Fatal indifference

Aug 1, 2007 at 12:00 am

The Detroit I was raised in was a mishmash of different cultural communities. There was the black community, which for me consisted mostly of the myriad of relatives who had moved up from New Orleans for factory jobs. Then there were some other black people who lived around us who mostly had come from somewhere else in the South.

We didn't have generic, run-of-the-mill white people. They were broken up into groups. There was the Polish community, the German community, the Irish community, and white people from the South who we then referred to as hillbillies.

There was a German beer garden on the corner. And on weekend evenings the Mexican guy with his tamale cart would set up shop on that corner.

My school and church, St. Leo, at Grand River Avenue and 15th Street, brought together roughly equal numbers of black, white and Latino families. St. Leo wasn't the closest Catholic school to my home. We couldn't go to the closest one because classes were taught in Polish. There were a lot of institutions and businesses that catered to their own people. The Mexicans had their church where their numbers dominated.

This was the late 1950s and early 1960s, before black power supplanted the civil rights movement, before the 1967 riot widened a divide between the races that has never been bridged. Things seemed simpler then. They probably weren't but, hey, I was just a kid.

Today I know about all kinds of ethnic communities that I wasn't aware of or didn't exist back then. There's the Arab community, which should not be confused with the Chaldean community. There's a Jewish community. There's a Vietnamese community. There's a deaf community. There's a hip-hop community. ... Let's just say that where there are common backgrounds, interests and physical proximity, sooner or later the C-word will pop up.

The larger Detroit-area community is made up of all these smaller groups of commonalities. But mostly we don't seem to get along very well. The overall common good is hard to come by. So many entities have circled their wagons and only look inward — some for good reason.

"We try very hard to keep the circle closed," says Kay McGowan, author and Indian activist. "Anything they ever know about us will be used against us."

It's sad but true that Native Americans have taken the worst blows of racism in America. They have endured indignities from having their homelands stripped from them to the unleashed fury of the western frontiers to genocidal biological warfare to numerous broken promises.

First Indians, then enslaved Africans took a thumping, now it looks like Arabs and Latino immigrants are catching the evil eye. There's always someone to add to the specters of fear and mistrust.

That is why it's so good to find something that puts our differences in a positive light. The Concert of Colors, a weekend festival, entices a lot of different cultural groups by showcasing performers from around Detroit and around the world. This year's concert featured African, Arab, Chinese, Italian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, British and American music.

It's a great idea, and it's been going on since 1993, currently presented by ACCESS/Arab American National Museum, New Detroit Inc., and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Music is the universal language that is appreciated everywhere. As South African activist and musician Hugh Masekela says regarding his upbringing and the anti-apartheid struggle: "Nothing ever happened in South Africa that didn't start and end with music. We were sustained with music."

The Concert of Colors takes the next step with a Forum on Community, Culture and Race, where members of various area cultural and education organizations come together to discuss efforts to reach out to other cultural communities. It extends the concert's reach by getting forum participants to network and create opportunities for cultural outreach throughout the year.

Masekela, who performed at the Concert of Colors, was the keynote speaker at this year's forum. His serious intent was evident as he took the podium. He wore a Save Darfur T-shirt.

Masekela began with self-effacing comments, telling the assembled group about when he was first becoming famous. His grandmother reminded him that "when I was born, I didn't bring anything. I was born naked."

It was the community that created his identity. It made him a freedom fighter. His roots there grew into things of beauty to present to the world. She told him that if it wasn't "for all those things that we have done for you, you would be nothing."

African-American culture also had an impact on Masekela. Led by Louis Armstrong's innovations, our music was played throughout Africa early in the 20th century. Black South Africans figured that if American blacks could affect the world while being lynched and dehumanized then South Africans could win their struggle — even if it took 400 years.

Unfortunately struggle has consumed much of Africa since the colonial period ended. The Congo, Mozambique, Botswana and Rwanda have all gone through tragic and inhuman calamity. "Our indifference in the past has made this possible," says Masekela.

Now the hammer of hate has come down on Darfur, a poor region of western Sudan. Again it is a war based on ethnic divisions. Rebel groups of mostly black African people in the undeveloped Darfur region rebelled against the central government. The mostly Arab government troops were losing until they hired the nomadic Arab Baggara people's Jinjaweed militia as mercenaries.

The Jinjaweed have unleashed a savage offensive by attacking and burning whole villages to the ground, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and creating a humanitarian crisis beyond imagination. The Jinjaweed summarily rape the women of Darfur because they then become outcasts — another step in destroying communities. The United Nations estimates that some 450,000 have died from violence or disease resulting from the violence, and another 2.5 million refugees challenge resources in Darfur and nearby Chad. It's genocide in the making.

The African Union's and United Nations' efforts for peacekeeping and refugee relief have fallen woefully short.

While we have become accustomed to daily reports from Iraq, Darfur has mostly gone under the radar. The lack of action echoes the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when an estimated 800,000 people — mostly ethnic Tutsis — were murdered by Hutus in a three-month period. Western countries allowed the massacres to become unspeakable tragedy.

Our indifference allowed this to happen. Indifference allows all kinds of terrible things to happen, from the poverty in Afghanistan to the poverty in Detroit, where dilapidated buildings sport the slogan "Demolished by neglect."

For Hugh Masekela the struggle against indifference is the beginning of the end for injustice. As he tells his audience, "When you are having your ice cream, having your dessert, when you are at your most comfortable moment, when you are purring, remember there is a place called Darfur."

On Aug. 14 at 3 p.m. the Nine for Peace Committee of North Farmington High School will hold a one-hour rally at Fidelity Investments office, at 30200 Northwestern Hwy., to call for divestment in companies that do business in Sudan. Another rally will take place Aug. 16, 3 p.m., at the Novi office. Call 248-497-9692 for more information. On Oct. 6, the Save Darfur Coalition will hold a torch relay starting from Detroit, Jackson, Grand Rapids and Mt. Pleasant and arriving simultaneously in Lansing. Go to www.thewhispercampaign.org for information. Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected].