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The Promise and Hope of Detroit

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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February 21, 2014

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it. I was reminded of this power that poetry has to illuminate social and political realities while reading Jamaal May’s “There are Birds Here.” May was born and raised in Detroit and his poem, dedicated to his native city, insists that Detroit is no desolate wasteland, but a place where children live, play and dream.

We here at the ACLU are litigating Adkins v .Morgan Stanley, a case that seeks to remedy damages inflicted on African-American homeowners in the Detroit area who were harmed by a predatory and discriminatory mortgage securitization machine that left them with extremely risky, foreclosure-prone loans. Our litigation seeks to echo May’s point.

The poet carefully points out that the mention of birds, confetti and children’s smiles that appear in the poem are not perverse metaphors for a city destroyed, but rather are evidence that the children’s neighborhoods contain positive things along with the negative, like anywhere else. Like all neighborhoods, Detroit’s are “as tattered and feathered/as anything else,/as shadow pierced by sun/ and light parted/ by shadow-dance as anything else”. The poem reaffirms the importance of home and place and, by extension, the damage that is wrought by policies and practices that deprive people of homeownership and lead to the destruction of neighborhoods.

Although the Adkins case focuses on the disastrous impact of irresponsible and discriminatory lending, it too is based upon an awareness of the importance of home and place. The neighborhoods now filled with decaying, foreclosed homes once contained the hopes and dreams of Black people seeking their piece of the American dream. They continue to house the aspirations of those still struggling to hold on. Although Wall Street treated these neighborhoods like urban strip mines, to be abandoned once their wealth was plundered, the homeowners saw them as places of hope and promise. As one of our plaintiffs, Rubbie McCoy, put it:

This was and continues to be my dream home and neighborhood, yet because of banks’ unfair targeting of people like me, this has turned into a living nightmare. Anyone with children knows how important it is that they live in a stable environment. There is nothing stable about having your family uprooted or living besides vacant houses.

These homes and neighborhoods, and the dreams tied up in them, are worth saving, so that children can once again rejoice in the fact that “[t]here are birds here,/so many birds here[.]”

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