Arts & Culture » Culture

Poems, prayers and promises



Her grandfather was a slave. 

So was her grandmother, who had white features she inherited from the man who'd raped her mother.

When Bettie Birch was growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi, these were the kinds of stories the family would tell the children. For her, as it was for many others, black history wasn't exactly history; it was memories of the recent past and the experiences of the present.

"They passed the stories down to us," she says. "We would always get together as family and pass down oral information, which was not always written down. They always told us, 'Don't forget.' It was just the way you were reared. It was part of the culture. You were living in it."

That storytelling tradition left such an impression on her that she devoted her life to teaching black history to others, first as a Detroit Public Schools teacher, then on a local cable access TV channel, finally from inside her northwest Detroit home, which she has transformed into what she calls the Ant T Bettie OK Puppets Museum.

Her rooms have become galleries. Some are filled with colorful paintings, others have shelves holding dozens of figurines and statues. Just about every object has meaning, a story behind it. 

A display is devoted to a makeshift pictorial family tree, with photos arranged in descending chronology. At the very top are the oldest, most faded ones. She's drawn likenesses of the people there's no photo of and put that in their place to fill the gap. 

The puppets that the museum is named after are gathered in the basement. The biggest ones are life-size, as tall and wide as people. They stand upright, their heads nearly brushing against the ceiling. Smaller puppets recline on a couch. More are packed away, out of sight. 

Presiding over them is a big red papier-mâché ant, referred to in the pun in the museum's name. Ants cooperate with each other and work together, Birch likes to say. People should do likewise, she would tell children. She used to dress up as an ant when saying it to them. 

Now that she's retired, she doesn't get to dress up in those costumes anymore. She won't hold events at her house for fear of bothering the neighbors with a lot of traffic and commotion. And the TV shows ended long ago. She's a performer in search of a stage, a teacher looking for a class, living in a museum without visitors.

"I wanted to set up in a huge building and just arrange puppet and tutorial programs, but these building people want too much money and I don't have money," she says. All those empty storefronts around town, she points out, and they have the nerve to charge that much for rent? "That shows how they are draining Detroiters," she sneers.

So for now, the museum is in her house, its objects accenting some rooms and taking over others. Everything in it has some personal connection to her life, like the unfinished dollhouse model of the house she grew up in, or the painting of the family land showing the tree her father hinted was used for lynchings. Don't ever cut that tree down, he told the family. 

For Birch, the personal illustrates the historical, and often parallels it.

"It's the history of America," she says. "We can't change it, so we may as well tell the truth."

She grew up just after the Depression in a country town called Scooba, little more than a patch of fields given a name. Her father bought a part of the land his own father worked as a slave, moved into a former slave shack by the road and added onto it. That was her home growing up. It was better than the alternative, she says.

"Being a child of parents who were slaves, he said his children would never live in a white man's house," she says.  After the Civil War, most freed slaves found themselves with no money, property or education, and nowhere to go, and many wound up working as sharecroppers for the same plantation owners they were once owned by. "My father was smart enough not to make his children grow up in that," she says. "So before he got married he bought the land and built the house."

The parents later moved their eight children to nearby Meridian, the closest big town, so they could get an education. The first thing they learned was how to get by under segregation. "I lived in the South during that time," she says. "Now, kids think it's strange. They're not used to it. For me to tell them that, they just sit there. They don't believe it." 

She has stories of little gestures of protest, like when they were kids and would move too slow to the back of the bus when told to, or taking the sign indicating seats for blacks and moving it to the seats for whites when nobody was looking. Little things, but they're important to her.

She fled north to Detroit, attended Wayne State University, and went to work for the Detroit Job Corps, where she ran into so many high school dropouts she felt compelled to become a schoolteacher. She spent 25 years teaching black history, art and English composition in several city schools.

That's when she started creating the puppets and putting on the shows. "My stories are real-life stories of black people, like for instance, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker," she says. "Small black kids, you didn't see nothing in the magazines but white people, or you didn't see them on TV. Well, you wonder, did they ever do anything? If your parents don't look like that, did they ever do anything? That's one of the reasons I did it."

She did a few shows on Barden Cablevision public access in the early '90s. Her basement was the studio. "I had like a little theater in my laundry room and they would tape it here and then I would go to the TV station and they would put it together and put it on TV," she says. The episodes had names like "Who Discovered Peanut Butter?"

But the TV shows ended, her teaching career wound down, and her house became a museum. "I had so much piled up at school and I didn't want to leave all my material there, so some I threw away, some I gave away, and some I hauled back here." 

Her days now are spent tending to the lush plants that crowd her windows, writing books of poetry, and making paintings. She loves retirement, she insists.

But gnawing at her comfort is the sense that kids nowadays don't understand their legacy, she says. Or the debt they owe. "So many children don't know who they are, they don't know a thing about slavery," she says. "I feel that up here some people haven't taken advantage of their opportunities. Some people have been able to go to school all their life. Some people have been able to get jobs. But they don't. They don't aspire to do nothing but buy clothes or party or get a car. To me it's just a waste of energy and I'm wondering is it because they don't know? It just burns me up."

That frustration makes her want to get back out and pass along the old stories again, if only part time. "I've decided I'm gonna go out and do some storytelling," she says. Even though she's given up on finding a building to rent, she's trying to find somewhere to perform. Maybe at schools, or a library. Anywhere someone will sponsor a former teacher and her historical performances. "But I can't take all the puppets out. I'll just take maybe one or two of them, for the children."

Now she just needs a place to take them.

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to

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