Posts Tagged ‘african american’


Boggs school_logo_2




Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excerpts from my journal

PHOTOS (in two parts)

November 25, 2014, Tuesday, on the train east of Cleveland heading home to Cambridge

The main event of yesterday [November 24, 2014], other than my departure from Detroit after 3 weeks (which on the universal scale counts for very little) was photographing the Boggs School, a publicly-funded charter school. Initially the head, Amanda Rosman, seemed nervous about my presence and asked me to estimate how long I’d be in the school. She also cautioned me against photographing the kids of one family whose mother refused blanket permission for photography, a prohibition that baffles me, especially at such a renowned school as the Boggs.



I was deeply impressed with the quality of education. The teachers seemed skilled in handling their subjects and discipline problems (the latter were frequent in one art class I observed, not in others). A main pedagogical principle is place-based education, meaning the students are to learn about where they live and go to school. One group, with the theme of orienteering, went for a walk around the block. When they stepped outside, the teacher, a burly fellow with thick arms teaching gym or physical education, asked them which directions were north, east, etc. I added and he agreed, what direction are the clouds coming from? and he added, and that means the direction of the storm—all central to moment and place.

[Place-based education is] local, and it’s connected to students in a way that they can identify with. It’s either a problem in their community or an event that’s happening, or it could be a geological phenomenon. But it’s something that they’re familiar with….so it means something to them. And then we ask questions about it.

—Cay Graig, Vermont teacher




After the walk —perfect for me because it shows the East-side neighborhood, typically deteriorated—they built something inside that I failed to locate and photograph.

Another teacher dealt with garbage, putting on the board 3 key questions: what happens to our garbage, where does it go, and what does it mean to throw it away? She had them write in their notebooks, and then read from them. Later she showed them an effecting movie about garbage.




The school runs kindergarten thru 5th, in 3 groups, something like kindergarten, 1-2-3, and 4-5. One teacher wears a hijab, about 1/3 the other teachers are black. Amanda, now softened toward me, not overseeing me as she did at our first location, the playground, and apparently assured I will do the school well, is a cofounder. I promised to send her a selection before I post, to make sure no kids whose parents refused permission are included.

Upon entering I noticed immediately two things: pizza for lunch and the policy of choices rather than self-control. The latter came up when a teacher in a contentious situation, rather than preaching self-control, reminded the student that he had choices. This reflected a conversation with my dear friends, Anne and Fred, when Anne advocated the choices approach. A good principle to keep in mind—with one’s self as well as others.

Because Thanksgiving was later in the week, let us think about Native Americans

Other observations: the art teacher showed them drawings of Indian language symbols in the context of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. (I wonder what spin they’d put on the traditional Thanksgiving story, probably a more accurate one.) Water bottles with names were in many rooms, presumably an effort to teach conservation. On my second pass at the bottles I photographed them with neighboring houses in the background. Often I used my Canon camera’s pullout viewfinder so I could hold the camera at my waist level, thereby distracting the children so they noticed me less.


Our challenge, as we enter the new millennium, is to deepen the commonalities and the bonds between these tens of millions, while at the same time continuing to address the issues within our local communities by two-sided struggles that not only say ‘no’ to the existing power structure but also empower our constituencies to embrace the power within each of us to crease the world anew.

—Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

Now the big story of that event, altho minor in the grand picture (too bad that I have no photos), this meant a great deal to me: wind. Gusting to more than 50 mph, swiveling between south and north, it blew me to the school, but ferociously resisted me on my little pedal machine (my folding bicycle) later when I tried to return home from the school. It nearly blew me over when I left the protection of a building and entered an intersection. I shifted down to the lowest gear to make headway against the tumultuous wind. Crackling, snapping, flaring, ripped-by-the-wind power lines forced a detour. I thought I might not make it without the intercession of either a divine being or someone like my neighbor Johnny with his huge truck. One block from the school, it blew over my bike when I stopped to photograph a recently burned house, stepping thru bags of what turned out to be shit to get a position. The wind-induced fall damaged my bike light needed in the dim, dank, afternoon darkness. Riding on the leeward side of buildings, on sidewalks, I achieved my objective: home. Thank god, humdilila. Outside my home I washed the shit off my boots and bike pedals and brought my bike inside.

