"Freedom, 'I'dom, 'Me'dom, Where's your 'We'dom?"
The British singer M.I.A. explores the world of refugees on AIM, her most recent and possibly the young artist's last recording. It's a timely topic as nations struggle with their relationship to refugees and immigrants while millions wander the planet in search of sanctuary.
In our little pocket of the planet, photographer Leni Sinclair brought the subject up in a personal way recently when she spoke at a reception honoring her work at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Sinclair is the recipient of the 2016 Eminent Artist Award from Kresge Arts in Detroit. Sinclair pointed out the irony that she, a former refugee, immigrant, and a naturalized U.S. citizen, was being honored at the same time that our country is struggling with questions around immigration.
This upcoming U.S. presidential election is in large part a referendum on what kinds of policies the country will have regarding refugees and immigrants in the future. Republican candidate Donald Trump made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign from the start by calling out undocumented Hispanic immigrants. He boasted he would build a wall along our border to keep them out. Trump later called for a ban on Muslim immigrants in comments aimed at the millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war.
At its most basic, the question is: Will this country of immigrants continue to be a country that welcomes immigrants? Communities across the United States, and as close as Waterford Township, have been slamming the door on immigrants from Syria and other places.
"This is really, really scary," says Sinclair, who fled Prussia as a child to what later became East Germany during World War II. She later escaped to West Germany and immigrated to the United States. "Who in this country is not an immigrant or had ancestors who were immigrants? Now the ones who came sooner than others want to close the borders."
Most of us have been around immigrants; it's a staple of American life. As a child I was always aware of somebody's parents or other relatives who came from the old country, whether that was Italy or Poland or Ireland or Lebanon. They often spoke languages we didn't understand, but nobody seemed to care about that. It wasn't hard to find myself surrounded by Spanish speakers in my Southwest Detroit neighborhood.
Later I attended high school with a kid who was a recent arrival from France. Spending time with him did wonders for my French grades, and I can actually speak the language better than most Americans. It doesn't bother me when I hear other languages. It attracts me. I believe I am going to have a very cool experience. I'm not worried that they're talking about me or plotting some nefarious activity. This is the American experience.
"You can't even imagine this country without immigrants," says Sinclair. "It was conquered and taken over by immigrants."
Speaking of conquering the land, we're seeing that particular war still being fought as Native Americans, led by the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota, battle the Dakota Access pipeline because it threatens their drinking water supply and will violate sacred sites.
But Sinclair is right. You can't imagine this country without immigrants. They're everywhere. Just a few weeks ago I sat in a writing seminar with several young immigrants. Many of them were struggling with the idea of identity and place as starting points for their creativity. It's stimulating and renewing to ask yourself who you are — and what is your relationship to where you are? To meet people from other cultures is to be stimulated with new ideas, new ways of doing things, and new ways of thinking.
In her new country, Sinclair has become an important artist. Her images of John Coltrane and the MC5 are iconic pieces of Americana now. Kresge Arts in Detroit has awarded her one of the highest honors an artist can attain in Detroit. And she is an immigrant whose life could have been snuffed out so long ago.
"I don't know what we would have done, where would we have gone if we hadn't been taken in," says Sinclair. "We couldn't go back home; there is no home ... This is a place of refuge for many, many people to get away from dictators and extreme poverty. I'm very grateful I'm in this country."
Immigrants refresh our lives. They refresh our ideas and they refresh our democracy in reminding us what the United States is supposed to stand for. So when you go to the polls on Nov. 8, when you make a decision about who to vote for, think about who you are and how you came to be here.
Right now, they're Syrians fleeing war. They're Mexicans fleeing poverty. They're Americans when we welcome them.
At the voting booth
While the presidential election has been the overwhelming focus of this year's ballot, there are a number of other issues that will affect the quality of life here in the metropolitan area:
• Regional public transportation is a huge issue and key to the local economy. Creating a strong regional public transit system can make all the difference for southeast Michigan. People need to be able to move around for jobs, shopping, entertainment, and tourism. If people can't get around, this place will never be as vibrant as it can be. The cost to taxpayers is little compared to the vitality created by mass transit that can be counted on. Vote yes on RTA.
• The goal of development is to benefit the community as well as enrich the business owner. Proposal A, the result of a petition initiative, outlines a strong community benefits agreement. Proposal B is a weaker version. Community benefits agreements are applied when large businesses come into the community seeking tax breaks, lower than market prices for land or other privileges for location. Since the community is giving up something for the business, then the business owes something to the community in terms of jobs, environmental responsibilities, and even the social impact on neighborhoods. While Detroit needs business development, it doesn't help if the effect of the business is to destroy the community. Proposal A outlines enforceable community benefits for big developments.
• The state takeover of Detroit's public schools has been a disaster for democracy and for lack of education and amenities for students. Independent charter schools have not served families well and seem to be more concerned with collecting tax dollars than with educating students. The new board for the Detroit Public Schools Community District represents a return to elected leadership for the district. Somehow Detroit needs to renew its commitment to education and find a way to function. There are 63 candidates competing for seven available seats, and vetting all of them is a daunting task. Voters need to familiarize themselves with the candidates from the perspective of their own orbit — churches, workplaces, community groups — to inform their decision. This process will take time as we sort through the people and the school system that will serve us best.