A friend with whom I like to talk about books and power asked me why I seldom write about joy. He said it was important for people to witness the delight of others, that to commit to share it would serve the greater good. I confessed to him that I thought to write about pleasure seemed hubristic, a way to court nemesis. I told him I worry that what gives me joy will seem incoherent to others who do not see beauty where I see it, who do not hear music where I hear it, and who do not know how to embrace affection where for me it naturally springs forward. My happiness is personal, thus untranslatable. To write about it requires me to attempt to decipher it, which is neither possible nor desirable, and yet, I knew he was right.
In my memories of coming of age in Michigan, I am aware of and most grateful for the cold weather—and the stamina I earned from enduring it. Imagine a bitter cold and gray early November day in 1987, where after the new-student orientation at the University of Michigan, I walked with my friend Christy through the tree-lined quad to visit my cousin Brian at his dormitory room. My cousin Brian, from Detroit, studied psychology. His friend, also named Brian, studied engineering, and both of them seemed confident that they could get Christy and me into this party even though we were underage.
There is no high hill here to stand upon in order to reveal the vista. My motivations were unsophisticated. I wanted be at a party with law students because I did not know what lawyers were like. I had only met one attorney in my life—my uncle—but he never discussed his work. But I did see lawyers on television all the time. As a young child, I watched reruns of The Paper Chase and Perry Mason. In my early adolescence, women in tailored suits arrived both sexy and capable in the Hill Street Blues character of Joyce Davenport who took no guff. By the time I was a full-blown teenager, the irrepressible Grace van Owen of L.A. Law lit every room with her curt exactitude and flowing silk blouses in neutral tones. Claire Huxtable had all the right answers on The Cosby Show, and she was the only black woman lawyer I had ever seen.
Maybe the 1980s misinformed my appreciation of the legal profession. It was a harsh time in which to be a vulnerable person. People were frugal with their generosity, often cruel for the sake of a laugh, courting favor with those who cared the least about others, and that attention, once won, was always temporary. We shunned those who let their pain be visible. In my parent’s social circles, even cancer was considered to be a bit of the patient’s own fault, as friends whispered or spelled out the name of the disease to avoid inviting it into one’s own body. The world I came of age in divided into “winners” and “losers” ranked against a set of values that dictated access to status and celebrity.
Back then, I had no vision of myself I wanted to share with others, probably because I had not yet decided if I would be a winner or loser. I lived deep in my moods and carried with me an air of isolation and loneliness like a best friend, which made me suspect I could be a loser. But I could turn harshly critical, too, in a way I was not yet prepared to admit, and that made me wonder if I might, in fact, be a winner. This debate played out only in my mind, as I did not feel self-conscious enough to think this way about my body yet, and I liked to think I could dance, though my style left my legs solid as a tree trunk, my arms waving in the air. In that way, I imagined a kinship with British songwriter Kate Bush who moved somehow outside of the system of valuation. It turns out I could not dance at all, but my cousin Brian and his friend Brian loved Kate Bush, too. They affirmed my feelings, as did so many young black men we knew in Detroit who appreciated her multiple voices, architectural harmonies, control of emotional tone, and limitless influences. This might seem irrelevant to the story unless you understand that unlike Madonna’s, Kate Bush’s music did not sell well in the U.S. We appreciated her obscurity, and our affection for her hinted to our emerging creative inclinations, which we had not yet confessed to each other. We listened to songs from her 1984 album Hounds of Love and felt full of potential.
Ann Arbor is only forty miles from where I had been raised, just far enough to allow me to imagine a life without parental expectations. All of our parents expected us to attend college, and their friends implied our best chance to make a good life for ourselves would be in the automobile industry. Cousin Brian’s dad worked at Cadillac and his mom for the UAW; Christy’s father practiced as an engineer at the GM Tech Center; and my father managed human resources at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant. He had recently bought me two oxford shirtdresses. These pastel pink and blue garments, fabricated as elongated dress shirts with a narrow leather belt cinched at the waist, represented to him a sharp and feminine take on menswear, as if to suggest I might find a career in one of the plant offices. My dad believed that the auto industry, though flagging, could still be redeemed by young people who committed their talents to the companies, as if the choice between the failure and success of a business had been the workers all along.
