You are here

Picture Saginaw in Black and White

It was a surprise to find white and black cultural worlds are largely separate in Saginaw Michigan.

Mike Mosher

1. Philosophy Club:

The YMCA in Saginaw, Michigan held a February 7, 2017 meeting of the Philosophy Club, featuring discussion about racism. It was well-advertised on the local public radio station 90.1, run by the region's community college. Though it had a personable black General Manager for many years, who slated a wide variety of definitions of "jazz" into the noontime slot, this white citizen has complained that the station contains no programming directed to, or covering, the city's 43% African American population. I had never heard an ad for the Philosophy Club on the station before, nor have since, so the club evidently took it seriously as a special event.

My wife (Afro-Caribbean) and I drove 18 miles from Bay City, and arrived at a room with three dozen white people ringed around five out-of-town speakers; another black woman, presumably local, joined the gathering ninety minutes later. The visitors were members of Racism and Civil Rights in 2017, a discussion group in Detroit, initiated by African American millennials who grew up there yet hospitably including their more recently-arrived white neighbors. Five of its stalwarts willingly got up early on a Saturday morning, departing from Detroit at about 7:00 to arrive in Saginaw for the 9:00 Library gathering. Fortunately the weather was unseasonably pleasant (by pre-global warming Michigan standards) for their drive north.

The five individuals age looked age thirty or less, and--judging solely by appearance--three European American women, one African American woman and one man either African American or south Asian. One of the white women (maybe the one who we learned, like us, moved to Michigan from California?) said that, as a comparatively recent immigrant to Detroit, she was glad to find a discussion group that was founded by black people. They brought with them a good analysis and critique, in the tradition of Grace Boggs and other savvy Motor City activists.

The Philosopher's Club meeting began with introductions around the table. One guy brought up a TV movie about O.J. Simpson, as if it contained answers to racism in his own world. Some of the Saginaw residents present told of incidents in their past that still haunt them, when their ingrained racism caused them to offend someone with words or deeds that they know (or even knew then) they should not have.

Besides responding to the concerns and experiences of the locals, the speakers projected some graphics that showed interlocking networks of gentrification and racism, and a visual metaphor of equality of opportunity for those starting out in differing circumstances. Yet it was frustrating that this was only a two-hour meeting At the end of the event, a benign hippie in his sixties stood up and crooned a version of Marvin Gaye's song "What's Going On". In it, he mentioned the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but not of Saginaw's Milton Hall. The vigilante killing of promising young boy in Florida, but not the police execution of a troubled middle-aged street person in his own town.

2. Two Saginaws:

Spending my twenties in San Francisco, I guess I always assumed intelligent people participated in (perhaps occsaionally sampled, or, at worst visited as tourists) all available local cultures. You'd go to Day of the Dead in the Mexican neighborhood, Chinese New Year parades, Russian and Jewish delicatessens, to movies, bookstores and restaurants in the Japan Center, Freedom Day parade and the Gay community's fine pastry and greeting card shops. Juneteenth and the Neighborhood Arts Program's cultural centers included African American artwork, plays and music.

Shortly after we moved to Michigan (back, in my case, as I'd grown up downstate) in 2000, one Saginaw civic organization held its cinema fundraiser: "Gone With the Wind". The movie has also periodically been shown as entertainment, without irony, deconstruction or historical context, in Bay City. The local symphony held a fundraiser in Pancho Villa mustaches, sombreros, and were surprised to be criticized by some Mexican Americans and some white supporters. A dozen years ago a woman on a committee with me to revitalize Bay City with artwork said that when the local hospital was built in the 1990s, a recurrent question was "But how do we keep black people from Saginaw coming up to it?" Now, following its acquisition by a larger Michigan health chain, its CEO is African American.

It was a surprise to come to Michigan and see that white and black cultural worlds are largely separate in Saginaw. Saginaw's elected officials and city functionaries are black, but it appears the business and financial power isn't. Saginaw's political establishment includes old families, some of whom were mentioned in a 1940s poem "Saginaw Song" by its favorite son, poet Theodore Roethke.

