Mulenga and the 'Poletown Dirge'

Mulenga and the 'Poletown Dirge'
Steve Cukrov/

I was headed into the supermarket where a Santa was ringing the bell and collecting cash in the store vestibule. I was checking some emails on my device and tried to circumvent him to pass by. Santa stepped directly in front of me to block my path.

"I'll catch you on the way out..." I looked up and it was Mulenga Harangua waving his bell in my face.

"You can't ignore me," Mulenga said. "I'm Santa. You got to give up the cash."

"I can't believe I'm getting jacked by Santa," I said. "I thought you were supposed to be bringing us gifts."

"Gifts are for the kids," Mulenga said. "You need to provide."

"Well, OK," I said digging in my pocket for a bill. "I'm surprised to see you out here doing this? I don't think of you as a Christmassy kind of guy."

"Well this year I just felt like it," Mulenga said. "With this blue wave election we just had, I'm feeling kind of merry these days."

"I didn't think you were a Democrat partisan."

"Usually I'm not that big on them," Mulenga said. "But the way things have gone so crazy lately I'm ready to work with any ally against that racist, misogynist, fear-mongering..."

Mulenga trailed off. "Uh, the other reason I'm doing this is that it's cold out there," he said. "I haven't got myself settled in for the winter yet. When I do this I get to wear a warm outfit and stand inside. Generally when I stand around inside places to stay warm I have to be very sneaky or they ask me to leave."

"So you are not entirely altruistic," I said. "You're getting something out of this."

"I'm getting the satisfaction of doing something good," he said. "I'm satisfied and tickled too."

A couple of ladies passed by and Mulenga rang his bell in their direction as they kept going.

"Well I'm feeling the burn today," I said. "I just heard that GM is shutting down the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant."


"Yes!" I said. "I can't believe that's happening after all the fighting that happened — the destruction of Poletown, the homes, families, churches, businesses, and hospital that were swept aside so that GM could build a plant there... "

"And now they're shutting it down after just 33 years in operation," Mulenga said, cutting me off. "Some of those churches stood for far longer than 33 years. Some families lived in those homes for generations."

"You know who did that?" I said. "Coleman Young."

"What do you mean?" Mulenga looked confused. "Young's been dead a long time."

"But he was the one who assembled the land so GM could make money for a few years before moving on," I said. "I don't see that it was worth it. I've got to say that by and large I supported Young, but that was a mistake."

"It's pretty typical of the corporate world," Mulenga said. "Squeeze all the juice out of something until it's dry and then toss it aside."

"Man those Poletown protests were some crazy days," I said. "I literally remember being at a protest while my father's band was leading the parade for the other side. Man he really ripped into me for that."

Mulenga rang his bell at another group passing by. Still, no one dropped any cash in the bucket.

"They were relocating people," Mulenga said. "Even Coleman Young, as leftist as he was, ended up doing the corporate bidding."

"He thought he was bringing jobs to Detroiters," I said. "It worked for a while, but I don't think it was worth destroying a community for 33 years of jobs."

"I seem to remember that the state Supreme Court ruled that economic development was a legitimate use of eminent domain to throw people out of their houses," Mulenga said. "I wonder if the court would consider it legitimate for only 33 years of operation."

"You've got to wonder about that," I said. "how much is a community worth?"

"That stuff is still going on," Mulenga said. "Look at all the hoopla over trying to get an Amazon headquarters that we just went through. Unsuccessfully, I might add."

"They said Detroit had an insufficient talent pool for them to locate here," I said, stepping back as a bunch of kids ran up and rained coins into Mulenga's bucket.

"Merry Christmas," he intoned, while vigorously ringing the bell.

"You better watch that they didn't pick your pockets," I said.

"There's nothing in my pockets to pick," Mulenga said. "I can't believe your mistrust of our youth. Especially during this holiday season."

"Well," I shrugged my shoulders, "I trust the youth but I keep an eye on my pockets no matter who I'm around. I walk through a crowd of men in suits, I pay attention to what's going on with my pockets."

"So about this lack of talent for Amazon headquarters," Mulenga said. "I got the feeling that it was less a lack of talent than it was an overabundance of black people."

"Uh, that's not what they said," I replied. "All I can go on is the information in front of me."

"I can go on what I think, and that's what I think," Mulenga said. "I think Amazon likes to make money and likes to make people jump to get it. I think they never took Detroit seriously. They knew who we are when that whole process started."

"So you think the city shouldn't try to attract corporations to locate here?" I asked.

"I think we shouldn't go crazy giving away everything without substantial community benefits agreements," he said. "And that includes more than jobs. If you give a big company tax breaks then that company owes the community something. They shouldn't be able to discard you when the going gets tough."

"I hear you," I said. "Maybe GM owes an apology to the folks they displaced for the plant."

"Maybe Coleman Young owes them an apology too," Mulenga said.

I stared at him in disbelief. He turned away from me and rang his bell loudly.

"Hear that bell," Mulenga said. "I call it the 'Poletown Dirge.'"

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About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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