To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

by Eric Riley

To be young, gifted and black,

Oh what a lovely precious dream

To be young, gifted and black,

Open your heart to what I mean

There’s a world waiting for you

This is a quest that’s just begun

Young, gifted and black

How I long to know the truth

There are times when I look back

And I am haunted by my youth
— Nina Simone/Irvine Weldon

I’m rushing through the lobby, passing a sea of young professionals (mostly white) dressed in their best interview attire. The revolving door at the entrance of the Renaissance center is all I can focus on. It’s like a teleporter, winding and swirling, the combined force of me and three other people pushing our way to the other side. Once I get out, I see cars all packed into the U shaped driveway waiting to pick people up. My leg begins to vibrate, I look down and through my navy colored slacks I see the bright blue screen of my phone. I rush to pull it out and there’s Duane’s face asleep on the screen. To this day I am pretty sure that’s the best picture anyone has of him. I run my thumb across the screen, and out comes his voice.

“Where are you!?” Before I can answer…”I’m parked at the end on the left side, hurry up.” I survey all the cars, and there it is. The driveway is on a bit of a hill and at the bottom I can see the back of Duane’s all black 2008 Chevy Trail Blazer, or as he calls it, the Dungeon Dragon.

“What took so got damn long?” He was looking at me with that same fake anger that peppered all of our conversations.

“We had a last minute meeting, don’t get mad at me because I have a REAL job, where we do REAL things.” Pointing to myself each time I stress the word real.

“Fuck you!” A smile breaks the stern face he’s trying to make.

I ask him how his day was as he drives like were being followed. He says they’ve been getting ready all day for the event tomorrow. Duane is in his work out gear, must’ve gone to the gym before he picked me up. He was wearing a red tee shirt with the sleeves cut off, the front read Downtown Public Safety Division, his huge black arms erupted out of the sides of the shirt. Security always seemed like the right job for Duane. The perfect profession for short cocky guys post undergrad. Duane worked in the Mayor’s office; he was their new Public Safety Coordinator for the Downtown Region. He always describes his job as meeting with the private security people and the police officers and making sure no one steps on toes and everyone has each other’s back. I had my opinions about the private security stuff, but Duane and me have had that argument enough so I don’t bring it up much now.

“What was your meeting about?” Duane says as he starts to pull off.

“We had to go over some last minute things about the event tomorrow, they want me to introduce the CEO and add some things to his speech about the future of transportation in Detroit and blah blah blah.” I wave my hands to hammer in that I’m annoyed.

He chuckles “Well damn, tell me how you really feel.” He says sarcastically.

“Its just, I’m sick of dealing with their bullshit. I just want to work on my own stuff, but I keep getting pulled in to do everyone else’s job. ‘Luke do this, and Luke do that’ And on top of that I have to listen to a bunch of absent minded white old people talk about a city they’ve never lived in. If Jen says one more thing about the homeless scourge in Downtown…I don’t know, I mean the money is good but I get fed up with all this sometimes.” After I finish my rant, I throw my head back onto the headrest and look out the window.

Duane gives me the same look he always gives me when I go on my rants. It’s a mix between I understand your anger but stop complaining.

“I mean, we aint in college no more man, that’s the simple fact of the matter. I know you were used to fighting the man and having dialogues (he puts his fingers up to make air quotes) but you gotta deal with the bullshit. You started working there because you wanted to play with the big boys where the big decisions are made, so stop focusing on this small stuff and just do what you gotta do.”

“I don’t know (sigh)…get ready to make a left on Van Dyke.” We were almost there and I was done talking, tired of having this conversation all the time. Duane wasn’t trying to shut me up he just thought that our lives were good. Good, compared to the people we went to high school with. Good, compared to the guys who were on our block when we left for school and were either still there or dead when we came back. We had jobs that paid well, college educations, and were on our way to having full-fledged careers.

Duane doesn’t usually pick me up on Thursdays, but I needed a ride to a meeting I wanted to go to. My friend Blair told me about it’, she was one of those hipster white girls you meet in college. Blair was the only white girl in the BSU, I was skeptical at first but she proved she was down. Back in those days if you weren’t informed about the struggle, or knew your social justice vocab you were a proponent of the system until proven otherwise. She told me about some meeting tonight at a church on the East side. Detroiter’s Fighting for Freedom and the Motor City Freedom Riders were having their weekly transit coalition meeting. Not sure how she knew about all these things, I was from the damn city and I felt like I didn’t know shit.