My bike ride thru the wind might represent the school’s course thru the perils and challenges of troubled but perhaps recovering Detroit.

Down the street

Burnt house



Boggs School website

Boggs School Facebook page

A story about the founding of the school

Place-based education

“The Boggs School Oral History Project: Linking Youth and Elders to the Past, Present and Future,” by Laura de Palma, December 2014

Children’s Voices, Dave Eggers Illustrates Stories by Elementary Schoolers,” by Maria Russo, December 2014

Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio, a video about a photographic project at the school conducted by Corine Vermeulen, December 2014

New coalition on Detroit schools unveils its membership,” by Ann Zaniewski, December 2014

Activist Boggs honored for work toward social justice,” by Amy He, December 2014


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Excerpts from my journal during a 2 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late summer 2013


September 6, 2013, Friday, Detroit

Very cool, high 40s, clear, still.

Yesterday [September 5] was primarily a long bike trip to Dearborn: in search of the New Yasmeen Café and Bakery and a bike store and possibly to touch in on the Arab community here. I succeeded in the first two, failed in the third. At the bakery I loaded up on stuffed grape leaves, Baba ghanoush, yogurt, and sweets. At the bike shop, Eddie’s where I’d been before, owned by a cigarette-smoking, short, older man, probably Arab (judging from the TV playing), I bought a bike bell and rear view mirror. A black man helped me install them. And told me about Slow Roll, the weekly bike parade thru Detroit that I hope to join some Monday evening. I felt in good company. He told me biking is way up, especially downtown, and folding bikes like mine are newly popular.

On this journey I am primarily a street photographer, not a photojournalist. I work randomly, spontaneously, without much planning, certainly with minimal contacts. Contrasting with photojournalism where initial design is more important, and research, and solidifying contacts.

I discovered the huge Ford Motor Company complex. World headquarters of Ford, the Henry Ford Centennial Library renamed for Ford which I visited, and nearby the Ford Museum complex which I once stopped in at but never entered. Maybe this time, including a Rouge River plant tour. (I recalled that Ellen, a Quaker who took my photo workshop at Friends General Conference many years ago, works or worked for Ford. I will try to contact her for an inside tour.)

The library is large, spacious, airy, with good views out to the green zones and the conflicting huge Ford headquarters, and features a partial second floor looking over much of the first. It exhibits mundane paintings, and a spectacular mural slightly resembling the USA . Well endowed, I am covetous of this museum, a counterpoint to the conventional image of an impoverished Detroit. Of course this is the town of Dearborn, cousin to Detroit, in many ways far better off—as Windsor Ontario Canada is to Detroit, just across the river.



Mural in Ford library

The biking exhausted me, I am thankful for the cool weather. Cold at night. I believe the folding bike is less energy-efficient than a touring bike so I need to work harder to gain the same amount of distance. However, I am pleased with my bike, and consider bringing it to Ann Arbor this weekend when I visit Anne and Fred and Karen.

My photographic work is inch-by-inch, millimeter-by-millimeter. Perhaps yesterday’s main discovery was the Ford complex. Too bad it did not result in photos. Main work the day before was AW and Johnny, with photos showing AW. Today, who knows? The weekend, ditto. So it goes. As Gertrude Stein stated, “I write a little bit each day and in that way a lot gets written.”

Reflecting on my dream last night of exhibition failure I suspect the fear of not being shown is equivalent to what Primo Levi wrote about Auschwitz inmates—their nightmare that when released and home and safe, no one wanted to hear their stories.

A horrifying dream in which my photos apparently did not make it into a major exhibition, whereas the art work of “my partner” did. Mine were large, mounted on stiff board about 3 by 4 ft., in a box that resembled a bike box. I felt humiliated. Merging with this dream another in which a Black man chased me. I fled and hid in the cavernous exhibition space I just mentioned. And this dream melded into another that featured the death of a man. Others discovered his decaying, stinking body. Alex K, dressed as a priest, was to officiate at the funeral. He and I tried to squeeze out thru a narrow hole in the wall.

