I had intended to write this week’s post about Kresge’s 2015 fellowship awards ceremony, not this, and then Rick Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, referenced the article in his opening remarks. My friend Sarah Rose Sharp, one of this year’s fellows, invited me to the ceremony as one of her guests. I met Rosie at a reading we did together as a fundraiser for one of the tracks at the Allied Media Conference. She came up to me afterwards and invited me to coffee, and when we met at Café 1923, I realized she was just my kind of weird—witty and insightful and having thought a great deal about zombies. I intended to go into the ceremony, meet some new people and convince people to let me interview them for a project I’m working on. It took less than ten minutes in that room for me to feel fully liminal, between two worlds that exist on top of one another in Detroit.
As I was standing in line for the bar, I turned to see my friend Randal entering the room. Like Rosie, I met Randal through a reading we did together earlier this year for the Motor Signal series. I liked Randal immediately because upon meeting him, it felt as if he was saying “Hi, nice to meet you, this is what I’m really like”. When I saw him at the Kresge Awards, he looked phenomenal as he always does. He came up and said hello, and then said that he had been thinking of me earlier that day, although he couldn’t quite remember why. After a minute, he recalled that he had been writing earlier that morning. He then further explained that the previous night, he had watched a teenage boy get shot on Trumbull Ave, not far from where he lives. He said four or five cars passed by before he did, and he stopped. He took the boy, his sister and his friend to the Emergency Room. The police did not question him as a witness, even though he had seen what happened. They instead searched his car as if he was somehow involved in the shooting. That last detail made me angry enough to want to lob my wine glass against a wall. He wasn’t sure if they boy had survived.
We sat with one another during the ceremony, and when Rick Rogers made reference to Conlin’s NYT article, Airea D. Matthews (another 2015 Kresge fellow and close friend) turned around to look at me. She knew the article had gotten under my skin. I, in turn, gave Randal the side-eye and sipped my glass of wine while he suppressed a laugh. Rogers pulled out a few quotes from the article, beginning with something I had said, which was that Detroit was about collaboration. It hit me like gravity. In the past eleven months, the people who are paying attention to what I say have continuously surprised me, and the moment was humbling. Rogers also quoted artist Ben Wolf when he said “I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me,” and Marsha Music announced to the room that Wolf had gotten that quote from her. While we all laughed, I’m of the opinion that Marsha Music is the truth, and I am certain it was not an exaggeration. And isn’t that really what the issue is? One version of Detroit on top of another, and who is really being saved?
The reason I had wanted to write about the Kresge fellows is because I am a firm believer in art as a vehicle for change, and because I appreciate the work of so many of the people honored this year, but it would be disingenuous of me to write this any other way. In the two days that have passed since the ceremony, I have spent far more time thinking about the boy, how he could be one of my students, my brothers, or myself than I have about art “revitalizing“ the city.
Randal has said to me more than once that he doesn’t consider himself to be radical. I have countered that the way he looks and exists in the world is in and of itself radical, but I understand what he means: he’s not an activist in any traditional sense. As we said goodbye, he said something that stuck with me, which was: “People talk about Black Lives Matter, and this was a physical representation of that”. He talked about what it meant to find purpose in Detroit, and how he had almost been in New York the night before the awards. Then we reflected upon the fact that we were standing just feet away from some of the most important figures in the Detroit arts community and forever closer to the boy.
Casey L. Rocheteau