It’s only been five months since Duane, Greg, and I moved back here. I’d been so busy at work and reconnecting with my family I hadn’t really been on my activist grind. My Momma wants to see me every chance she gets, guess having me out of the house for four years got to her. She and the rest of my family showered me with praise when I returned. The prodigal son was back from college and on his way to making the big bucks. I don’t think I’ve ever been told I’m so proud of you more than when I came home. Even my Dad said it when I moved back and got my own apartment. I was proud too but not on their level. I’m happy I’m not poor, but I was supposed to change things. I was Chair of the Diversity Student Coalition, Executive board member of the Black Student Union, Co-Chair of the Spectrum advisory board. I was supposed to come out fighting but I guess loans and the fear of ending up like my parents was too real.

Since I left school, I’ve felt like a sell out. I wanna go back and tell everyone that when you graduate it’s either a corporate job or struggle with the communities you’re working with. I hate thinking about how naïve I was, thinking I could have it both ways. But I also hate how cynical I’ve become. I avoided the social justice stuff the first couple months back, but then I ran into Blair in “Midtown” and she told me about some cool groups working in the city. I’m usually really tired after work but I needed to do something. Going out with Duane and Greg was getting old and I needed to get back in touch with my social justice roots.

We drive down Van Dyke from Jefferson, passing houses from Detroit’s golden age, with large porches and beautiful trimming. We get to Lafayette Street and on the corner sits a decrepit building from another time. It was composed of rich red bricks and had a old wooden cross whose last coat of white paint was starting to crackle and chip. In front was a sign that read in bold red letters Zion Progress Baptist Church est. 1979. The street was narrow and there was no room to park and barely enough room to drive. Duane dropped me off on the corner and I scanned the row of parked cars in front for Blair’s car. It was parked at the end of the block, a Spartan green Subaru Outback. I knew it was hers because of the Human Rights Campaign and Respect Detroit bumper stickers on the back.

I walk up the cracked cement steps and open the large double doors. There is a small lobby if you can even call it that. The tile is nice but old the paint is white and crackled like the cross. There are two older men handing out programs at the entrance to the sanctuary. The meeting hasn’t started yet but almost all of the pews are filled. The church is similar to every other old black church in the city I’ve been to. Being dragged to church when I was younger was something I dreaded every weekend. Never saw the point of church really, just a chance for a bunch of black people to have a competition for best dressed.

The people in the pews tonight were far from the masses of black people that must be here on a usual Sunday. The crowd had a little bit of everyone, mostly women I noticed, but there were black people, Hispanic, white, Arab, South Asian and East Asian and even young and old. Some people I recognized from events at U of M others were the long time Detroit activist you hear about on the news. I spotted Blair in the middle row.

We exchange our hellos and do a quick check in about each other’s days. In her bag was a stack of flyers for a protest. She said that she had spent the day canvassing all over the west side. Just as we stop our chatter a woman stands up behind the pulpit to get everyone’s attention.

“Thank you all for coming out this evening, for our guest here, My name is Yolonda Stewart, and I am a member of Detroiters Fighting for Freedom. I am glad to be joined here tonight by Motor City Freedom Riders as we have our last meeting before tomorrow’s protest. Working with Freedom Riders has been an awesome experience and I know tomorrows actions will be the first of many efforts to get equitable mass transit in South East Michigan.” Her voice fills the room without a mic. From here she looks huge, at least six feet with broad shoulders, her hair is long and grey in locs. Her words stir me; its like I’m back in school. She talks about the current state of the city, how things have become more militarized and affluent in the downtown. How developers are creeping into our neighborhoods and evicting communities that have been there for years.

“Tomorrow, the city, the developers, and Dan Gilbert’s army of companies will be at the center of downtown for the Inaugural Ride of the M-1 Rail. A 3.3 mile monstrosity that was built only to serve the powerful and rich who have displaced the Detroit that Duggan, Gilbert, and Illitch have deemed unfit for their new city! I am not against progress rather I am against transgression. Transgressions against communities that have been abused, whose neighborhoods have been plundered, and whose people have struggled throughout history! Tomorrow we will crash their celebration and not let those vehicles leave Campus Martius!” She goes on getting louder and injecting more passion behind each word.

People stand up to clap and shout in praise of her words. Her fiery sermon begins to stir me, I find myself yelling in agreement. Her speech ends in a standing ovation. After she finishes a nerdy white guy steps to the pulpit asking for testimonials.

“We don’t want this to be a one sided conversation, so those in the audience who would like to say something about their experiences with the recent changes, please share and we hope to be enriched and uplifted by your words.” He grabs a mic and begins scanning the room.

