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Diversity, Race

Detroit Descriptions

02.03.11 | 1 Comment

I’m reading this right now. I picked it up in December at a used book store during a trip to Chicago. It’s excellent. I didn’t expect to be writing about it in any significant way, but I read a really interesting passage today that I thought was important. It’s a novel that takes place in Detroit about two immigrants from Greece who are siblings, marry, and have children, eventually leading to an intersex grandchild. First recognized as a girl, then taking on a male identity as an adult, the intersex narrator tells a rich, compelling story about his family history. I’m a little more than a third of the way through and am reading about the grandparent Greek immigrants and their early years in Detroit. Desdemona, the grandmother, after living in Detroit for ten years, gets a job cultivating silk worms to make silk fabric for a Muslim temple located in the Black Bottom on the near east side of 1930s Detroit. She gets the job because all the other applicants know nothing about silk, but she used to do the same thing in Smyrna before coming to the US. Also, encouraged by her employer to state that she is of “mixed” race (Turkish and Greek), her made up “mulatto” racial identity makes her acceptable to the African American Muslims at the temple. She enters in through the back door, does not speak unless spoken to, and is never allowed to hear the sermons of the prophet. Click on that prophet link there; Detroit has a fascinating history with the Nation of Islam. It was founded here.

Desdemona’s silk room is three stories above the temple where the prophet gives his daily sermons. She can hear his voice coming up through the heating ducts and begins to listen every afternoon. At first, his descriptions of white people as blue eyed devils and evil white murderers disturb and confuse her. She calls him a charlatan in her head. After listening for a few afternoons, she begins to really consider his words. Here’s the passage that I really like:

“What was happening to Desdemona? Was she, always so receptive to a deep priestly voice, coming under the influence of Fard’s disembodied one? Or was she just, after ten years in the city, finally becoming a Detroiter, meaning that she saw everything in terms of black and white?” (Eugenides 2002: 156)

This passage dropped into my chest in such a profound, heavy way. It totally describes Detroit to this day. Black and white. You mean there are other people? Other ethnic groups? No way.

There is a real intense level of diversity in Detroit that gets ignored in so many ways. Metro Detroit, and Dearborn in particular, holds the largest Arab American population in the country. There are large southern and eastern European, Latino, and East Asian populations in the area. There is a significant Black population. No other city’s population in the US has such a large percentage of people of color, and African Americans in particular. White people live in Detroit proper too. There’s so much more to say, just trust that I’ll be writing more about this in other ways. Feel free to comment if you have thoughts to contribute.

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