Learn, Develop, Grow During Black History Month 
By jazc

I was born and raised in the Downriver area of metropolitan Detroit.  I’ve shared this previously in terms of my journey as an individual in coming to appreciate diversity.  As I continue to contemplate my life’s journey, I also see more clearly the societal forces at work in my life.  This is important because progressive change does not only require that individuals develop and grow, but also it requires that societal institutions develop and grow.

As a child my sense was “Downriver” was kind of exotic.  “Down the river”: a body of water always engenders visions of peace, nature, and enjoyment.  No matter that there was an enormous steel mill on the banks of the Detroit River that ran along my hometown.  There was also a park a little farther down that was green, had trees, provided a riverside walkway, hosted a fantastic Fourth of July fireworks display, and besides, you could see Canada from that park – how exotic is that!

It was an amazingly long time later that I came to realize that “Downriver” had another connotation in terms of the society in which I lived.  Downriver was opposed to “upriver.” [Although Downriver is an actual place south of Detroit, “upriver” is a term I am creating to denote elite communities north of Detroit, for example, Grosse Pointe].   Downriver was composed of working-class neighborhoods.  Downriver also contained the mills and factories in which those workers were employed.  Downriver is where all the pollution from those mills and factories would flow.  Upriver was where all the owners and executives of those mills and factories lived, protected from the negative effects of their enterprises. 

My hometown also possessed something that “upriver” did not:  a Black population.  Outer Drive divided the White population from the Black population.  Consequently, I never meaningfully interacted with the Black population in my early years.  We had neighborhood elementary schools which resulted in segregated schools.  It seemed the two populations were divided by their own choice. 

It was only after pursuing higher education and being drawn to Black history that I began to understand  my life in American society more clearly.  I came to understand that the division between the Blacks and the Whites in my hometown, and society as a whole, was not coincidental, but part of a wedge consciously placed in order to keep those with like interests separate and weak.  My hometown was not segregated by mere choice.  Red-lining was a practice used in the real estate business that kept Black and White families from becoming neighbors and friends.  Labor unions did not accept Black members in order to assure Black and White workers would not unite to achieve more power, better wages, and improved working conditions.

Reading, learning and working to become more open to diversity individually is good.  We must also, however, do the work to assure that our society’s institutions are creating communities that are not divided and weak, but that are united, recognizing common goals of equal opportunity and justice, and enabling all to work together to achieve those goals.

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