My Ode to Detroit – a flashback Christmas story

If it wasn’t for the recent Presidential elections, I think I may have forgotten that I’d lived in Detroit as a kid.  Detroit has gotten such a bad rep that when I say I grew up there, people’s faces actually squidge up as they try to hide their disgust.  As a result, I usually just talk about my life in Mississippi instead.  Despite MS having the stigma of being “backwards”; anyone who has lived there knows that nothing beats the Southern hospitality.  But when we talk about Detroit, any sort of “happy” mentions end at a discussion about sports, as if Detroit has nothing else to offer.

However, once upon a time, in 1990, my dad decided to leave Cape Town, South Africa, in the heart of Apartheid and explore a Fellowship at Wayne State University in Detroit. My mom decided that she and all four of us little kids would come along for the adventure. I was 10 years old at the time. Come along with me, as I remember my first Christmas in Detroit. My experience as a child, was nothing short of extra ordinary, especially when the first 10 years of your life were spent at the bottom of Africa.

This tree is known as the Ice Tree. Situated on Belle Isle, Detroit; overlooking the Detroit River

Christmas in Motown

We arrived in Detroit on the 23rd of December, 1990, just a few months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. That meant that we had one day to adjust to our new surroundings before we needed to prepare for Midnight Mass the next day. We had barely acclimatized to the new time zone and hemisphere and temperatures, but it was already time to get out and meet the locals. Of all the things we expected to learn from moving to a new country, the order in which one applied ones’ outerwear was not something we had anticipated – the clothes were so bulky, and the shoes so wide.

Usually, there are no surprises at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  It was all sort of routine.  Catholics all over the world sort of have the same set-up, traditions, symbols, etc.  Catholic church in Cape Town was typical of that.  One could even describe it as plain, ordinary; perhaps even boring.  The hymns were flat, the choirs were made up of either children or middle-age women who were nearing their senior years.  (Think of the film Sister Act before Whoopi Goldberg arrived on the scene.)  The procedures of the very disciplined church was stoic, stifling even at times.  And the repetition of standing – sitting – kneeling – standing – sitting -kneeling was becoming so cumbersome, yet we dare not sit when we’re meant to kneel or kneel when we’re meant to stand, because a few dirty looks from the church elders in your community were all you needed to pull you right good again.  And don’t even think of clapping, dancing, or enjoying yourself in any way during the hymns.  The only sort of ‘entertainment’ we were allowed to derive from music in church was when we would have a guest band playing.  And even then, we could only smile while they played and clap at the end.  That was all.  The message was clear: Catholic church was a place for God – not for fun.

I don’t think the Catholic churches in Motown got that memo.  The first difference I noticed were the red poinsettias.  I didn’t know this at the time, but they are a winter flower, often associated with Christmas time in the US.  And they were the main décor in the church.  The second thing that stood out, was the pine fresh scent in the air.  But these things were minor compared to the huge shock we were in for midway through the Mass. 

Traditionally, there’s a point during a Catholic church service were the congregation greets one another.  Usually, it’s just a shake of the hand to the four people around you, and in about a minute or so, it’s all over.  But not in Detroit.  Not in Motown.  At this point in the Mass, the band started playing some R&B soul, and singers got up on stage? I’m not sure if stage is the right word for a church.  You need to understand, my total experience with the Catholic church to this date was a very staunch (read stiff) environment.  Everything was so procedural. But this, there was nothing I had experienced in my first 10 years of Catholic school and church that prepared me for this.  The whole church lit up like we were at a concert.  An R&B singer called Mavis Staples (Or Ma Staples) as they called her, brought the house down.  (I found out later that The Staple Singers were a massive sensation in Motown that brought us the soulful hits, I’ll Take You There and Let’s Do It Again in the 70s.)  Everyone was clapping, or hugging, or greeting each other.  I thought church was done.  The amount of people who left their seats to greet the whole congregation, not just those around them looked much like the congratulations that takes place at the end of a wedding service.  But no.  Church wasn’t done.  We were not about to leave just yet.  If fact, this was just the beginning of the festivities inside a Motown church.  I felt like I was at a concert. A good, proper Rhythm and Blues concert in the middle of Christmas Mass.  I never thought of Catholicism as boring again.

