“When I was a young girl” by Susan Messer

by University of Michigan Press on July 1, 2009

Grand river and joy When I was a young girl, growing up in 1960s Detroit, someone told me, possibly a teacher, that Jews and blacks were minority groups. I remember walking home, turning this idea over in my mind, and thinking that the person who had concocted it must be terribly misinformed, because when I looked around my world, the only people I saw were blacks and Jews.
When I told this to a neighbor recently, she said, “You mean there weren’t any¬† . . . just plain white . . . ?”
“No,” I said. “Oh, maybe a few.”
Grand River and Joy comes in part from that world, where together we two minority groups lived, went to school, and worked in uneasy proximity, never fully understanding each other, never fully welcomed by the surrounding majority.

As school children, and later, as high schoolers, we sat intermingled in the classrooms. We played together in gym. We ate lunch in the same lunchroom. But during those years, I was never actually friends with a black child, nor did I ever visit the home of a black person. And in the obliviousness of youth, I never wondered where the homes of my dark-skinned classmates might be–even though none were on my block or on the blocks of any of my friends.
Now, if you were to ask me whether I lived in an integrated neighborhood growing up or whether I went to an integrated school, I would say, “Well, of course.” But it’s an odd interpretation of the word integration. Don’t you think? Side by side, perhaps, but integrated?
Then, in July 1967, this world exploded. My novel opens in 1966, when the sparks were hovering over the combustibles. All my characters are aware to some extent that they’re living on a decisive edge, but none knows where or when the sparks will land. Many forces contributed to what we call the Detroit riots of 1967–the new highways that broke up neighborhoods and gave people the means to cut through the city at record speeds; the development of the suburbs; the cabal of realtors, bankers, home developers, mortgage brokers, and so on that drove white fear and white flight; the shift from the nonviolent civil rights movement to the more-impatient black power movement; the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy; and many other forces I’m sure I’ve overlooked. I’m not a scholar or historian. I’m interested in emotional truth. And that’s what I was looking for as I set off to write this novel.

Susan Messer is author of Grand River and Joy, learn more about the book here.

Susan will be at the Oak Park Public LIbrary in Oak Park, IL on July 16th for a reading and discussion of her book at 7:00 pm. For more information go to: http://www.press.umich.edu/newsroom/auevents.jsp

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