SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Kathy Lorenz
My Detroit Experience

 I keep thinking back to a very special and rare time that I was able to see my older brothers, Ron and Mike. I was 14 years old and about to take a trip, with Ron, to Detroit to see Mike preach. I remember how excited I was at the very idea of spending time with 2 brothers that I really did not know due to the fact that I was raised in Foster Care.

 I remember it was the summer of 1975 and Detroit was a city that I did not know. And, according to Ron, I needed to “know” a few things before entering this unknown jungle of a city called Detroit. Well, quite frankly, I knew very little about anything. Up until that trip to Detroit, I had no idea that black people even existed and so seeing people of a different color was such an amazing discovery!

For me, Detroit was an exciting and stimulating place, a city filled with  many interesting people and sights. Ron, on the other hand, did not share in my delight. He was a nervous wreck in Detroit. When I saw huge gatherings of black people on front porches and street corners it was just that… people socializing and having fun, but Ron saw something entirely different… that of plotting and danger!

 During that infamous drive into Detroit, I remember listening to Ron’s warnings on how to behave so we would not get shot. I remember the specifics… “look straight ahead and not to look at anyone” to which I immediately thought he was just joking around again because that was his nature. No sooner had I  laughed and turned my head to look out my window at a group of black people(the first I had ever seen) that I realized just how serious he was. Upon entering Detroit and disobeying Ron, I remember…being yelled at for turning my head and jeopardizing our safety, but more than that I remember the fear in his voice as he proceeded to tell me that we were in “their backyard now” and that meant we were in an area where there were “no rules” and that made it an “uncivilized” place.

 Detroit did not freak me out but Ron sure did! I did not understand what was happening to Ron, but I wanted to. To me, Ron was a brother that I was in awe of. I mean he was a Vietnam Vet that fought the front-line and was able to walk away from horrific injuries like that of the pit he fell into of which he landed on top of poison-tipped spikes! I saw Ron as someone who could handle anything especially since  he was able to live through the Vietnam War and all of its horrors. Unbeknownst to me at the time, was the fact that Ron would eventually die of those Vietnam injuries(Agent Orange and other contaminants), in 1979. But, as it stood, I never imagined that anything could transform Ron into this person that I did not recognize. I could not believe that this pillar of strength brother was crumbling before my very own eyes! And to think that a simple trip to Detroit was able to accomplish all of this…How? I wondered…

 It might have been helpful for me to know the rich history behind Detroit. Even though the Vietnam War had ended, the year 1975, was still filled with much turbulence for Detroit… what with its Race Riots of 1968(still frighteningly fresh in some minds) along with the “transforming properties” and devastating effects that deindustrialization was having on Detroit! Also, of great significance was the fact that the KKK(Ku Klux Klan) was quite prevalent in our home town, all of which I had no knowledge of. I now realize that many factors played a part in Ron’s attitude and behavior in Detroit. As Mike shared, “Oh, Ron is exaggerating again, he thinks he is back in Vietnam” and “the war left deep scars and Ron has never been the same.” Finally, Mike helped me to see how Detroit symbolized Vietnam to Ron. It started to make sense, but at the same time I still wondered why his anxiety caused him to make comments that were so unsettling and illogical… and so uncomfortable to me!

 I could understand how the trauma of war can change a person. I can certainly understand how war can cause fear and anxiety of the unknown, in a person. What I still do not understand though, and probably never will, is how this fear of the unknown starts to sound like hate… I wonder, can one incident change the very core of a person? After Mike explained Ron’s behavior as the “scars” of war, I could understand Ron’s startled reactions…his association of a car backfiring with gunfire, his sudden shift in mood(from gentle to violent)in a matter of seconds! He was ready for battle, in that,  Detroit was a battlefield or the jungle to combat. But, what I was and still to this day remain…confused,  shocked, and disturbed about are the statements he made that differentiated the whites from the blacks. His references to the “civilized whites” and the “heathen blacks”  still haunt me.

 Over and over again I wondered why Ron saw plotting and gunfire and did not see what I saw in Detroit… the people wearing psychedelic clothes(Bell Bottoms and “Hot Pants”), the wild  accessories (hoop earrings and huge combs sticking out of Afros), or hear the “Groovy” language…All I saw was the “Peace Sign” being freely thrown about,  not the grenades that Ron obviously envisaged!

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