Might be a typical scene at other churches, but Catholic churches have never been this exciting.

The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day in South Africa.  As it is the middle of summer in Cape Town, it was our family tradition to spend this day at the beach – the beach at Kalk Bay Habour to be exact.  There were so few beaches for people of colour to access during Apartheid.  We didn’t even know at the time that the neighbouring beaches reserved for whites was just them and the sand. There were no boats docking in their “play areas” and virtually no competing with the local sea lions for sunbathing areas.  At the beaches Fish Hoek and St. James on either side, they had tidal pools and lots of space to spread between families who chose to leave their private pools to enjoy the seaside.  At our designated beaches, we were packed like sardines – family after family squeezed underneath the railway lines.  Eighty percent of the population was allocated just twenty percent of the beaches, and they were not exclusive for swimming only, but were shared with boat docking yards.  As children, we were blissfully unaware of the unfairness of it all.  We were completely sheltered from the knowledge of the beaches that held the signs “slegs blankes” just 1km away.  We were happy in our own little bubbles.  And never did we imagine in 1989, that our next Boxing Day would be nothing like our annual tradition at Kalk Bay.

A glance at what my Boxing Day could have looked like if I was in Cape Town that year.

The idea of spending Boxing Day sledding was quite literally unimaginable for a child where I was born.  We got our sleds the day before as Christmas presents from “Santa”.  We had no idea what they were for and my brother, Larry, proceeded to dare-devil his way down the staircase in them.  After he was banned from causing grievous bodily harm to himself, he proceed to launch his newly-acquired toy cars down the bannister, before bungy-jumping our Barbie dolls off the balcony.  Luckily, my dad rescued us from further tyranny and announced it was time to use our new devices and we loaded them into the van. Two small round ones in green and purple, and one large rectangular shaped one in red. The large one were big enough for two people.  We proceeded to what seemed like the longest 20+ mins of our lives.

When the movie Cool Runnings came out in 1993 about the Jamaican bobsled team, no one laughed harder than my family.  The film was about Jamaicans completely out their depth and climate trying to make something of themselves.  But for us, it was also a symbol of the diaspora and the battle to acclimatize to a new environment.  The scene that stood out to us most is when they first arrived in Calgary and experienced the wind chill for the first time.  They froze inside the revolving doors when the freezing temperature hit them for the first time.  The temperatures in Detroit felt a lot like that to us, if we stood still.  Luckily for us, we never did stand still for too long.  We were determined to embrace all this new life it had to offer.

“Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. We’re here. We’re here. We’re here.” I couldn’t contain my excitement as I noticed the landscape change from our gated community in East Lafayette, to the abandoned buildings of the city centre, to the white hilly terrain where our next adventure was to begin.  I can only imagine what the noise in the van sounded like to my parents because we were all squealing with delight and we haven’t even left the car yet.

The Madison Heights Parks and Recreation area was less than a 30 min drive from our loft, but it looked like a completely different world.  We had first seen snow in just enough quantities to make a decent-sized snowball.  But this was like a sea of white. The hills were in all different shapes and heights and families and couples were laughing and smiling carrying sleds and skis of different colours and designs.  Were we really going to be a part of all of this?  It felt like I was watching a movie in 3D, not experiencing this in person.  We barely came to a complete stop when Larry leapt out of the car.

Ai, Larry, I thought.  I ran after him.  “Boy, are you crazy?” I lectured. “You’re not going to be able to do anything without getting the sleds, first.”  I knew better than to try to tell him what to do.  I rather just contextualized the situation to him in hopes that sense would prevail.  This time, it worked.  He raced back towards the car as my mom was unbuckling Clare.

