Book Review: Made in Detroit, by Paul Clemens, Doubleday, New York 2005
Michigan Citizen, October 2005
reviewed by Dr Rich Gibson, San Diego State University, Associate Professor of Education
I want to write this review because I am a white guy who spent most of his adult life at Seven Mile and Ardmore, a black neighborhood on Detroit's west side where we enjoyed each others kids, spent time over the fence, shoveled sidewalks, and the street, in winter, took part in New Year's celebrations complete with all the Detroit regalia, struggled with death and sorrow, proudly watched kids graduate, lived through the collapse of the city as jobs, industry, financing, and many white people fled. I miss the real community we shared on Ardmore. I write in deep respect for my old neighbors, and full of hope for all the kids on the block.
Paul Clemens is a white guy too, raised on the east side of Detroit. Our mirrored locations, and color, are perhaps the only thing we have in common.
Clemens, you see, believes he has got things right, that is, right as his Dad taught him, right as the final turn of a bolt. Getting things right means to him that he has faithfully written a long essay on Detroit, where his perspective offers an especially fine-tuned look at what was up in the city. But Clemens has it all wrong. How come?
Because Clemens may have been made inside Detroit, but the crux of his upbringing was to isolate himself from the majority of people in Detroit, inside an encapsulated white Catholic community where he learned to think of black people as fundamentally all alike, where "white trash," were just harbingers of the arrival of black people, and where he concluded that he had an understanding so sweeping that he could declare himself the literary voice of his pocket of exclusion, peering out from, "through the looking class," eyes. Indeed, so taken is Clemens with his own standpoint, he begs us to think of him along the lines of Faulkner, James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Joseph Heller, and Ralph Ellison, whose work he feels positioned to judge, but whose thoughts are only perverted in his writing.
Clemens, we learn, sees himself as surrounded-by black people, invading: the "Last of the Mohicans." The privileges that might normally accrue to his whiteness, he believes, vanish. Surrounded, and outnumbered, he retreats, following his parents' footsteps, into all-white Catholic schools, huddled in that corner of northeast Detroit that housed cops, firefighters, city bureaucrats; some who chose to stay, others who could not leave. His approving glance at this counter-community produces some interesting tales, like Sal the Barber, who hung out an "Appointments Only," sign and applied it only to black people-who could just never get an appointment. We are to chuckle. Sal thought of black people as, "moolies." In sum, "interactions with blacks were rare, not to be relished."
Dad took Paul to Sal's, and Dad is central to the story, as is family. Dad attended an all-white Detroit Catholic boys' school that denied Coleman Young entry. Mom went to a white Catholic girls' school. Three of her four aunts and uncles-clergy. Mom works, sometimes as a secretary, sometimes cleaning houses in Grosse Pointe. Dad is, by vocation and avocation, an auto-tinkerer, moving from shop to shop, whose gentle contempt for black people does not spew out in racist epithets, rather Dad just proves it is he, not black people, that is oppressed, with this tidy irony, "Why, by now, I must have stopped every black person in Detroit and demanded they shine my shoes." Paul, like Dad, mixes humor with disdain, "The powers that be, be black."
Dad, says Paul, thinks of black people with trepidation; treats the fear with avoidance, like one might avoid "bee stings or dog bites." Dad's view: "stick to your own and your family."
The Clemens' family is not white trash, and is offended by neighbors who are. How we are to distinguish Dad (who dumps motor oil in the back yard) and the family from white trash, is unclear; perhaps it is the scorn for unions, or industrial workers, who Dad thinks are overpaid, unknowledgeable, lazy.
Clemens is profoundly troubled by his minority status inside Detroit (though not in his schools, nor his tight community), so troubled that he obsesses over some impressions that appear repeatedly. He is really put out by the statue of Joe Louis' fist, " the most disliked entity in the city--disliked by whites, I mean" , so distressed that he wants to egg it. Coleman Young is a constant nemesis, both to blame for all of the city's troubles, and the representative of all black people, who should share his guilt for the wreckage of the city-but neither young nor African-Americans will fess up. Instead, Young just keeps getting re-elected and wasting money, presumably, for Clemens, because black people don't pay taxes.