The Democratic Party is the old urban coalition of industrial labor and African Americans, though its progressive wing has begun organizing since the Bernie Sanders campaign and (a greater stimulus) Donald Trump's election. They are addressing redistricting and the unglamorous brass-tacks issues of governance. But too often its muscle is the same septagenarian activists, and the best ones in Bay City have no ties to black Saginaw whatsoever. There are seasoned antiwar activists of that generation too, many once affiliated with the now-closed Jeane Collier Catholic Worker house in Saginaw.

It appears to me that Saginaw black life centers around private institutions: clubs, sororities, numerous churches. Old working-class bars in neighborhoods that have probably been black for decades are mostly shuttered, though one black entrepreneur has opened a downtown night club in 2016. A nearby New Orleans-themed restaurant/jazz club soon folded after the death of its proprietor. But black friends on Facebook more frequently tell of excursions to Detroit for R & B or Gospel concerts (while white younger white friends travel to see Hip Hop).

We attended Saginaw's Lawn Chair Film Festival in 2016 to see "The Grand Budapest Hotel". Later, looking over the schedule, we realized its hero was the only nonwhite hero on that summer's slate. There was one black woman with two young children attending, which seemed suspiciously few for a free entertainment event on a weekend evening in the heart of the mixed city. One participant, owner of a business on the block, explained that there had been "trouble with teenagers"--nodding her head towards across the river--one year, which we took to mean boisterous black ones. Were guns drawn, or angry threats and fists? As my wife tells tales of boisterous Saturday matinees in Kingston, Jamaica, filled with kids and teenagers hollering advice to the cowboy movies' actors on the screen, I hope exuberant black verbal participation wasn't mistaken for danger by the Lawn Chair programmers.

The if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media gleefully recounts any fisticuffs or gun being flashed, at high school gatherings, and gathering places for youth close their doors (Trinity Center in 2009) or struggle for funds. My wife then reminds me of black and Latino teenagers we saw being hassled by police in downtown Berkeley for what appeared to be simply hanging out downtown. Author Ishmael Reed was stopped by police in 2016 on a morning walk in the Berkeley Hills, as if the octogenarian "fit the gang profile." The 2014 movie "Fruitvale Station" told how one young man was needlessly shot to death by nervous Bay Area Rapid Transit police a few miles from Reed.

3. Black Milton Matters:

If things were tougher for African Americans, in the past century there was still some—occasional—mobility. In the late nineteenth century the Goodridge brothers prospered as photographers, traveling to shoot lumber camps and later documenting local parades, newsboys and schoolchildren with a movie camera. For years I knew of only one notable man named Hall in the Saginaw area, David Hall, Executive in Residence in the College of Business and Management at SVSU, an executive role in Dow Corning Corporation, and before that an Air Force General. He collected his advice in a little book The ABC of Management, whose lessons I introduce to students organizing community murals.

Then the region heard of another man named Hall, shot dead like an enemy of the nation. Seven police opened fire and shot Milton Hall in Saginaw over forty times when Hall was surrounded outside a convenience store in the middle of the day on July 1, 2012. He was holding a small pocket knife. There are two videos of the event on YouTube, one shot by a bystander from the street and one from a police dash-cam. The police were lined up like a firing squad, so a university-educated artist immediately sees in them Goya's "Fifth of May, 1808" or Manet's "Execution of Emperor Maximillian". I took a JPEG of the latter painting, digitally removed all but the brown-skinned prisoner from the execution wall's lineup, made him stouter and re-titled it "Edouard Manet's 'Execution of Milton Hall".

I believe I was panhandled once downtown by homeless Milton, irritating but not deserving of execution. He was the kind of mentally disturbed unwashed individual that America's insufficient mental health systems have relegated to the city streets, that I encountered a lot in San Francisco. And he was our region's most notable police killing of a black person in this era of Black Lives Matter consciousness.

