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Coming From Where I’m From . . .

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I was born in Detroit but moved to small “suburb” of the city two months before my fourth birthday.  That city was Inkster, Michigan.  Population 35,000.  The city is approximately 65% Black.  Inkster is a working class community with many residents earning a living in the factories of one of the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler and GM).  The residents of Inkster are down-home folks yet “fabulous” in so many ways.  For the most part people work hard, want the best for their children and seek nothing more than to make a good life for their families. 

Inkster has received its fair share of bad press.  Crime levels are at or above national averages in many categories.  We’ve made the national news on, at least, two occasions.  Once was following the 1987 hostage stand-off and murders of three Inkster police officers at the Bungalow Motel.  We made national news on another occasion when we were the subject of a segment on ABC’s Nightly News.  The subject was the Demby Housing Project in Inkster commonly referred to as “Little Saigon.”  That segment was wildly popular.  Statistics cited during that segment intimated that Inkster had more crime, and criminals, per capita, than Detroit (the nation’s very first “Murder Capital” of the United States).  The ABC news segment, and the murders at the Bungalow Motel left an indelible impression in the minds of Michiganders, Midwesterners and Americans.  To outsiders Inkster Michigan was one of the worst places in the country to live.

It wasn’t until I left Inkster that I realized that it was such a “horrible” place.  While I haven’t always felt that I fit in in the place nicknamed “Ink-town” and “Crooked-I” I always thought highly of the people around me.  My block was a normal American block.  Parents worked hard to provide for their children.  The girls jumped rope and played with baby dolls on sidewalks and porches.  The boys played football in the middle of the street or in backyards. People looked out for one another.  The Smiths, the Walkers, the Jeffersons, the Robinsons, the Johnsons, the Hendricks, the Eatons and the Gilkeys all looked out for one another.  Back when I was in second or third grade and we had 12 inches of snow fall on the first day of spring, all the families on my block banned together to shovel each other’s driveways and walkways.  Somebody’s mother made hot chocolate for the kids while the men coordinated the effort.  In the summer the retired Mrs. Hall (R.I.P.) kept a watchful eye on all the kids on the block and told our parents when we did something wrong.  My friends and I freely rode our bikes around the six square miles of Inkster without fear of becoming victims of crime.  And with the exception of the summer that a serial killer terrorized much of the Midwest, I generally felt safe in my environment. 

That’s why it came as such a shock to me to find out that Inkster wasn’t the safe, nurturing haven I’d made it out to be.  When I arrived at college I began to notice that one of the main icebreakers was “Where are you from?”  I’d reply, “I’m from Michigan . . . Inkster.”  That’s when I’d get the looks.  Even people from outside of the state (I went to school in Michigan) gave me the “Oh, really?” look.  I didn’t really understand what it meant until later.  It was later that I learned that what I perceived as the “Oh, really” look was really the “Oh, you must be the Affirmative Action kid because everyone knows that Inkster schools are isht so you can’t possibly have earned your place here” look.  At first I was offended.  But when I found myself earning grades comparable to, or better than, many of the prep school kids who looked down on me I snickered just a bit.  I figured, If I’m the stupid Affirmative Action kid and I’m kicking your @$$, what does that make you?  Eventually I went on to graduate (in four years) and begin my career and left a number of them behind, still struggling to finish their degrees.  Some of them took an additional year, or two, or three, to finish.  When they’d finally phone or email to announce their graduations I snickered again. 

Even after college I continued to encounter people who would give me a curious glance when I told them where I was from. When asked, most times I simply respond that I’m from Detroit.  It’s easier than trying to explain to people who are unfamiliar with the state where I’m actually from (17 miles Southwest of downtown Detroit or four miles due north of the main airport).  Having lived outside the Midwest for most of my adult life I’ve been able to get away with the “I’m from Detroit” statement without much inquiry.  But even that has its drawbacks.  I’ve had colleagues ask, “Are you from Detroit, Detroit?  Like, the actual city of Detroit?”  Sometimes I say yes just for shock value.  Because Detroit’s reputation isn’t much better, if at all, than Inkster’s, they have a difficult time believing that I’m actually from Detroit.  Because I have an education and speak well, most non-black and uppity black people assume I’m from some Northern, Oakland County, suburb of Detroit as though it’s impossible from people from Detroit to speak anything other than Ebonics, have careers and live respectable lives . . . lives like their own.  When I encounter people who are familiar with Michigan and the Detroit-area I tell them that I’m from Inkster.  Some react as though they think I’m joking.  Others seemed shocked that I’m from Inkster. “You don’t seem like you’re from Inkster,” “You must not have lived there long?”  “You just don’t seem like the type.”  I have actually had one colleague, repeatedly, tell others that I’m from Ann Arbor.  While it’s true that I lived in Ann Arbor for four years while attending college, I am not from Ann Arbor.  For him Ann Arbor, the upper-middle class suburb that’s home to the University of Michigan, is a more acceptable place to be from.  Ann Arbor is also more reflective of the person he believes me to be (mild mannered, smart, well-spoken, composed, etc).  While these are all characteristics that I possess, they are not the whole of who I am.  Who I am at work, where I make the money necessary to support my lifestyle, isn’t completely reflective of who I am at home when I’m surrounded by the people I love. 

It is sad that when people think of Inkster, my hometown, they think we are a monolith.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  From Inkster has come world-renowned athletes (Olympic and NFL), Legendary Motown Recording artists, educators, scholars, musicians, artists, lawyers, doctors, judges, engineers, scientists and insurance professionals (me).  So this piece is a “shout out” to all my friends and family from Inkster who continue to defy the stereotypes.  This piece is a tribute to those who hold their heads high and represent their hometowns with pride.  Here’s to us!