Clemens is clear about how he thinks of black people and white trash. They have single parent families, are late all the time, have problems that his own family could easily overcome (by getting it right), talk funny in sentences that are not easily diagramed in College English, and, black people have a wondrous ability to, "absorb physical and linguistic pain." Clemens can spot white people living in a Detroit neighborhood. They have flower pots and mowed lawns. He wonders if all black people drive cars with automatic transmissions with two feet, since a co-worker does.
Of course, it may be that some white people are not entirely white. Clemens has some prose for them, like the women who served him breakfast in a diner near Tiger stadium, "Macedonians, Armenians, Albanians, or some sort of hirsute, shuffling people who accumulate their fortunes through coins.....coarsely beautiful."
But black people kept coming, coming. They sent kids into his neighborhood for Halloween. Neighbors turned off porch lights. The arrival of strangers: children.
Clemens names his elementary school (where, as late as the eighties, the white kids dressed up, "like Indians, in ponchos and war paint"). He names his white Catholic boys high school. Mysteriously, he does not want us to know where he went to college on a scholarship, a public university on the west side of Michigan, perhaps Grand Valley State, where black people were a rarity, too. Cocooned from early youth, Clemens still insists he came to adulthood in Detroit, made, maybe like a diamond in the coal.
Public university threw Clemens a bit. His life of separation also sequestered him from women, who suddenly emerged all around. Clemens' Catholicism, meant, "saving myself, like Catholic girls," or, maybe, even Mom. Not knowing Catholic girls may have saved him from some secrets--or nursed a fear of pleasure that getting it right might have girded.
What Clemens wants us to believe is that his racism is simply an informed piece of reality, and hence not racism, but especially real, because he was there. He has seen black people, not far off, which may distinguish him from some suburbanites. But he was not there. He was apart, physically and intellectually, split off in mind, body, and spirit-not the product of the embracing Catholicism that reaches out to everything ("it's impossible to be a Catholic and be a racist,") but the product of a form of atomized Catholicism that helped to manufacture, not only fear and guilt, and not only the exclusion that says non-believers go to hell, but the kind of Catholicism that doubted the humanity of those who rejected, or did not know, about the faith. It's not the kind of Vatican II Catholicism that saw poverty as a sin of society.
Racism always has sexuality at its center. That is how, after all, one tracks potentially poisonous genes. Clemens obsesses about the rape of his future wife, which took place either eighteen months, or two years, before he met her-raped by a black man who, apparently, was later convicted.
Clemens later determined to buy a church dispensation to overcome the problem of a proposed marriage to a pregnant (his, we assume), not-Catholic, fiance. Presumably, she is a rare woman to marry him. Clemens knows, after all, "all women are addicted to fashion magazines."
If this is what occupies her time, she won't miss much by ignoring Clemens' book. It's an interesting study of a fearful, isolated, haunted young man, but there isn't much of Detroit in it. It's no lesson that Canada is south of Detroit, or that Brooks Patterson hates the city, or that Alter Road is truly a dividing line. Clemens writing is so trite, it can only be the appeal to an editor's ideological bent, or a publisher's wager on the profitability of racism, that lets phrases like Clemens', "went over like a lead balloon," appear in print. So, at issue becomes: Why does Paul Clemens think like this, get published, and find a fairly warm reception in Detroit media?
Clemens thinks like this in part because of his church and parental influences, which he describes himself. But there is enough absent to offer clues as well. Clemens has little or no sense of history, no sense of the role class plays in relation to racism, and he is quarreling with a prevalent, if wrong, form of multi-culturalism.
If Clemens knew some history, he would know why it was that he inherited the use of public swimming pools, hockey rinks, and basketball courts in the city of Detroit, the result of a long history of struggles for community, led by the unions he scoffs at, and radical organizers who he thinks have lost all their dreams. If he knew some history, he would know the same kind of social struggles delivered his college scholarship, a free full ride. He would have known that the WIC program, which provided his new baby food (his wife chose not to eat her portion), came about because poor and working people fought for it, in order to live. And he would know that his privatized job in a subcontracted welfare agency was not the gift of a wise and benevolent Governor John Engler (Clemens calls his co-workers ungrateful), but the result of a steady series of attacks on the social safety net, coming from business as well as political leaders of all stripes.
