The written story is below the video.
We moved here to Pingree Park, between Mack and Gratiot on the Eastside. As we work on launching a non-profit called The Table Setters, I’ve taken up a job as a Lyft driver. It’s helping me to re-learn our city, both the roads and the infinitely interesting stories that are shared about real Detroit. You see, I spent my first 18 years in Beverly Hills. Michigan. You know: 13 and Southfield.
Last week, my Lyft route took me past the Mt. Elliott cemetery, and I remembered burying my great aunt Dorothy there about 20 years ago. That was the day I also learned of the very unique flavor of Detroit bigotry.
“Look at what Black people do to nice things. Look at all these old homes, such beautiful designs, but look what happens when black people live in them. It’s a disgrace,” said someone at the funeral, and though my 17 year old body wanted to have a smart, put-you-in-your-place kind of reply, no words came.
As a Lyft driver these days, I mostly drive people right from our neighborhood on Detroit’s Eastside to and from work, as it’s more affordable to pay for Lyft than it is to have car insurance. Every once in awhile, I get pulled along Woodward past Maple. A few weeks back, I pulled up and stopped at a coffee shop, sat down next to two women with pink-skin like mine. A young brown-skinned family were just getting up to leave on the other side. They had a baby boy, probably 9-10 months who had just woken up from a nap. The two women close to me starting fawning over the child.
“Oh, he’s so adorable. Look at those eyes, look at his little curls. Are you two so happy?” (not really listening for a response)
But when the young family rolled their stroller away, one of the women said to her friend:
“Oh, so precious. Black boys are so cute when they’re babies…….”
My thirty-something Spidey-Senses started tingling, again I wanted to “thwap” something smart and fast at her words, something to make her think, to foil her plans at keeping fear alive and well. Because since that day in the cemetery, I’ve heard that kind of talk almost every day: the coded language behind systemic racism. Neighbors in the suburbs talking about moving further north if “the CREEP got too strong.” Neighbors aghast at my parent’s decisions to take us to Xochimilcho’s or other family owned restaurants downtown after a Tiger’s game. Neighbors that promised we were sure to get shot if we “lingered” too long south of 8 mile. Our recent life in LA these past 15 years had it’s own flavor of this, what with talking about how “nice” Echo Park has become, how our friends living without homes could have any shelter they wanted as long as it wasn’t in MY backyard, how Latino people are really sneaky…..
So I knew the unspoken statement that floated in the air between these two women, the one neither of them needed to say, but they understood the message perfectly: Black baby boys turn into monsters.
I wanted to BUST her! I wanted to muster up my best Denzel Washington and see if she could Remember the Titans! I wanted to ask her exactly at what point does that baby turn into something scary, is it 18, or the gray area of 17, or maybe 14, or maybe 12 if he’s wearing a hood?
But her friend sighed, nodded, and then looked on the verge of tears as she said “so, I think I’m leaving Kevin once and for all. Got the papers ready….”
I put my Micro-Aggression Police badge away. They’re probably not gonna stand for my well-crafted lesson on the roots of the school-to-prison pipeline in the midst of a looming divorce. Sigh. I finished my Almond Milk Cortado, (yes, I’m a sucker for hipster coffee), turned my Lyft Driver mode back on to begin driving South.
Heading along Woodward, no calls coming in, I got to thinking: they really don’t know. I’m angry about the hypocrisy of expecting that young black baby to turn into a monster while one woman was in the midst of describing the cheating and lying monster of a man she had married. My pink skin was turning red. And though we all know there are dangers in Detroit, just like any city, I am so upset about the complaints I still hear about Coleman Young destroying Detroit with “his” drug dealers, these statements coming from people who’s own children were selling all kinds of drugs in their suburban basements back then. Seriously, I knew what parties to go to if I had wanted to get high, on any given weekend.
But the anger quickly gave way to a profound sadness. They really don’t know. The Detroit I knew had so many incredible people, so warm and funny and generous. So eager to get to know you and share some life with you. These two women really don’t seem to know that Detroit.
And, as it would go, still no Lyft passengers called as I kept rolling along Woodward, past Ferndale, past the place where you have to get off the SMART Bus and walk across the 8 lanes to get on the DT bus stop…gave me time to think back on my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. I signed up for a class with Buzz Alexander as part of the Prison Creative Arts Project. At 19, Something in me wanted to learn more, something in me wanted to hear stories that were silenced, and if I’m honest, something in me wanted to be known as being “bold enough” to go into a prison, to be able to become a MythBuster to all my suburban neighbors.
In this prison program, a partner and I would facilitate improvisational theater workshops at Western Wayne correctional facility near Plymouth. We were not allowed to bring any supplies, no pencils or paper, so we worked with the men to create improvisational plays that would be performed for other guys inside and outside guests. These stories always veered towards personal scenes of regret, redemption, reconciliation, and this came naturally from the guys themselves. My parents were supportive, but other friends at our home church looked at me and scratched their heads when I told them “what I’d been up to at UoM” and asked, “why are you going into a prison every week, Matthew?” I would tell them that Matthew 25 from our Bible talks clearly about visiting people behind bars and then someone said, “but that’s just a metaphor.” For what?