The conversation gets rolling when a white woman on the other side of the room starts talking about her experiences with gentrification. I can barely listen. I have so much to say, so many opinions. Starting to feel like old times. Blair nudges me and I raise my hand. There’s an older black guy with locs holding the mic. He sees my hand and makes his way towards me; it’s only then I notice I’m the sole person in the room wearing a suit. I can’t help thinking how out of place I am. I was angry and passionate but I hadn’t been in a crowd like this in so long. Fuck it, I will put in my two cents then get the hell out of here. But what if someone asks where I work, or what I do, dammit I gotta leave. I can just run out the door, avoid embarrassment. Avoid being called a sell out. I stand up to step pass Blair, but its too late, he hands the mic to Blair and she hands it to me. I turn around and look at the audience, open my mouth, and start speaking.


*                      *                      *                      *                      *


Everyone is leaving now, as people exit the two men at the door pass out flyers for tomorrow’s event. They read:

“Fight for Equitable Transit on Friday June 9th at Campus Martius as the

 Detroit Elite and Media come together to celebrate the opening and

 Inaugural ride of the M-1 light rail. Come and let the city know that

 We need equitable transit in Detroit and for those who are able, join as we

 Hold a sit in to block the streetcars from riding through the gentrified

 Midtown and show the city that all progress comes at a cost.”

I walk down the broken stairs and look for Duane’s car. Blair has left already - something about needing to get sleep before the big day. I look to the left down the street, and I feel a light thud on my right shoulder. I turn and its Yolonda. She’s smaller now, we stand at about the same height and her dark brown eyes aren’t as intimidating at eye level.

“Luke right? I just wanted to thank you for your comments earlier, we don’t have a lot of people who grew up in the city as guest and I am glad you were here to represent. I appreciate all the work you were doing up in Ann Arbor and I’m glad you came back to the city” She looks happy to see me like she’s talking to an old friend.

“No problem, thank you for having me I’m just glad to see people working hard to make sure everyone can benefit from all this progress.” I put on my office smile, hoping she’ll get the message that I just want to leave.

“I usually don’t do this but your comments were so spot on that me and some of the other members would love if you could speak at tomorrow’s event. Maybe just a little piece about the way things have changed in the Cass Corridor. The one young guy we wanted to speak has to be at the hospital for his kid’s birth, and I just felt a really good energy from you tonight.” Her face doesn’t look like she’s asking me for a big favor but like she’s letting me into something special.

This was the worst thing that could’ve happened tonight. I didn’t want anyone to know where I worked and that my job was one of the main sponsors of the rail line. Worst of all I had to speak tomorrow on behalf of the organization. Shit! I can’t keep stalling I have to tell her something. Problem is I’m a terrible liar, even if I wanted to just spew some shit story, I can’t, my mind won’t let me. I wipe my face before I get ready to respond.

            “I would love to but –

            “Yolanda!” The doorman calls her in the entrance of the church.

            “Reverend Abrams needs to see you about the busing for tomorrow, says its urgent.” The man heads back into the church as though he was never there.

She shakes her head as the man leaves and looks back at me.

“Well whatever you can do is appreciated, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She heads back into the church to meet with the Reverend, her all black outfit made her nearly invisible in the dark night.

I let out a sigh of relief and whisper to myself  “Thank the lord.” In that same breath I turn around to see Duane’s car at the corner. I hop into the back seat, Greg, the third man in our trio, is sitting in the front. Duane’s dark skin sits in stark contrast to the bright red sleeveless shirt he wears to workout. Greg is wearing the same shirt but his skin is lighter, he looks much more racially ambiguous than either Duane or myself.

            “How was the meeting commie?” Greg looks to the back seat and smiles.

            “Did you enjoy you’re hippie meeting?” Duane says while driving.

“It was cool, they want me to speak tomorrow. I probably should’ve mentioned that I work for the Downtown Detroit Council that’s co sponsoring the event and the new rail…but you know.” I shrug to hide how terrified I am about tomorrow.

They both burst into laughter; even though I know it’s not funny I can’t help grinning. But then I start to think about how bad tomorrow could end up going and my grin disappears. The ride home is long and I just want the night to last forever.


*                      *                      *                      *                      *


I park my bike in front of the Compuware Building, or the One Woodward, whatever the hell it’s called now. Jen my supervisor is there with her pants suit on and I.D. badge on her hip. She’s with other people from the office, I head towards them and I notice everyone in the park has that same damn ID badge on their hip. All of us are wearing black, blue, or grey; I decided to pull out my charcoal suit.

“Hey guys, so what’s the plan for the day?” I say as I slide my badge in my pocket.