A lot would change in the next few years, but even in retrospect it is hard to comprehend. By 1986, General Motors had announced plans to shut eleven factories around the country, ending 15,000 jobs in Southeastern Michigan. The Detroit Assembly Cadillac plant closed in 1987, and twenty miles north, Pontiac Assembly ended production in 1988. Long time GM rival Chrysler announced the final model year of its large Jefferson Avenue plant and additional layoffs in 1989, which marked a clear sign that the auto industry had hit its second recession of the 1980s. More than 300,000 residents would leave the city proper for good from 1974 to 1986, and with 636 killings in 1985, Detroit won the distinction of “murder capital” of the U.S. Though it would have seemed difficult for things to get worse, bad news kept coming. These are the facts of an industry as it stalls out, though they reveal little about the imbroglio that results for the workers who are let go. Where do their strong feelings go? In 1990 GM’s chairman Bob Stempel announced the end of twenty-one more plants, which would allow for the elimination of 20,000 salary jobs by the mid-1990s. To my family’s surprise, one of these positions would be my father’s.
I did not know back then that by the late 1980s, large-scale upward mobility of the black middle class had already ceased. That meant kids like me would have trouble maintaining the class position of our parents. In the era, it may have been an impossible phenomenon to witness, but I do think that many young people could feel the engine of opportunities slowing down. Though never discussed in my family, already evidence suggested that some of us would not fare better than our parents’ generation. But the truth is that back then I looked for any moment to prove I was the exception rather than the rule. I even thought my family to be rich: there was no question about whether or not I would go to college—my mother required it. This would be years before I understood real wealth was not at all tied to one’s meeting one’s natural needs. In my black middle class, most of the mothers had their own professional careers, too. Those of us who lived in the tony, tree-lined suburbs of Detroit always knew, even as children, that a layoff, strike, or work stoppage might lead to a family’s separation or relocation, as these jolts to the community had already become common among my parents’ friends. Once they sold the house, families announced plans to move to new plants in southern states—Tennessee, Texas, or Georgia—or to cities with industries in other fields—Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Ironically, no one I knew moved from the suburbs back into the central city of Detroit, where the options to find a more affordable home were plentiful. Detroit’s empty housing stock swelled, with many homes in blighted areas but also several magnificent colonials in tidy, well-managed communities with neighbors two or three generations deep. Back then, the city’s empty homes and storefronts garnered national attention for the spectacles of arson on the night before Halloween, what we called “Devil’s Night.” The suburbs also had their own “incidents” sparked by disquietude—an unsolved series of child murders, drug syndicates that operated for decades out of the far end of the cul-de-sac, random abductions or assaults on shoppers leaving the mall. Pockets of neglect characterized even the newest developments: an overgrown yard here, a boarded up four-bedroom colonial there. Blight crept up in the neighborhood across from my nationally recognized public high school where talk of vacation houses and university represented the shared values of those in the community.
Just before the party, Christy and I bought new outfits with the twenty-seven dollars in gas money we had between us after a last-minute realization that our clothes were not up to par. I chose a tight, black spandex dress, which I thought paired well with my cream-colored cowboy boots. She sported a short, white miniskirt the likes of which her parents would never have approved. Neither of the outfits we chose gave us the air of sophistication we had hoped to pull off, and we both knew it. While we shopped, the Brians changed into their version of smarter fare. Cousin Brian chose one of his “Grammy” outfits: a colorful, patchwork shirt in rayon or other synthetic fabric, which even then he suspected one should only wear to the annual televised music award show. He had bought it in the basement of The Bivouac, an Ann Arbor shop known for outdoor and athletic goods. His friend Brian sported a “Cosby” sweater in order to appear mature and put together but also not too old, as he was already enamored by a few of the law students. We all were reaching.
Here’s the deal with privilege: to access more of it, one must cross a threshold. We cut across the UM Law Quad, a series of connected buildings that emulate the English Gothic style of the late Middle Ages—nothing like I had ever encountered. In later years I would learn it was designed by architects Edward York and Philip Sawyer, who met in the 1890s while designing New York’s original Penn Station.
The main entrance to the quad features a triumphal arch and arcade, which leads to the Cloister composed of Doric columns and round-headed arches in a style reminiscent of other campuses of distinction, such as Yale University and the famed New College at Oxford. The Lawyer’s Club, its dormitory and dining hall in which the party was held, features a great windows on its east wall. Here, strong vertical lines repeat throughout the design with oversized windows, at once flamboyant and beyond human scale.
We stepped into a blue, pulsating light. We could see the room, full of motion. People touched each other, on the shoulder, on the back, hand to hand, as they greeted each other or passed by. The DJ projected colorful lights into the crowd from his stand, and the strobe flashed in rhythm to the music. As I glanced around the room at the crowd, I noticed the dancers did not take up much space, but their shared rhythm drove the beat deep into the floor. With ruffles and shoulder pads, their style exemplified the languid funk of the regulars on the local television dance shows, Nat Morris’s The Scene or its freakier successor The New Dance Show with Tooshay on station WGPR-TV 62 with its low hand-held camera angles and quick, successive jump cuts. In this vale of motion and ambition—the markers of financial access, education, and class mobility composed a hill on one side and incarceration, segregation, and disenfranchisement rose high on the other—I inhaled the cool air of indifference.
