We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.
An Unfulfilled Promise
I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Michigan as a midwestern white girl, roaming white sand beaches, picking wild blueberries on hills near my grandmother’s cottage on Lake Michigan. I have fond memories of pussy willows, milkweed and blackberries in the alleys that bisected the downtown block where I grew up. Of Monarchs that light on milkweed to feed and lay their eggs. Of Lake Michigan warm summer swells and winter icebergs that gather against white sand shorelines.
I’ve been gone more than twice as long as I lived there, but Lake Michigan’s fresh water flows through my veins. I grew up on the lake, playing at my grandmother’s summer cottage with my cousins, eating hot dogs on the beach and waving sparklers on Fourths of July, swimming every day when the weather and water was warm. My great-grandparents on both sides of my family came from Germany and settled in the Midwest, as many did in the mid-1800s. That heritage informs my stoicism, tempers my emotions, reminds me that no matter what, I will survive and, perhaps, thrive.
My childhood home was in downtown Muskegon, on the western side of the state and on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Clapboard-sided with a wide closed-in front porch and a grassy front yard, we and the neighbor kids would gather for games of tag or kick the can on hot, muggy summer days. I remember walking the neighborhood, collecting elm leaves and acorns from the oaks, the little helicopters that floated from the maples. Once, I followed a squirrel for blocks as he scampered from tree to tree, holding out a seed, hoping he’d come to me. He did, and when he put his clawed paw on my fingers, I flinched, and he ran away, leaving me in a state of wonder and fear. In the end, I was as afraid of him as he was of me.
I remember stroking the pussy willows that grew along the alleys and in the woods near the lake. Their soft, furry buds both extraordinary and comforting. I recently moved to Santa Fe, NM, and today I saw stalks of pussy willows for sale at Trader Joe’s, the first time I’ve seen them in many years. I wanted to reach out and pet them.
I have returned to visit Michigan many times since I left, and every time I am transported to what seemed a simpler time. But, of course, it wasn’t. I was seven years old in 1965 when race riots rocked Detroit and my hometown. I remember hearing glass shattering several blocks away, and being afraid.
A white girl, I absorbed the prejudices of my community and, with growing awareness, rejected it as a high school kid. One of my best friends was a Black kid who was active in theater. I invited him home one day after school and my mom made it clear in her actions that she disapproved, deeply. When a professional Black couple moved into our then-suburban neighborhood, my uncle made disparaging comments about them at dinner one night, and I walked out. This is not to say I’m some Pollyanna; I’m not. My father, who owned a drycleaning business and employed a number of Black workers, taught me that all people have inherent worth and are deserving of dignity and respect. I have tried to honor that throughout my life. Also, I understand that I still live in a different, very white, very privileged world. I don’t really have any idea of the Black experience, as much as I want to be an ally and understand.
I am a product of my childhood. Michigan was a northern state that, despite its welcome to Black people during the great migration, still was highly segregated. Muskegon Heights was the Black area of town, everywhere else was primarily white. I believe it’s still true today.
In fact, according to research by Candis Watts Smith, Ph.D., and Rebecca Kreitzer, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while racially negative attitudes were found primarily in the Southern states through the 1990s, by 2016 they were more dominant in Midwestern and Northeastern states.
Like me, Black residents of Muskegon also loved the lake, and the pussy willows, and the wild blueberries and the farmer’s market and the milkweed that feeds and nurtures the monarchs who migrate from northern climes to Mexico and back, stopping to feed and breed in states along the way.
When I watched Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck last year and callously, cruelly, kill him, my heart stuck in my throat and stayed there. I feel abiding anguish over Floyd, over Breonna Taylor, over Michael Brown and Daunte Wright and Atatiana Jefferson and countless others
who have lost their lives at the hands of what has become an occupying and dangerous force in many cities today. It’s a threat that exists more fully for our Black and brown brothers and sisters. All of that beauty—the lakes, the rivers, the pussy willows, flora and fauna throughout the Midwest and elsewhere—is marred by the cruelty of racism and hatred. To show my solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, I have marched, written and spoken out. And yet, I am at a loss. I have much more to do to educate myself, yet I know nothing I can or will do will ever allow me to comprehend the experiences—indeed, experience the prejudice and discrimination—of people different from me, people of color, LGBTQI people, immigrants, people who are other-abled.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I cried. I, like many, believed it was the beginning of an era of true change, true acceptance of others. In the intervening years, we’ve seen an ugly America emerge, an America still reeling from 400 years of racial injustice, an America that many white people have been happy to believe rested in the past, but which Black and brown people have known all along was still very present. My Midwestern roots run deep, and I recognize they are roots anchored in deep and systemic white supremacy. I pledge to work to bring about change—to create a better and more just world for all people at every level, from local school boards to national leadership. I will only vote for politicians who promise to change the laws and policies that continue to hobble a huge part of our population. I pray my optimism that change can come isn’t just another white person believing in the impossible; my—all of our—actions must speak louder than proclamations. We have the power to shape a future in which all people are treated equally, as our constitution has promised—and failed to deliver—for 245 years.
Marcia Meier is an author, developmental book editor, writing coach, and publisher of Weeping Willow Books. Her latest book, Face, a Memoir, was published by Saddle Road Press in January. Face was shortlisted for the 2021 Eric M. Hoffer Book Award grand prize and won honorable mention in the memoir category. She is the author of five other books, wrote for newspapers for many years, and her freelance articles and poetry have been published in numerous magazines and journals. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and an MFA in creative writing, and continues to teach online writing workshops. Visit her websites at www.marciameier.com and www.weepingwillowbooks.com.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
Go, Marcia! So proud of you!ReplyDelete
This is a great piece. As a white midwesterner of your generation, I really identified with your words.ReplyDelete
Marcia, this was great. As a white midwesterner of your generation, I could really identify with your thoughts. LisaReplyDelete