As I approached the Jefferson Market to attend the mysterious dinner event hosted by Tunde Wey, chef and social commentator, all I could think to myself was, “I pray I’m not the only Black person here.” To some it may seem silly and odd to hope that you aren’t the only racial minority in a space, but as a Black, gay male who is nearly always “the only one,” I felt my anxiety was justified. Not only this, I was also worried if I’d enjoy the food, would there be any familiar faces, and most importantly, would they have bottled water to appease my habit of only drinking Dasani or Fiji brand water. Sadly, there was no bottled water, but the few familiar faces, free alcohol, and pensiveness of everyone in the room alluded to me that I would have an interesting night.
Given that the conversation was centered around a meal with unique dynamics, I must first remark on everything outside of the dialogue. The food was phenomenal, the ambiance was perfect, and the event unfolded very nicely. With respect to the meal, everything tasted as if it was carefully thought out and perfectly cooked. Interestingly though, the guests of the dinner weren’t explicitly told what the meal consisted of, and we spent a lot of time tasting and tossing out our guesses about what it was we were eating. The first course was a bean soup, cooked in a very robust broth, followed by a roasted plantain with a smooth peanut puree, seated on a small helping of palm oil, complemented with a very tasty mustard sauce. Brought out in orchestrated waves, the remaining courses included a pickled jicama salad, jollof rice with a side of mashed black bean topped off with roasted duck. I was able to get a sense that Tunde’s pension for controversy and “pot stirring” was sincerely a part of him, palpable in his style of cooking and in his facilitation skills. Overall, it felt incredibly pleasant to have such a stirring conversation supported by a well thought-out and masterfully put-together dinner, coupled with a very captivating talk.
Outside the feelings of mystery and inquietude about the direction of the conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder about the other folks’ reasoning for being in the room, besides the free food of course. As proposed to me, this was to be a dinner and conversation around race and gentrification in the city of Detroit. With me being a native and avid opponent to the aggressive and precipitous gentrification of my hometown, I was all in. But what about everyone else? What stakes did everyone else have in attending a dinner such as this one? After scanning the room and realizing that I wasn’t the only Black male, I was then confronted with being one of the youngest people in the space, which led me to worry if I’d be silenced by the elders in the room.
I constantly second-guessed my belonging in that space. These trepidations about whether my input was useful weighed on me the whole time. But, by the end of the night, I found myself swimming in a pool of anger and frustration, delicately masked with soft smiles and warm eyes. My expectations for the night were minimal, but I did not intend on getting as angry as I did. My anger had no target, and it wasn’t brought on by anyone in the room; my irritation was birthed out of the fact that literally every Black person in that space was also at one point or another in the night very frustrated, angry, or hurt. This was an anger that I know all people of color have felt at some moment in in their lives, but Black folks, in particular, have a way of expressing this pain and anguish that other Black people can connect with, resulting in an oddly comforting uncomfortable feeling because you know “we all get it.”
I constantly second-guessed my belonging in that space. These trepidations about whether my input was useful weighed on me the whole time. But, by the end of the night, I found myself swimming in a pool of anger and frustration, delicately masked with soft smiles and warm eyes. My expectations for the night were minimal, but I did not intend on getting as angry as I did. My anger had no target, and it wasn’t brought on by anyone in the room; my irritation was birthed out of the fact that literally every Black person in that space was also at one point or another in the night very frustrated, angry, or hurt. This was an anger that I know all people of color have felt at some moment in in their lives, but Black folks, in particular, have a way of expressing this pain and anguish that other Black people can connect with, resulting in an oddly comforting uncomfortable feeling because you know “we all get it.
”To be frank as to what upset me, I was in a space with a lot of Black people who were sharing how angry we were with the state of race and racism in this country, more specifically, the metro Detroit area. It wasn’t that the things that were being said were new to me or truly shocking, it was simply the fact that across various walks of life and individual experiences, we were all very pissed off. There were people in the room with high laurels and respected positions within institutions sitting right next to very “regular,” everyday mom and dad types, and, regardless of position in life, all of the Black folks were very impassioned and angry.
I was hurt that people that I met as strangers and grew to know and connected with, began to express their discomfort with the state of race relations in our country, and our home community of Detroit and the metro area specifically. A mother shared a story about her involvement with local school boards and how poorly she was received by her mostly White peers, despite being elected to serve in her role. There was an audible pain in her voice, a pain that is all too familiar for most Black folks, and a pain that was felt and reverberated by nearly all of the Black people in the room. This sense of belonging wasn’t one that I welcomed with open arms, but the tangible desire for change pushed me to engage with this topic because, as difficult as it was to talk about, this serious conversation about race, racism, and discrimination in the “progressive” and “liberal” southeast Michigan was well overdue and necessary.
There is something about the heart-wrenching and painful feeling that one gets when they are simply trying to help that never goes away. Despite one’s best efforts and intentions, it is very common for Black people to feel out of place even in their own homes or spaces that once felt familiar to them. This feeling of being a stranger in your own home best describes the sentiments of all the Black people in the Jefferson Market when prompted by Tunde to discuss the gentrification of the downtown and midtown areas of Detroit. Having been born in Detroit and grown up there, it simply feels strange to be there now. Personally, I believe that the very low morale of Detroit residents and affiliates during the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal carried all the way through to the controversy of the 2013 bankruptcy and has been followed up by this very aggressive gentrification of the city. I don’t know of too many people native to Detroit who are happy with the events of the last decade or the direction of our immediate future. And even with this, there is still a strong sense of pride and connection to Detroit from the folks that live there, have grown up there, and have their lives planned to unfold in our beloved town. Through all the suffering and hardship our city has had to endure, natives never seem to give up hope, but this feeling of uncertainty is one that is uneasy and looms over everything “good” that is happening.
Another dinner guest who was a native of Virginia remarked that in her frequent travels to the city of Detroit, she feels and sees the very blatant overhaul of the city. Beneath its shiny and new surface, this shift feels incredibly ominous. In my studies of “urban renewal” projects in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, projects that touted themselves as refreshing their respective city actually bulldozed, relocated, and completely shook up communities of color. In Detroit specifically, Black Bottom, an entire section of the city that housed many of Detroit’s Black residents, was no more by the early 70s; much of this community was replaced by the Chrysler Freeway, New Center One area, and a good percentage of the Detroit Medical Center, and other institutions not occupied by the original Black inhabitants of this space. In this “urban renewal” of Detroit, very little housing was created to hold all of the displaced residents, leaving thousands to fend for themselves.
The eerie similarities of the urban renewal of the 60s and 70s and the gentrification of today are unshakable. On the night of the dinner, a guest remarked how similar contemporary gentrification and urban renewal feel despite the historical cleansing that has been done. That statement haunts me to this very moment. Is history repeating itself? Am I part of the newest generation of people who are to be bulldozed and ejected out of my own city by complete strangers?
The tension in the air at Jefferson Market was thick, but the lack of direction and focus is what bothered me. As everyone voiced their frustrations and concerns, it was almost as if we were talking to the air, as nothing anyone said was unfamiliar or shocking. We even tried to pinpoint the problem, only to realize there was no one concrete person, corporation, or thing to blame. It is an awful feeling to know that grand plans are being made, and these grand plans are being overseen by foreigners who view Detroit as the next big thing, as opposed to the hometown of hundreds of thousands of people. I think about the future of these residents as being brokered and bid on by total strangers, who see dollar signs rather than struggling citizens that need more than an updated midtown scene. Given the historical lack of agency held by Black and Brown folks, you can’t help but to sit and ponder the inevitable changes you’ll have to endure, the implications on your life, and what you’ll be able to do to stop them.