“Isn’t today just beautiful? I think this is it you guys, if this day goes well then investors will just pour in. Watch out Seattle Detroit is the next hip enclave. I mean that’s how we got you Luke.” Jen starts to laugh, and everyone takes her cue and laughs with her. I hate my fake laugh, I remember the first day going around the office and meeting everyone and having to do it all got damn day.

“Transit is the future for us millenials, I think this could be a really cool first step for the city. But anyway about the plan for today, I never got the agenda.” I put on my fake (white) voice and smile as I talk.

“You didn’t get Jen’s email, come on Luke, you can’t make rookie mistakes like that.” Harold the office asshole laughs as he says it to me. “But really its in the email she sent this morning there’s a joke about Carla’s corner cubicle too.” Everyone laughs on cue again. Some inside joke I forgot I to give a fuck about. I pull out my phone and step to the side.

The email gives me the run down for the day. We open up the ceremony by unveiling the cars, and then everyone gathers in the park center in front of the stage. Next we listen to the Mayor, Bob (the CEO of my job), and closing remarks by Gilbert. After that everyone’s staff and the media will board the cars and ride it to New Center for the reception. If the morning goes according to plan everything will be all right.


*                      *                      *                      *                      *


Mayor Duggan finishes up his remarks, it’s a sunny day and there’s every local new station there along with employees from Quicken Loans, the Mayor’s office, the Downtown Detroit Council, and residents from Downtown and Midtown. Campus Martius is a beautiful park and the stage we’re on overlooks the beach sand pit and the rows of seats at the park center. The park sits in the middle of a large round a bout in Downtown and on each side there’s two of the brand new rail cars. They’re sleek and new, colored blue with red detail. Across the side reads M-1 Detroit.

As Duggan makes his way back to his seat, it’s my turn to get up. The morning has gone well, the protestors are nowhere in sight. Maybe they’ll get here after I speak, maybe I’ll be able to get in the car and they won’t see me. I rise from my seat slowly and start towards the podium. I move the Mayor’s speech aside and pull out my introduction for Bob.

“The Downtown Detroit Council has convened the city’s business and civic leaders for the last 50 years, and we have worked to uplift and empower the city as it has changed. Our CEO and President Bob Larson has led –

- SHUT IT DOWN! SHUT IT DOWN! SHUT IT DOWN!” Suddenly the protestors are there chanting loudly over the speaker system. I had sat with them only hours earlier and they were there as promised. I looked to my left and there were at least two hundred people all wearing black shirts with the M-1 logo on it with an ex through it. Some have signs others have only their fist, which they throw into the air with wild fury. On the right I see Yolonda leading a crowd of about two hundred also. She doesn’t look angry, just determined. They stormed the park and all of the cameras turned towards them. The people sitting in the audience started to yell at the crowds forming around them.

Everyone sitting in the chairs got up as protestors filled the rows and soon overtook the audience in front of the stage. I could hear the Mayor’s security detail’s radios screeching all over the stage. A pack of men dressed in all black suits with earpieces rushed the stage and crowded around Gilbert and Duggan. I heard Bob yell to the police and private security on the side to get these sons of bitches out of here. A young guy with a loud speaker began reading off a sheet from the crowd. He was tackled to the ground. I looked over to see if he was okay. The guy who tackled him was big, not tall, but stocky, his arms looked like pythons filling his sleeves to the brim. It was Duane. The police began to seize the crowd in the middle. Protestors began to disperse and some rushed towards the cars and lay on the ground. The police began to hand cuff the protestors. All you could hear was screaming. All you could see were people being thrown into the back of cop cars and other unmarked vans. The loud speaker that was on the grass where Duane tackled that kid was gone.

Yolonda had picked it up and made her way onto the stage. She started reading from the script the guy was reading from. I moved off the stage as Yolonda took the center and her posse of protestors gathered around her with signs. Duggan and Gilbert have been carted away. Yolonda is facing the crowd and half the cameras are pointed at the action on the lawn and the other half are stuck on Yolonda.

“We did not come here to start a fight, we are here to bring light to the creation of two very different Detroit’s. We want those who are willing to fight for a city that is inclusive, just, and fair to stand with us and those who aren’t to step out of our way.”

I get off the stage and make it into the crowd. I look up at the stage as police officers argue with Yolonda to step down and tell her she is trespassing. She repeats her message, asking those with courage to stand and fight with her.

She scans the crowd as she repeats her remarks for the third time, this time with the officers closing in. We meet eyes through all the chaos. She looks at me and her gaze begs me to step up and answer her call to arms. But I can’t move, I am paralyzed in fear, I want to fight…I do, but I can’t; my body won’t let me. So I stand and stare, she looks away from me as the cops move in. I do nothing.


Posted on July 22, 2015 .