I painted a couple paintings, created a couple cartoons, and drew a lot of small drawings, of massed police (increasingly abstracted into a single form) menacing a lone, burly man. Not long after Hall's shooting, a millage proposal for more police funding failed to get the endorsement of the Saginaw NAACP, and white residents were surprised by that. In Fall, 2012 I drew a cartoon mystically linking the shooting of Hall to the result of Saginaw's Art Museum closing. But the Art Museum bounced back, saved at the last minute by a donor, and after the crisis it was cultural business as usual.

I included a large painting of Milton Hall's killing in SVSU's January Art Dept. Faculty exhibition in January. The Gallery Curator displayed it prominently facing the glass windows, visible from the hallway, and reported she came to work one morning to find a campus police officer staring at it in contemplation. I exhibited "Black Milton Matters" paintings and drawings at Counter Culture in Saginaw, to mark the fifth anniversary of the shooting, and following its opening reception, a rich community discussion was held, featuring a university sociologist, a community organizer with an ecumenical organization, and a City Councilman who asked to participate. It was noted that non-lethal bean bag guns were locked up and inaccessible on the July 2012 holiday weekend, and that numerous police who knew Hall and his mental condition were on vacation. A representative of the Saginaw Police Department was invited, but declined. There had been numerous reforms instituted (and a new Police Chief) as a result of community pressure after Hall's needless death.

How does one depict such a contemporary urban horror as those that citizen's cell phones and the Black Lives Matter patriots have brought to national attention? I hope for the formal innovation of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica", and often the officers agglutinate into a uniformed, multi-pink-armed and automatic armed nebulous Chthulu "the Police". I hope my cartoon depictions of Milton are in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin's tramp, for if a sad sack everyman like him was victimized, any citizen or resident can be too. The sharpest political commentary can be satire—Dick Gregory, "In Living Color", the Yippies, the Royal Irish Navy, the Onion—and the new "social justice comedy". Walter Benjamin warned that, while the progressive artist politicizes art, the fascist tendency aestheticizes politics in rallies, slogans, movies and graphics. I seek to avoid that danger.

4. Education:

In Fall of 2016 there was a shooting at a party at the edge of my university campus. I asked my Drawing class if anyone had attended. The one black student, a quiet Detroit boy who had drawn a self portrait as a flower, said he had but promptly left when he heard shots. We attended a meeting a week later at nearby Delta College on racial issues. A local judge pointed out one student was obviously black, another was obviously white, then sat down, proud of himself as if that solved something.

Black Lives Matter events at SVSU began to be organized by students with guidance by faculty in the Sociology, History and Criminal Justice Departments. At a November, 2016 meeting, five students, three of them white, reported on racism in their lives and studied. After presentations, the floor was opened to discussion. Black students lamented a large, suspicious police presence at a candlelight vigil. One black girl complained of a white roommate "who didn't know ANYTHING" about black culture, leaving us wanting to hear the rest of the story: what did the roommate end up learning? College is supposed to be about learning; what did you learn about her small-town white world? Did you two fight? Did you become friends? Was nothing shared? As at the Delta meeting, we left feeling issues had been introduced, without time to seriously address them; a day-long February Black Lives Matter teach-in was held and well-attended. A troubling fact is that SVSU has a graduation rate of enrolled black students graduating within six years, 16%.

One Saturday in May we returned to Saginaw, to a community center's free presentation of "Hidden Figures", the inspiring movie about the struggles of black women mathematicians (called "computers", as opposed to the new mechanical "IBM") at NASA's Langley, Virginia facility in the early 1960s. It had only a few attendees.

The following day, the State Theatre in Bay City again presented the movie "Gone With the Wind." And as far as there being two Saginaws, or two Americas, except for pockets of concern, the majority seems to say Frankly, Scarlett, mid-Michigan doesn't give a damn.

Artist Mike Mosher teaches art and media when he's not drawing or writing something, probably political. Graphics: Proposed Saginaw downtown ca. 1960, Castle Museum of History. Painting "July 1, 2012" © Mike Mosher.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.