Working at my neighbor Gloria’s last evening (for the internet) she told me about her “grand baby” (now 10) who won a bike by diligently continuing her studies over the summer. Grandma Gloria pushed her so when the good news of the bike registered, her grand-daughter said, Grandma, you deserve this bike! At 7 years old she finally rode without training wheels, with the help of Gloria, but now, because of the bike’s complexity, she is again afraid to ride it. I offered to work with her.


Gloria Milligan (photo from 2011)


Jaina (photo from 2011)

I note in passing how obese many African-Americans are here. (Gloria is a clear exception, as are Johnny and AW.) More women than men. The food they eat—fatty, sugary, with little nutritional benefit—must play a gigantic role. Also depression and other effects of living under the gun of racism. Would they be slimmer if less oppressed? Is there a correlation between suffering and obesity? (Since I work every morning at McDonalds because of the internet connection and notice the plethora of adverts for fatty sugary food, I hope to make a series of photos to show this.)


Karen’s house is working well for me. And the neighborhood, so far. More than on other trips I seem this time more tuned to crime, worried that I’ll be robbed or the house burgled. Last night as I drifted into sleep a loud sound startled me, probably a car horn. At first I thought, oh shit, someone’s breaking in! Gloria mentioned that Johnny is a sort of neighborhood watch. He might serve to dissuade local robbers. But what about my meanderings around the neighborhood? Say on a walk or bike ride. Will someone attack me? How would I nonviolently resist?

My (temporary) home in west Detroit



George, my guide, informant, and driver in front of Karen’s house

I make the house my own in many ways: setting up my meditation space this morning with a candle and candle holder I found in the ante-room, ash tray to hold the incense, bow to the fake Xmas tree because I forgot to bring my midget Buddha, and sit on the hassock rather than zafu and stool in the front room. Or shitting. Or cooking delicious beans last night and eating breakfast at the dining room table where I write. Or visiting with Karen when she arrives late afternoon today.

I ponder how rapidly this house could self-destruct if abandoned. Paint peels, water creeps further in, plants erode structure, birds may enter, varmints as well, people even. Someone tosses a rock thru a window. Or sets fire to the garage. Before long the house is junk. Maybe someone attempts to clear it of furniture. Piles it up outside the house, a clear sign of abandonment as is so frequent in this neighborhood. I wonder if I should photograph the interiors of abandoned homes, a form of meditation. Or has this been done sufficiently? Surely with major buildings like the Michigan Central Train Station.


In my neighborhood



Henry Ford Centennial Library

Abandoned Houses: One Block in Detroit,” by Danny Wilcox-Frazier/Redux

 “Duggan neighborhood plan targets abandoned house, scrappers,” by Matt Helms [Duggan is a mayoral candidate.]

Investments in Detroit homes

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Excerpts from my journal during a 2 week sojourn in Detroit Michigan, late summer 2013

September 5, 2013, Thursday, Detroit

Very cool, high 40s, 90% clear with cirrus, still.

Yesterday [September 4] I had 2 pivotal conversations, Johnny, my next-door neighbor, and AW, a vivacious black man I met at the McDonald’s as I did my email on my iPad, clumsily.


Johnny (photo made in 2011)

Johnny was ecstatic about a recent civil war reenactment he participated in in northern Michigan with his black “cavalry.” He keeps a horse, prides himself on his horsemanship, and told me in some detail about how his unit charged the Confederate’s cannon. How he shot Confederate soldiers with his 2 Civil War era pistols (with blanks of course). And how accepted he felt by the opposing white soldiers because, he thinks, they admired his and his colleague’s horsemanship. Ah, Skip, you should have been there.

I asked Johnny, I remember you’re a Vietnam vet. Did you see combat?

I did.

And did the reenacted shooting bring back your experiences?

Yes, but not to devastating effect, not like it would have decades ago when I suffered more from PTSD.

How’d you get thru that?

I didn’t. For instance, last night I did not sleep well.


Sometimes. Charlie (the moniker GI’s used for the Vietcong) still comes after me. He also told me he keeps guns and would use them if threatened in the neighborhood. For me, he explained, there is nothing between anger and violence.

