In so many words

Jan 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

LeRoi Haskins is a man of many words. 

When he speaks, they come out in elaborate sentences that spin out into tangents and then loop back around again. So many of them swirl in his head they've spilled out over the years into dozens of essays and books.

"I got four or five books coming up in the next year," the 88-year-old says, cheerfully. He's a gentle old man with a baroque writing style and a merry laugh. His whole face takes part in his smile. "I am always writing a book inside of me. I can never finish all the books I want to write."

The eccentric longtime activist heads the Community Information and Advisory Council, which he founded with several other parents in 1968 to fight elimination of  a few grade levels from their east side neighborhood school. 

Their efforts didn't work, but Haskins has kept the CIA alive to this day, giving him a platform from which to protest or organize neighbors for a cause. 

He sends extravagant letters to presidents and senators. He posts short essays on his website — — on wide-ranging topics including the lottery, juvenile delinquents and advice on how to pay down credit card debt, which is addressed to a fictional everywoman he calls "Martha Doe." He even ran for mayor of Detroit in 1993 and got a few dozen votes.

And whenever an issue gets him riled up, he writes a book about it. The stories of police brutality told to him by a cop became a book. The poor conditions he found as an investigator in a youth home became a book. Even trouble he had with his Veterans Administration mortgage after a missed payment became a book. He literally dreamed an entire book once, about the Kennedy assassination. There are several others, and many more that have yet to make the transition from thoughts in his head to words on a page.

"The weird thing is, he does not read. He has never been a reader," says Carolyn Ramsay, 67, an adjunct ESL instructor at the University of Detroit Mercy and Henry Ford Community College. She's a longtime friend who helps transcribe the books he dictates aloud in his signature prose. "He just has his totally own style. They're pretty long, complicated sentences. I don't have to make very many grammar corrections, but stylistically it's like, oh my God."

For example, the self-penned back cover of one of his books reads, "What should be of special interest to you, the reader, is that any and all of the materials of this story represent a self-imposed recreation by the author of a series of related revelations — revelations that once assembled produced this complete and rather unique, as well as profound explanation." He speaks like this too. 

Of all his causes, the one that underlies everything he says and does is his dream of a color-blind society, one where, he says, race isn't a defining characteristic. "I've never lived in a home in my 88 years of life where the terms 'black' and 'white' were accepted. Never," he says. "You get to the point you don't use it. It's not a part of you. It doesn't come up."

It came up a lot, though, when he was growing up.

His earliest memory is of an angry crowd marching past his family's house in Kentucky. "There was a lynching mob coming down the street, going to lynch somebody in Owensboro," he says. "It was impressed on my brain."

He was drafted into the Army in World War II and sent to England, where he served as a mapmaker. The white soldiers would tell the townspeople that Haskins and his fellow black soldiers had tails. "They believed it actually," Haskins says. "They'd never seen a black person." 

A sympathetic white commanding officer looked out for him, and shielded him to a degree. "I'll never forget him," he says. "He loved me." But the officer was transferred midway through the war. "He said, 'Mr. Haskins, they're gonna give you all kind of problems. I said, 'I know it.' He said, 'I can take you with me' and I said, 'I can't leave my men. These men depend on me. They'll do anything I ask them to do.' And I stayed. And I caught hell."

His replacement didn't like blacks and didn't like Haskins. "He was from Texas. He thought I was the most proud black person on planet Earth. He wanted to destroy me. And he did a pretty good job." The officer hounded him, baited him, eventually getting him demoted.

Once home, at a factory job, he got in trouble for talking to a white girl. "I was told, 'I understand you were giving time in the aisleway to a particular Caucasian woman,'" he remembers. "I took a stand then. At that particular moment I decided that I had to go out there and inform the community of what is our greatest problem, the greatest problem is trying to live in a world of black and white people. You can't do it." 

Yet despite everything, he's held firm to an old-fashioned kind of American idealism. He quotes Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution the way some people quote the Bible. His website features an a cappella audio file of him singing "America the Beautiful" slowly and reverently, like it's a spiritual hymn. His stone front porch steps are painted red, white and blue. An American flag flies high on a pole in his backyard. It's quaint and charming and heart touching, seeing this earnest little elderly fellow still strong in his beliefs despite a life that sometimes argued against them.

He married twice, had seven children, worked different jobs, volunteered, led a men's choir, and headed a church-sponsored recreational program for kids that included Sonny Banks, the first boxer to knock down Cassius Clay (as he was then known) in a fight, he proudly notes.

And then the books started coming forth, about a dozen so far, he thinks. They aren't really selling right now, he says, be he hopes things will improve with his website, which features pitches in his formal yet freewheeling style: "Each book will allow the reader to have a more in-depth appreciation and knowledge of the various factors that shape the world in which we live, its people, and the events that follow. While some books may be intended only for enjoyment, with others a greater reward may be anticipated." His beliefs contain a hint of conspiracy and a dose of populism, always expressed politely.

His eyesight has grown very poor, bad enough that he can't see his way around his house, bad enough not to notice that some kid recently tore apart his new tree down out front, until a neighbor told him. Ramsay, his closest friend, escorts him by arm from room to room, or else he feels his way around as he shuffles forward, achingly slow. 

He lives alone in a house as quirky as his prose. The living room is pink. A vintage starburst clock sits above a fireplace. The main couch is covered in plastic. Neatly printed aphorisms he penned are framed and hung on the walls. Several books he's written are displayed on a table. The dust cover of one notes this of its oddball author:  "Mr. Haskins endeavors to be an outstanding humanitarian. His hobbies are writing, piano composition, sports and group conversation." 

And still he writes, dictating long works to the ever-patient Ramsay, often under the rubric of his CIA, which more often than not consists pretty much just of him. But when he gets going on something, really gets talking, it's a linguistic adventure.

"I'm saying there is a life beyond this life, I'm not getting into that at the stage of what I'm doing as far as what's going to be done in CIA Council," he begins. "If we are going to do something, you and I in our lives, we have to anticipate there is another world, there's something beyond life, beyond our lives, it's in that context that I'm trying to rush now, or get to a point to show the only way out is for that big ball of fire up there to take over ..." Many sentences later, it's still not clear what he's trying to say, but it's fascinating just to follow along.

Ramsay sits nearby, bemused. "I guess that's why I stick around," she says. "It's always interesting."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]