My first day, after we cleared the metal detectors and pat-downs, I learned that we would be working in the maximum security unit with men convicted of murder. Now, that rattled me. I thought I’d be working with drug offenders, but murderers? I walked into day one as a prison theater facilitator on high alert.
And then there was Levi: right after the guards introduced me and my partner to the group of 13 men, Levi, 300 pound African-American guy gets up, walks over to, I go to shake his hand but he picks me up and squeezes me. Oh my god oh my god he’s a giant boa constrictor….
Oh wait, he’s hugging me. He’s hugging me and holding me up high. He put me down and said, thank you, thank you for coming. I’ve been looking forward to this all month.
And that started one of the most important mentorships of my life. While I realized that my brain imagined a room full of Jeffery Dahmer’s and Charles Mansons, Levi and his brothers were deeply kind, deeply wise, and deeply complicated. Levi: Vietnam Vet, honorably discharged with shrapnel damage, addicted to morphine, sold drugs, racked up priors, had a season of being on house arrest. One night his sister called, needing Levi to watch her daughter while she went to the ER to deliver her second baby. Levi thought his parole officer would understand. Except that someone tried to break in through the child’s bedroom in the middle of the night. Levi charged the window, and that men fell 3 stories and died. Levi received a life sentence. Levi was not a monster. He was a little like Detroit itself: loving, protective, scarred, and fiercely misunderstood.
Levi also told me that he was praying for me daily. So I asked Levi: what do you think I should do after I graduate? Levi said: hands down, be a teacher, because if I had had a teacher who listened and respected me like we do in this workshop, I may have imagined more potential for myself.
Armed with Levi’s blessing, I moved to New Orleans after graduating to become a teacher. I was placed in the upper 9th ward, before Katrina, and I was going to look out for all the young Levi’s and make sure they never went down a path that led them to life in prison. I was gonna be Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds, I was gonna be Hillary Swank from Freedom Writers, I was gonna be a white Sidney Poitier from To Sir With Love!
My phone lit up, dinged with a Lyft Request in Madison Heights. I caught my breath, but before I had to turn around, they cancelled. Let’s head back to New Orleans!
With my Save-The-World badge at the ready, I mistakenly forgot that Middle School is a whole different place than prison. The men in our workshop looked forward to our sessions to relieve the daily grind of prison. For an eleven year old, middle school IS the daily grind. Also, I assumed that all the kids would be so troubled, but they weren’t. They were looking for a teacher who would, well teach them, give them structure, and not just focus on the kids who “might end up like Levi.”
So here’s day one: the kids have come in and found a seat. I’m taking roll off a Scantron form, names printed along the edge, space for only 9 letters in each box. It’s going fine until:
“Smith. Deshondal Smith?”
A small girl in the front row whips her head around so quickly that one of her braids flies off her head to snap: “It’s DeshondaLISA. Do not forget it.” As if that weren’t enough, the flying braid was causing complete havoc in the back corner of the room. Her weave is attacking me!
And that was only second period of day one. From my perspective, it only got worse.
“you are so racist, you only wanted to come to New Orleans make life hell for black kids.”
“mr. smitch, stop telling us stories from prisons in Detroit. we don’t even know where Mitchigan is!”
“ooooh, I’m so, you, you the white devil.”
Busted. By Thanksgiving, I wanted to quit, to fly home and never come back. I was guilty of White Saviorism, part of a bigger problem that I like to call Whiteousness, the idea that white people have all the answers, all the good ideas, all the value. White people like me are the standard to measure to.
But sometimes, falling apart is the best thing, especially in front of a community that is paying attention. The upper ninth ward of New Orleans, both the African-American and Vietnamese families, started reaching out to me. Inviting me to dinner. Wanting to see how their children were doing, but also wanting to see how I was doing.
Mr. Schmitt: Cedric said you were a vegetarian, so we made you a special pot of gumbo. (Now, to a black family in New Orleans then, that meant you didn’t eat red meat. My special pot had plenty of chicken and shrimp. Yeah, New Orleans broke my vegetarianism right quick. How could I turn down this special pot, made just for me?)
So to come crashing down on those pink-skinned women in the coffeeshop behind me with my ideas of what they need to do to fix their deeply coded racisms, well that would be it’s own form of self-righteousness, yes? And that’s not how I learned to confront my own bigotry and bias these past 20 years and counting.
Passing by the fiery Michigan leaves look so much like the colors of that gumbo, the still green leaves remind me of the Pho (God bless the patient Vietnamese families who tried not to laugh every time I said “FO”). Before I could be the best Matthew I could be in that community, I needed to eat their soup. I needed to come to the soup kitchens of their community, and I’m looking forward to the soups of Detroit as we turn towards colder weather. The parents, in turn, expected me not to quit, to invest my best in their sixth graders. I don’t have all the answers, but whoever said I needed to? We have more to offer when we come together and combine our ideas at these kinds of tables, often. I’m so grateful for Levi’s prayers, for my many failures, and how God used many families that fed me what I most needed. Grace and love. Grace and love with, you know, a healthy dash of hot sauce.
Ding. A Lyft Request. This time in Southfield from Kendrick. This time, it’s holding, not cancelled.
I do a U-Turn on Woodward and start driving north. We keep driving. We keep listening, and we keep sitting at new tables together to share stories. I pray we have the courage to keep trying each other’s soup.
Keep up with the stories at @matthewjschmitt