AW, met in a local McDonalds where I use the wireless connection


AW, as he prefers being called, met me in McDonald’s after he’d exclaimed out loud to no one in particular about my folding bike parked outside the window I sat in—initially unaware that I owned the bike—man, that bike has small wheels.

Yes, I offered, 20 inches, it’s a folding bike. That led to a long conversation about Detroit. He was upset at a remark Boston mayor Menino had recently made, that to solve Detroit’s problems first someone should blow it up. Yes, AW partially agreed, Detroit has problems but they don’t warrant such a crude remark.

Confirming how others analyze the scene here, he said the city—the entire state—is/was too dependent on the auto industry. Now, he feels, there’s an attempt at diversification: medical primarily. He didn’t say, but I’ve noticed, another industry could be art. Already Detroit exalts in its Detroit Institute of Art (artwork there currently being considered for liquidation for city funding, an abominable prospect. imagine, Rivera’s Ford Motor Company mural auctioned off in pieces!)

What’s next for Detroit? I asked.

Well, what’s happening now is big money taking an interest in investing in Detroit. Banks are buying up property, for example.

What about the risks involved, big corporations controlling the city? I asked.

I don’t know what the alternative is; the money needs to come from somewhere. Furthermore, (I think he stated) I feel that bankruptcy is positive, clearing the ground.

He is retired, spoke of attending a conference in Boston, eating regularly on an expense account at Legal Seafood, growing up in Louisiana and loving seafood, working on rebuilding dikes in New Orleans as a young man after Hurricane Irene, a vicious predecessor of Katrina, destroyed parts of the city. He asked me about my work, asked for my website, seemed to appreciate my love of Detroit, my curiosity in it.

You could buy a home here, Skip, for $30,000. People aren’t buying because there is very little in Detroit to attract them. Poor schools and few city services.

We sat together nearly one hour, I got little of my writing done. I showed him on my Detroit map where I lived. He offered a route that would skirt around the most dangerous neighborhoods. I read later that Detroit has some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the USA.


Grace Lee Boggs (photo made in 2011 at the Allied Media Conference)

I believe my last visit here was early summer 2011 for the Allied Media Conference. There I heard Vincent Harding and Grace Lee Boggs. My dear friend S is very interested in Boggs and hopes to hear more about her from me. Of course, I hope to interview Boggs and make some more photos of her. A question I’ll ask is simply, how are things in Detroit and how have they changed in the past 5 or so years? Also her views about bankruptcy and the new government-installed administration. I’m curious about the mayoral race in November, whether it matters given the fact of the state government’s takeover of failed communities.

My home (as a short term guest), 13100 Washburn




Resurrection City,” by Bill Wylie-Kellerman

Detroit Bankrupt? Six Ways the Motor City Is Thriving,” by Larry Gabriel

“Detroit Arcadia, Exploring the post..American landscape,” by Rebecca Solnit: detroit-arcadia

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I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.

—Malcolm X


Excerpts from my journal while on the road for 3 weeks to the hinterland of the USA, with photos to show and photos to make.

July 1, 2011, Friday, Detroit, K’s house

Warmer, mid 60s, clear, still.

Had I emerged from my momma’s womb prone to depression, I would now be clinically depressed. I would be unable to get out of bed; I would drink or drug myself, or run from one woman to another. I might be hospitalized. None of this is my state: I function, barely. And try again—I try.

Home (thanks to K), near Wyoming St & Grand River Ave

Yesterday was a day off from photography, for the most part, to visit museums. The Detroit Historical Museum, as expected, highlighted automobile manufacturing. I learned that the USA was not the first to produce a car—Germany and France, as one might guess, were antecedent. Placing the engine in front, rather than the rear, took a while to discover. Electricity, cooking oil (the original diesel) and fossil fuel competed with each other to be the driving force. Computer-originated automation came to rule manufacturing, deleting jobs. Several rooms were devoted to this topic, whereas Detroit’s role in abolition—a major terminal on the underground railroad—earned only one small section, part of a stair case.