Our walk to the top of the hill was a short one, about five minutes. I was looking around at the faces of the people around me to see if anyone else showed signs of uncertainty as we approached the snow.  There were people of all ages and various levels of expertise trying to navigate what was an enigma for me.  Some seemed like resident experts, while others seemed just as anxious and nervous as I felt.  It took Larry, however, about three seconds to jump onto one of the sleds ready to launch himself down a hill.  “Whoa, Tiger!” My dad exclaimed.  “Let’s jump in this one.”  He grabbed the red one that could hold two people.  They barely climbed on and Larry was kicking away.  Oh. My. Word. They were going so fast.

I put my small green sled down on the snow and sat down in it.  I contemplated getting off the sled and first lying down to make a snow angel so that I can take in this moment with my entire body.  I could feel the cold snow on my fingers right through the gloves and suddenly became aware of my nose being cold, too.  I was nervous.  But I also really wanted to go sledding. I looked at my mom who was carrying Clare.  “How does this thing work?” I asked her.  She just about managed to remove Clare from her hips and put her on the ground when Imelda pushed me.

I screamed.

My mom screamed.

Imelda laughed.

Clare squealed with delight.

My dad and Larry were already starting to climb back up the hill when they saw me whizzing past.  I glance at them as I sped downhill.  I was so mad at Imelda.  But my anger lasted approximately 3.5 seconds.  This. Was. Exhilarating. It was amazing. Exciting. My screaming now turned from fear to joy! This was truly the best day of my life.  Fear and excitement spilled through my body.  I held on the side ropes of my round sled quite tightly.  “Hold on.” I thought to myself.  It was at that moment that I realized that I was, in fact, going downhill…. And fast.  The pureness of the white snow just became apparent – almost a tranquil contrast to the speed at which I was traveling.  I saw blotches of other humans at several other points on the slopes.  The world was going so fast.  Wait.  How was I going to stop this thing?  I started to move around in the sled as it was going downhill.  I didn’t slow down; I just changed direction and was now spinning as I was going downhill.  I saw specks of pink and purple that was my mom and sisters on top of the hill.  I spun some more and more and more.  Am I picking up speed and spinning at the same time?  No, seriously. How was I going to stop this thing?  I tried to stick my foot out.  How well do you know the laws of physics?  Do you know what happens when a sudden force is acted upon a moving object?  That’s right. My foot acted like a catapult and launched me face first into the snow.

Oh bugger.  Not what I had expected.  I opened my eyes…. dazed.  All I saw was white.  But luckily no white light.  I wasn’t dead.  But Imelda might just be as soon as I get up.  I felt the cold against my cheek, and peeled my face off the snow.   Yassis, but that’s cold.  No broken bones. I was going to live. I dusted off and I slowly made my way back up the slopes cursing Imelda as I climbed.  I couldn’t wait to return the favour.  But she saw me coming.  And quickly jumped into her sled and headed down the hill.  Oh, it’s on now!

Looking back on it now, I never truly understood how extraordinary our first Christmas in Detroit really was.  I could say that it was like a dream come true, but most African children in 1990 had simple dreams of going to a beach of their choice without the threat of imprisonment.  Detroit was more than we could have created in our wildest fantasies.  In summer, the city changed colours from the glistening white snow to the vibrant greens of the parks, and bright blues of the Detroit River that separated Windsor, Canada from America.  I remember the art in the park supplied by the Detroit Institute of Art, the outdoor jazz concerts on the Belle Isle amphitheatre, and how the whole city stood still when the cars competing in the Grand Prix were dashing through our city streets.  We met movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and sporting icons like Isaiah Thomas. And our first 4th of July with a real American cook-out is something we will never forget.

As we posed for this picture, we never really understood how extraordinary this moment was.

I had bought so much into the idea that Detroit was a dead or dying city, that I forgot how truly special it was.  Detroit was the first indication we had that there was a life for us outside of Apartheid South Africa.  The four of us, four little Africans, together with our parents, went on to explore so much more of the world. 

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