Dear Kwame Kilpatrick, from a Detroit Black boy
Dear Kwame Kilpatrick, from a Detroit black boy
By Terrance Scott Jr.
“Black men you were once great, you shall be great again.” - Marcus Garvey
When I was a kid in the city, you were Barack Obama before he was a household name. I grew up through middle and high school idolizing you as not only the youngest mayor in Detroit’s history, but also a product of Detroit Public Schools. Though I was not politically minded per se, I understood you stood for what could be achieved if you put your mind to it, believed in yourself, and worked hard. I always heard that, but I’m a visual learner that needed to see success for myself. We had Coleman Young and Dennis Archer in the past, but you were different. I needed to directly see what obtaining a good education could lead to. I needed to see how leadership could be cultivated, as a young black man coveting positive and sustainable change for the city that raised him. I needed to see what it meant to be one of the good guys. You were all of those things for me. I once walked alongside you as we participated in the March of Dimes walk. My mom worked at the school your boys attended, and she convinced your wife to buy a copy of my first book of poetry, Divine Intervention. I even randomly ran into you at the Star Gratiot movie theater on the day of my first date with my future wife. I was proud of our every encounter! I write to you 8 years later, man to man, as our roles have drastically changed - with me being an educator seeking to change the system, and you serving time as a number in the system.
To be clear, this letter is not meant to bash you. You are already facing your punishment, by no means am I here to punish you more. I do not write this letter to Kwame Kilpatrick the corrupt former mayor of Detroit, a name brandished in infamy only Marion Berry can top. Instead, I write this for black boys in Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, and across America, to Kwame Kilpatrick the person, with flaws, flesh, and imperfections, who, as you once put it, let “that little insignificant thing in my ear give off a bad spirit of rebellion.” That Kwame is the perfect metaphorical embodiment of all that Detroit used to be, all that anyone who has never lived in or visited Detroit thinks it is, and all that it has the potential to be, even if it doesn’t quite realize it yet. Substitute the word “Detroit” with “black men” in the previous statement if that’s comforting. To quote you, "Detroit's been the butt of a lot of jokes for 50 years. We want to introduce the world to the new Detroit."
The “new Detroit” being referred to must be the one post-Detroit Riots of 1967. You know, the Detroit as it stands after well-paying factory jobs that did not require a lot of education earned it the nickname “The Motor City” disappeared and left dilapidated buildings like the Packard Plant to rot. The Detroit that once boasted a population of 2 million people and now teeters around 600,000, which is 82% Black, has a median household income of $26,000, and is still the most segregated major city in America with neighboring cities in Oakland County, consistently among the richest counties in the country, still boasting a 90% White population. The Detroit with the “casino industry” as former mayor Coleman Young, the first Black mayor of Detroit who was elected after the riots, would call it. The Detroit my aunt has given 25 years of service working for, ironically in the Coleman Young Building, and forced her to take several 10% pay cuts, screwing with her retirement plans (which are also being threatened). The Detroit, riddled with blight and destitution, that became the largest municipality to file bankruptcy in American history. The Detroit consistently ranked as one of America's most dangerous cities. The Detroit that had its own water crisis recently. The Detroit that is home to Detroit Public Schools, the ones you and I graduated from, and is now making national news for its hazardous, deplorable conditions and rightfully pissed off teachers.
I read your letter from prison last night and at first, I’m not going to lie, it irritated me. It was not what you said, but the mere fact that you were sending a letter from prison like your version of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail or something. Then you had the NERVE, the unmitigated gall, to make it about you, sliding in the statement, “99% of Detroiters have NO idea why I'm here. They don't know the charges, nor what I'm sentenced for. They sure do know the rumors.” You clearly haven’t been in prison long enough because you haven’t learned a thing. Leadership is humility. It’s ethics. It’s sacrifice. All of your slyness and charisma have actually diminished your character because we know you’re the kind of person to push someone else in front of a bullet aimed for you, then make everyone believe you’re a hero because you gave them CPR. As men, if we want better and demand better, we have to be better. We must use our voices to spread truth for the betterment of others, not to make headlines. People believed in you, and you failed them. Not only did you fail them, you deceived them, took advantage of them, stole from them, lied to them, and hurt them.
I understand you though, which is why I’m no longer irritated. Being educated amidst the uneducated, being considered bourgeoisie for wanting more and better, feeling trapped while knowing some with boundless freedom, is frustrating. Hell, being a Black man in America is frustrating. Still, this place is nothing without intelligent Black men, especially those that are charismatic, caring leaders. I thought that’s what you were, and because I idolized you, I spent my teenage years learning to become nothing but that. I will continue my work in pushing young Black men beyond their expectations of themselves and the expectations of the public, because I believe communities can flourish and pride can be restored as a result of confidence and courage. I learned that from watching you. As you once said Mr. Kilpatrick, "We'll be marching forward, we'll be reaching out to everyone, we'll be rising up and standing strong, ... Detroit's best days are ahead of us." Detroiters don’t need a hero, we just need each other. Wherever anyone from Detroit travels or moves, they carry the city in their hearts and wear it on their sleeves. I know I do. It’s Detroit vs. Everybody.
A Detroit Black Boy
P.S. We do know why you’re there, contrary to your commitment to the exploitation of people’s perceived ignorance. Stay there, learn, grow, and be better. And Obama was never going to get you out when he visited you - sorry if you got your hopes up.