In contrast, the phenomenal Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History dedicated much space to not only the abolition movement but slavery, Jim Crow, resistance to racism, and forms of integration into contemporary USA society. The museum building itself is grand—a large circular atrium with exhibits radiating off this center. The And Still We Rise: Our Journey through African-American History and Culture exhibit which included slavery and ancillary topics is in a series of rooms that includes a slave ship, main deck and below the deck where frozen black figures moan, cry out, (figuratively) vomit, and generally suffer. All very moving and life-like.

Sojourner Truth, advocate for women’s rights & the abolition of slavery

Frederick Douglass, another advocate for abolition

For most of my African-American museum visit I was the only guest. I’d entered the Still We Rise exhibit with a large group of African Americans but then diverged from them, annoyed by the docent’s voice. I also accidentally stepped in front of one of the participants as she took notes. Excuse me, you’re blocking me! she announced. With a peeved tone she asked me to move out of the way. I thought I might have pluged once again into my stereotypic role as Big White Father.

This is a monumental museum, worthy of another longer visit. Stopping in the shop I found Kente cloth the perfect gift for both K and my grand daughter, Eleanor. Also 2 postcards, one with Frederick Douglass, who is one of my heroes, and the other a description of fascism, which eerily resembles the condition of the United States currently. Later at the Contemporary Art Museum I found a better gift for Eleanor—a thick book entitled Doodle All Year. Space for coloring and drawing on themes that soon she’ll be able to read. Grandpa may be known at times for his frugality and stinginess, but at others—this gift might represent that moment—he can be extraordinarily generous.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit showed Barely There, Part 1, a mystifying collection of oddities: flags from different nations heaped into a loose pyramid, a pen with its cap removed, a series of writings about death and other such topics, a video of goldfish with words tied to their tails, and a video of a man hypnotized to believe he was viewing an art exhibit. I found the last most interesting, and thought LM with his new path toward hypnotherapy might also.

Biking back (propelled by a tail wind) I stopped at a resale shop to replace the wooden spoon I’d broken when stirring the sticking rice. Crammed with stuff, I remarked, you have enough stuff here to outfit a mansion. The skinny black woman running the shop seemed listless. The place was dark. Several people sat around. Everything felt dour and dank. I cheerily paid my dollar and left.

Mexican Town

Whizzers—small motorcycles from Japan—haunt me. They whiz, they whine, they speed. A few days ago on the expressway I saw 3 in a row hurdle past all the cars, going at least 80 mph. They are obnoxious, dangerous, and pervasive.

A staple of the Midwest, alleys, once used by garbage trucks for pickup and to access private garages, are disappearing [or becoming green alleys—see below]. As a youth growing up in Chicago I remember alleys. They were the secret passageways to other regions of the neighborhood. We could spy from them into the backs of homes, enter back yards, pick from cherry trees, spy on girls shedding their clothes as they prepared for bed, hide in garages. And now, perhaps because of new techniques of trash collection and the vanishing of garages, alleys are not needed. Weeds grow over them, obscure them. Yesterday I noticed a fence extended into what may have been an old alley to add to the home’s space.

Had I stayed with my earlier plan of returning home on June 30, today I’d be on the train somewhere in New York state or Ohio, due to arrive in Boston tonight around 9 pm. Because of cheaper Amtrak prices on holidays when fewer wish to travel, I’ve extended. Is today my last day in Detroit? Will K show up for our meeting with Barbara about the Swords into Plowshares exhibit? Will I go to Ann Arbor with her for my remaining days on the road, leave from Ann Arbor Monday evening, arrive home on Tuesday, just in time to begin my teaching? All is uncertain.

Detroit Eastern Market

As of yesterday morning when I worked at Gloria’s home she had not yet contacted neighbors about portraits. I was tempted to ask Johnny to do the same, but thought perhaps asking both to coordinate portraiture might create conflict. Right or wrong call? No word yet from Bill Wylie-Kellerman about photo leads. I’ll phone him this morning. Today, depending on K’s plans, I might bike to Corktown and Mexican Town, maybe meet Bill, survey the area. Search for photos.



Taking Back Alleys” by Ashley C. Woods

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