The party showcased the most glamourous blackness I had ever known. It swept down from the sky like a weather pattern, a high blue northern coming across a great lake so cosmic it blew clear. Blackness unfurled like a freshly paved road on a night drive through the Metroplex. It tumbled through the outer atmosphere, smooth as a Model 500 with no UFO interference, and after that, it dressed androgynous for church while it rocketed fuzz through the Griot Galaxy. I saw it get up and get out centuries past our lifetime, this everlasting blackness that dragged every song’s intro into an “aintro.”
Either Christy and I stood around or we danced together a little as Rhythim Is Rhythim got under our skin with “Strings of Life.” The Jets were “All Over Him,” but it would be a decade before we got over The Jets. Greg Broussard, aka Egyptian Lover, called out to the ancestral knowledge of the diaspora as he instructed Pyramids are oh so shiny / The women here are oh so cute / The freaks are on the floor now / Dancing to beats that I compute, and J.J. Fad fresh-lectured the room with: We know you like us girls so you better get stirl / ’Cause we are the homechicks that are rockin’ your world.
What is joy if not to be unbothered by others? Look at those Huxtables in their very fine life, so good at courting comfort and ease that they could not help but be admired. These images of clout that carried a man into the living room television of my suburban house evidenced how little I understood about how influence moved behind the scenes. Like many others, I succumbed to the allure of beautiful, young women: the edgy confidence of Denise, sober disaffection of Sandra, cheerful candor of Vanessa, or unabashed confidence of the baby daughter, Rudy. Cosby’s Dr. Huxtable, the gynecologist, smirked through all seven seasons while all the women flanked him like a private army. Together, their good humor and grace buffered the paterfamilias of unending appetites from criticism as he cut into all of the cakes.
That joy exists without privilege is possible—perhaps this is the pleasure some call contentment—but it is also so personal that it wields a minimal presence. The pessimist in me thinks that more often, one’s elation arises as delight in the expansion of privilege, whether perceived or manifest. To deny the seductive and intoxicating lift that a momentary rise in standing gives me is to lie or, at the very least, obscure the truth so much that the likelihood of true happiness fades.
I did not speak to a single law student at the party, but I had no regrets about this. Cousin Brian convinced two of his friends to ask me to dance, but I rejected them both out of nervousness. Once we left the party, we drove one town over for hamburgers. I know Cousin Brian and his friend Brian warned us to watch for police, but I don’t know if we listened to the Midnight Funk Association with famed DJ Charles Johnson, aka the Electrifying Mojo, on the radio, or more Kate Bush. Picture the gray dashboard of the car and white light behind the numbers, analog of course, on the speedometer. Some brighter idea of myself lit my brain as we passed the spindly forests, groves of native trees stretching their bare limbs toward the star-dotted firmament.
If we had kept driving that night, we would have passed General Motors’s second Willow Run Assembly plant that stood at the border of the two cities, near the site of the original bomber plant from WWII. Here, manufacturer Henry Ford turned the craft process of building airplanes into wide scale manufacturing of B24 Liberators, the airplane onto which Rosie the Riveter had directed her feminine fortitude. Willow Run would close permanently in 1994, but if we listened hard, we might have heard the conveyor belt pull steel hundreds of miles across the factory floor, dragging the black middle class into a fragile and temporary prosperity alongside it.
But White Castle beckoned with its white-tiled walls and cool blue awnings. We ate hamburgers and fries and tried to impress each other with stupid stories. We laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. What did we say to each other? If I could remember any joke I might have appreciated at that age, I would confess it now. But I don’t. I just know I felt great, some pleasure in proximity or access to power. As we sat in the overlit restaurant, settled stiffly in the cool air around the white Formica tabletop, we experienced a release from all expectations of discipline that would normally shape our social interactions. But what made us roar with such delight that the night would elicit such deep nostalgia in me all these years later?
Only Cousin Brian knew what had set us off. He said he had told us a story about the last time he had visited a White Castle, years earlier while finishing high school in Detroit. A woman who appeared to be high on some drug kept falling asleep as she tried to order her meal. Still standing, she would nod out after speaking just a few words, then sleep for several minutes before attempting her order again. Once served, the woman in the back booth took bites of her burger and dozed off between each one. She kept eating and falling asleep, holding upright the whole time. Consider the faint smell of pickles, thin mist on the window, our cohort howling with incipient egos, tripping.