When I was an undergrad at Central Michigan University, I started as a music performance major and shortly thereafter switched to creative writing. However, my favorite class happened in the history department with Professor David Goldberg: Black Detroit. If you click his name, you’ll see a list of what he now teaches at Wayne State University (in Detroit, Michigan) — and it’s amazing!
Since then I’ve been trying to keep up on books about Detroit. Recently, Detroit Hustle failed to impress me. I had higher hopes for A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark, because she includes a variety of Detroiters’ experiences. People young, old, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, immigrant, migrant, downtown, in the corners of the Detroit map, male and female. They agree and disagree on the same subjects, giving unique perspectives each. Yes, some of the authors are male, but I still review anthologies edited by women with male authors contained within the work because an editor has to shape the product she wants to see on the shelves, and it’s no easy task to curate a book meant to capture a place in photography, essays, narratives, and poems.
The organization of poems, essays, and narratives was the best part about the anthology. Clark puts together similar works. For example, you get a prose poem about street cars, then an essay about Detroit being a city for drivers, followed by a narrative about a woman whose car is vandalized, and then a narrative about a man who leaves Detroit and lives car-less for fifteen years before he concedes he must have one when he returns to “the D” (as locals call it). The topics build naturally from one another.
Though the organization was excellent, the photographs didn’t suggest a progression the way written works did and lacked helpful labels, in my opinion. In fact, the low quality of printing means image of people in action or buildings far away appear grainy.
Is it the job of the editor of the anthology to edit the works or secondary editor/proofreader to make sure everything is formatted and spelled correctly? A few cases of too/to and commas formatted next to the wrong word (e.g. “town ,competed”) distracted me. There was a paragraph indented twice.
Someone needed to edit each piece in the collection, which I realize would be a huge job. The book has sixty works, not including photos. But here is a sentence that I read and re-read to make sure I got it right:
Remember your first day of school? How your outfit had to be just right? Or how the crusts had to be cut off your sandwich and carefully placed in the lunchbox with your favorite cartoon character on it?
I feel like this child is going to be a Detroit-style Oliver Twist with only bread crusts for lunch. Then there is the poet who confused the saying the canary in the coal mine, instead using the bird as a metaphor for calling someone to a better place:
I almost forgot
to mention: the canary in Detroit's proverbial coal
mine who sang for my parents when they fled
the inferno of the South, its song
sweaty sweet with promise. I'm singing
myself, right now.
I mean, the canary warns you that you’re about to die. There is no promise there, nothing sweet — the bird is dead. And if the canary is in Detroit while the poet’s parents are in the south, why would they race toward the dead bird? It can’t sing; it dies and that how coal miners know to GTFO.
The topics covered made me feel like I was in a crash-course version of that Black Detroit class. The writers cover white flight, music, sporting arenas, housing, unemployment, crime, drugs, religion, the 1967 riot, slow EMT and police response time, Greek Town, family-owned businesses, farmers markets and urban gardening, the auto industry, transportation, poverty, HIV/AIDS, schools, and downtown growth. Mostly, the essays are too short to support a thesis, the narratives too short to fully describe an experience and its impact, the poems too disconnected from the city.
Overall, I appreciated that A Detroit Anthology made me reminisce about things I already know, yet couldn’t recommend it to someone who wants to learn about the city. The works are just too short.