Clemens confesses that he is really not a Detroiter, nor a Michigander, but is defined by his religion. If Clemens knew some history, he would know that his church did not just produce saints, but also more than one hundred child abusers in Michigan, that it was not just contemplating the grace of the end times, but was also corrupted by people like the fascist radio priest, Charles Coughlin, of the Shrine of the Little Flower, just about five miles north of his home-so vile that he was finally silenced by the Vatican. Clemens would have known that Coleman Young (whose death Clemens cheers) was once a radical organizer who fought for civil rights, for unionism, with great courage, against tremendous odds. The memory of Young's struggles would not be easily erased in the Detroit commmity, black and white, even when Young became what many people felt was the best friend General Motors and Ford ever had, helping drive people from their land for the Poletown plant, plugging the dyke against civil strife that probably should have happened, turning his head to civic corruption.
With history, Clemens would have recognized the role of the clenched fingers of banks offering easy loans to white people in suburbia, while black people were steered not only to Detroit, but pockets inside Detroit. He would have been aware of federal highway programs designed to divide black communities, to offer suburbanites protected entryways and exits to and from Detroit, and easy access for the military. He would have heard about the racist Housing and Urban Development schemes, involving state and federal officials with real estate agents and loan sharks, the HUD scheme fostering the boom in vacant homes in Detroit-that made "Devil's Night," almost sensible. He would have known about racist housing covenants, written agreements on home purchase papers, promises not to sell to black people, and the struggles of black professionals, like courageous Ossian Sweet's, to find a place to live in white Detroit. He might have known of the auto companies destroying the Detroit Trolley system, making the People Mover he derides an easy target.
History would have taught Clemens to respect Joe Louis, and the prominent fist that represents him. Louis' two fights against the fascist Max Schmelling (lost the first, but won a first round knockout in the second in 1938) were not just slugfests of black and white, but a battle for reason itself, against racism. His life, of course, had a special tie to black Detroit, moving from the south to Black Bottom, but Louis' victory gave heart to millions of people of all races and ethnicities, hope that the Nazi menace could be stopped, even if it had to be in a second fight. While champ, Louis enlisted in the army as a private, gave his fight proceeds to bond drives, in brief was a hero to all who fought fascism-which was indeed a battle. History might have taught Clemens why the city can be proud of the Joe Louis fist. It's a tough town, not "worse than most places." It's not, as he writes, a commodity to be sold off in writing, "material." It's still a home.
Clemens' ignorance of history underpins his rejection of the role of social class in his life. His father small-time- independent- contractor-individualist viewpoint is written all over the book, depriving him of a sense of solidarity, community, or even friendly openness, that could have done him well in establishing close ties with people who were not almost exactly like him. Class opens an understanding of how things work, how it is that the collapse of the city was set up by the betrayals of the auto industry, signaled first by layoffs of black workers (last hired), quickly followed by joblessness for industrial workers of all colors. The history of that is easy to see. It was not single parent families that caused the social crisis, but the eradication of jobs and income that preceded the crises in families, and black and white families behaved quite similarly. The problem poor people have is that they do not have money, not that they don't know how to work, won't work, or can't set a table properly.
Throughout, Made in Detroit, Clemens quarrels with what he sees as those who would make him feel guilty for his whiteness, though he has no problem with the priests who make him feel guilty for his birth. He counters with the scarce tidbits of history in the book: he did not own slaves, he did not oppose reconstruction, indeed he was born after Brown vs the Board of Education, so he feels no responsibility for racism, and hence will feel no guilt, because, formally, racism is no longer an issue. And it follows that he opposes affirmative action in public universities (remember his free-ride scholarship, the kind of white folks' affirmative action he does not notice) because, after all, it is young Paul who is the suffering minority guy.
The multi-culturalism Clemens loathes is rooted in the idea that racism is simply an idea, that all white people are all equally responsible for racism, and the way to combat the idea is by appeals to guilt, since racism is not nice. This view, like Clemens', eradicates history and the role of class in racism which is not merely an idea, but a profitable divide and rule method. Again, with no sense of history, Clemens is unable to unravel how Detroit became a skeleton of what it was, and how, by building a community within that broken frame, he might have found, not just other human life, but love, in the great city.
Why has the reception to Clemens, who did not get it bolt-tight right, but who got it terribly wrong, been so kind in the mainstream local press? Because racism is still popular, sells books and papers.
I hope my kids from Ardmore can have pity on people like Clemens, and have the patience to seek to change those he influences. But I will surely understand if they don't.
(Rich Gibson is an associate professor at San Diego State University. All quotes are directly from the book, in context. Page numbers available on request. Rgibson@pipeline.com)