Field Tripping: Detroiting

So, my big summer trip was supposed to take me and my touring bicycle up and down the Canadian Rockies with my dad, but, well, since he was hit and killed by an errant driver in December, I had to make new plans. I thought I'd take a bike camping tour on my own, in his honor, but every time I thought about making those plans for longer than about 45 seconds, it was all tears. I decided to go ahead and make a different plan—"in his honor" will keep—and ended up taking my folding bicycle in its suitcase for four days in beautiful Detroit, Michigan.

That's right, this summer's big field trip was to Detroit. I've wanted to go there for years, partly because it's a lot like Baltimore, and I love Baltimore. Detroit is an industrial city after industry is gone, hoping art, urban farming, and a downtown stadium or two can save it. It has been intimately shaped by urban renewal's highway construction that cut through neighborhoods and made it easier to live outside the city and drive in for work than to just stay there. And now it's trying to woo folks back to the urban core by selling out the people who already live there. Like Baltimore, it has invested a whole lot of money in its waterfront at the expense of the rest of the city, and I wondered what an Inner Harbor without a harbor looked like. Also, it's cheap to fly to and stay in Detroit, and with my pops not footing part of the bill, it made a sad sort of fiscal sense to make my Detroit dreams come true.


I flew in on a Saturday afternoon and took the only shared transportation option—the adorably named Skoot—to my spot for the next few nights in the Midtown neighborhood. I was the last to be dropped off and chatted with the driver as he drove me the three or so miles from downtown. He was from Detroit, but left when he was 20 to join the Army. A few years later when his tour was done, he settled down in southern California where he worked for the government until his retirement, when he moved back home to take care of his ailing parents. Was he happy to be home? Nah, he said. California was great, and Detroit was, well, Detroit.

I spent the next day exploring the museums nearby. I started at the Detroit Historical Society, happy to pony up a few bucks in donation to take in the glorious story of the city's industrial past. In 1890, Detroit boasted the largest stove factory in the United States, and it was home to the very first Little Caesar's pizza place. Coming from a city that invented the bottle cap and housed the first umbrella factory in the country, I wasn't that impressed, but not every city can be Baltimore. I spent a couple hours in there learning about cars, riots, military factories, and the like, and then it was time to head to what for me was the main attraction of this vacation: The Charles Wright Museum of African American History.

I've been to a lot of African-American history museums and heritage sites, but the Wright is special. It has the largest permanent exhibition on African-American culture in the world—at least until the new Smithsonian museum opens on the Mall in September. If you're interested in African-American history, the Wright just has to be on your list, and it was time to check it off mine.

I entered the museum at the main rotunda and was immediately blown away by its grandeur. Great Blacks in Wax pulls you in with its grassroots feel, the Lewis with its sweeping staircase, but this was entirely different. It was like going to church. I waited patiently to get my $8 ticket and then headed up to their main exhibit, "And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture."

The journey started in ancient Africa, highlighting many cultures from all over the continent and embedding that history in a larger transnational context. Things fast-forwarded quickly from there as the ancient agricultural trading market gave way to early slave trading and then to a model of a slave ship. Each room combined figural representations—African and European traders making a deal at a table, Portuguese sailors branding a newly-enslaved person aboard a ship—with written text explaining the historical context and sound effects meant to evoke an affective response to the scene. At first it felt a bit hokey, but by the time I made it through the bowels of the slave ship, even my cynical self needed to sit down and take a breath.

I sat in a room that told the story of Reconstruction and thought about what I could learn from this emotional response so well-cultivated by the museum. It's dangerous territory, this emotional learning thing. The museum trip can't even begin to evoke the experience of the enslaved, and I don't think that's what the Wright Museum was trying to do. It can, though, hit you in the gut, make you feel something, remind you that this isn't just about dates or numbers or names. This is a history that is in our DNA, a trauma that shapes our lives, whether we know it or not. Another visitor came in the room as I sat there. She asked if it was my first trip here—yep, and it was hers, too. What do you think? I asked. "I didn't know how cruel we could be to each other." I nodded, agreed, and we agreed we are grateful to have to learn this.

And then I spent another few days riding around Detroit, past the empty lots filled with homeless people just blocks from the new Little Caesars Arena the city is building, through the public housing and jail dwarfed by two of the three casinos in town, and I wondered what of our own cruelties we have learned not to see. It was just the trip I needed.