I'm making my way through Robert Conot's magesterial American Odyssey. The book is, presumably, a history of Detroit, but it's actually a history of America, told from the perspective of Detroit. Conot was on the Kerner commission, organized by LBJ after the riots. He wasn't happy with the report, and was even less happy that Johnson ignored its recommendations. In response Conot wrote a book to hopefully explain the problem of the American city.'
I don't know if American Odyssey has fallen out of vogue with historians or what, but I'm a little amazed that I hadn't stumbled across this one until about a month ago. Among the many things I appreciate about this book, is the fact that Conot doesn't start trying to dissect the American city by starting with World War II, but with the very founding of Detroit, itself. The former approach often leaves you with the sense that the black ghettos materialized out of thin air, and tend to prop up the notion that black poverty is some unique problem never encountered by man.
But here is Conot on the original niggers of Detroit:
Between genteel Jefferson Avenue and the riverfront, the railroad created a reeking slum the likes of which were plaguing every industrial city. Enwreathed in the smoke belching from steamships, locomotives and factories, it was a district of unpainted and blackened wooden buildings. Cheap lodging houses, whorehouses, and tenements proliferated. Since lack of public transportation inhibited the expansion of the city, warehouses, stables and churches were converted into tenements. As the district spread outward, the wealthy abandoned their mansions and placed them in the hands of managers.
Left to do with them as they pleased so long as they channeled a fixed income to the owners, the managers discovered they were in possession of property more valuable than the mines of Michigan. The more intensively they mined the property, the greater their personal profit. Windowless cubicles as small as fifty square feet were occupied by as many as two families each. Twenty persons sometimes slept in two beds. Thousands of others camped in cellars. Water dripped on them from the walls. Their dreams were swathed in the stench piles of stored manure.
Pushcart peddlers sold vegetables, fish, needles, horse dung and opium. Itinerant artisans, purchasable females, cripples and blind men, children, chickens and pigs choked the narrow streets and alleys....The death rate rose more than 50 percent in a half century, and children died in fearful numbers. But, in a land with an abundant supply of food, men and women had the energy to breed two to replace each that was lost.
There's more, and not to be glib, but it all really sounds familiar. I'm working on something that deals with a lot of this, but I think that one of the unfortunate things about the "Negro Problem" is the extent to which it leans on the notion of a white paradise. It occurred to me reading Conot's book that before 1865--black lived outside of the society, almost. There were ghettos across the country, where people were stereotyped, discriminated against and generally smacked around. There have always been niggers. My fear, my great fear, is that there always might be, that we actually need someone to play the role.
On another note, Conot is smooth, smooth writer. I particularly like the word "enwreathed" and the term "purchasable females."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.