Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Millicent and me

For a long time, I've been wanting to write more about my visit to the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library. It was March, a cold day, and the whole thing felt very uncertain. (1) A water-main break had occurred at the library in December, and it had been closed to the public ever since. The staff felt certain that they would open in time for my appearance, but it was also true that when I had first called to check in with them about the day, no one at the branch library had heard of me or had any idea I was coming. (2) The branch was on Grand River, which at first had seemed like the coolest thing (because of the name of my book), but once I realized where it was actually located (deep, deep into Detroit, in an area that many would see as troubled, to use the best word I can think of), I was a bit trepidatious. Nevertheless, I set out from Ann Arbor with my husband and two good friends (Liz and Alesia). When we arrived and figured out where to park (they had a security officer outside, perhaps watching for us), they were open for business, they knew just who I was, and they welcomed me warmly. Here's what the branch looks like, though the day we were there, it was overcast.
The woman who was the head of the library was there, as was her granddaughter (maybe 12-13 years old) and several of her granddaughter's friends. The branch manager (let's call her C) mentioned that she still had to put on her makeup, which prompted my husband to report that Liz (the friend who had come with us) is a professional makeup artist, and then it worked around to Liz agreeing to do C's makeup, and the granddaughter and her friends went to watch, and they all had a grand time, while I met some of the other people who were gathered to hear about my book.
     For a long time, I had been hoping for a larger African-American audience for one of my book events, but now that it was happening, I was a little scared. What would they think of me--a white, middle-class Jewish woman--trying to inhabit the minds and souls and voices of "their" people, meaning the African American characters in my book?
     The answer is that they were very receptive and very open to listening and talking and exchanging. I will report some specifics in a future post. Here, I want to mention that one group who came (the library staff actually took a van to go pick these people up and bring them) consisted of women who are visually impaired and belong to a book group at the library (the branch has a large collection of materials for the blind). One of these people was Millicent, and she sat in the front row. Millicent had a lot to say about the ideas in the book, and she is the kind of person who one cannot fail to notice. Here she is in all her amazingness:


About Me said...

It's amazing that the library staff brought people to the reading.

Susan Messer said...

Yes, true. This was an amazing, homelike place. More like a community center or someone's rec room. In my post next week, I'll tell more about this place and this experience. said...

In her book, THE HELP, Kathryn Stockett comments, through her protagonist, her concern about talking to "colored maids" who worked in MIssissippi during the 60s. While the book is fiction, Stockett's book is part of her reality. Like you she is concerned about acceptance into "their" world and like you, she is accepted because truth blinds color.

Color discrimination in this country is as old as George Washington, the father of slavery. But as a resident of a "safe" suburb of Phoenix, a frighteningly daily concern for me, also a white, Jewish woman, is the increasing number of WHITE supremacists who appear regularly at immigration rallies pro and con this horrible Bill, but using the gatherings to promote their cause, "Burn the Jews." This epithet is also splashed on buildings and walls in no particular area. There is no "Jewish" area in Phoenix since the Jewish population is about l%.

So it isn't color we are afraid of. It's attitude and the power to harm, especially with the new gun law imminently taking effect giving permission to anyone to buy and own a gun, no questions asked.

I make this observation as a Detroit native who heard and watched Riot fire and destruction from my back window facing Eight Mile Road.

There is no safe color in my neighborhood.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks for your comments, Rasirds. Scary stuff.