American heritage playbook. We valorize our founding as a triumph of the human spirit, and silence that it was erected on human destruction and brokered by the right to property in man. We convince ourselves that we inherit all of Jefferson’s brilliant words, but none of his tangible white supremacy. In American mythology, Roosevelt’s New Deal is what happens when great men answer the call of history, even as it mirrors its worst chapters. But the consequences of heritage don’t require our consent. The violence of the past lives on with or without it.

In one telling, the American tragedy is our tradition of self-forgetting, of failing to honor our history. I’m unconvinced. We can’t forget what we’ve never learned, or worse, what we’ve deliberately muted through historical jujitsu. The dreaded truth is that myth-making has animated every chapter of our national lore. Detroit’s passage in that history is outrageous not because it’s abnormal, but because it’s utterly predictable. The American tragedy is that we selectively deploy history to establish our virtue, but never to account for our sins.

As my thoughts wander on this much is clear to me: the allure (and the danger) of erasing the unflattering chapters of the past has always been the desire to avoid one’s own. One only needs to be human to understand why. But deflecting the truth never dignifies the myth. 

Posted on May 13, 2015 and filed under Op-eds.