Detroit Stories Quarterly: The Black History Month Museum

    Point A had been the home of Jeremy and Rebecca, located on Clairmount Street just east of the Lodge. Only white folks there for now, but indications that could change in a matter of years. Not necessarily good news for Jeremy and Rebecca, who called themselves getting in on the ground floor in a neighborhood they could afford. 

    “Wait. Stop. Go back.”

    “Huh? What are you…?”

    “Go back!”

    The squealing brakes were a painful reminder of what Jeremy had planned to get fixed nearly a month ago but …well…things. As in ‘things happen’. Or maybe things don’t happen when your money’s tight, which was why Jeremy still hadn’t gotten several needed repairs done on the vehicle. That’s what they called the car, rusted and rust red in color but still chugging. But it could still get you from Point A to Point B.

    Today, Point A had been the home of Jeremy and Rebecca, located on Clairmount Street just east of the Lodge. Only white folks there for now, but indications that could change in a matter of years. Not necessarily good news for Jeremy and Rebecca, who called themselves getting in on the ground floor in a neighborhood they could afford. 

    Photo provided by Keith Owens

    In the city. Because f— the suburbs. They were young and determined not to be those kinda white folks. They wanted the real. It’s also what they wanted for Sarah and Sherman, their two little ones who were back at Point A with Rebecca’s sister, Trish, who said she’d keep an eye on them. An artist, she rented the second floor.

    Anyway, Point B was supposed to be the grocery store near 7 Mile and Livernois, because they still weren’t quite ready for the ‘real’ of the much closer neighborhood store. Same thing with the laundromat. Maybe in time. Small steps on a clear and pleasant summertime Saturday afternoon.

    “I thought we were going to the store?” said Jeremy in the tensely forlorn way of someone who has been married long enough to know what certain tones of voice mean and what he wishes they didn’t mean.

    Rebecca frowned at her husband, who stared straight ahead through the windshield as the vehicle sputtered and chugged into park on a side street not far from the house. A side street he sometimes used as a shortcut to Point B and other local destinations because he liked to avoid the freeways whenever he could. Jeremy didn’t remember the street name but he drove it all the time so what did it matter, right? He was focused more on keeping his temper in check. Too often, Rebecca complained that his spirit of adventure wasn’t what it once was. The most recent argument started when Jeremy responded that adulthood was probably the reason.

    “Some of us had to grow up,” he said.

    So maybe he shouldn’t have said that, which explained why he chose silence this time in the face of his wife’s heated glare – even though all he had said was that he thought they were supposed to be going to the store. Point B. Stick to the plan. Stay the course. Best way to accomplish things. Not by meandering about, following whatever whim and whimsy struck you at the time.

    Couldn’t they just go to the store?

    Rebecca pointed out the back window, the tip of her pale finger capped by an orange and blue-colored fingernail, her plentiful home-made jewelry tinkling on her narrow wrist.

    Photo provided by Keith Owens

    “Look,” she said, her voice sounding a bit warmer than he would have expected, almost hopeful.

    Jeremy followed directions via the rear view mirror.

    “So what am I supposed to…hey…when did that get there?”

    “Exactly. Now go back.

    This time without questioning, Jeremy put the vehicle into reverse and slowly eased it back along the side of the street for half a block, recognizing they were going against traffic. Once he turned off the engine, Jeremy looked at Rebecca and half-smiled. He patted her knee, then nodded toward the stately two-story grey stone building that was situated in the middle of what only yesterday had been a vacant lot. 

    Jeremy was certain it had been a vacant lot because yesterday he had driven by this same spot on his way to visit Sam and help him with the neighborhood garden he had been cultivating. He would have noticed something like this. Right?

    But it wasn’t just the structure that commanded attention, with its imposing architecture that seemed glaringly out of place amidst noticeably more modest brick bungalows across the street, some of them abandoned. It was the large red, black and green sign out front:

    Welcome! Detroit’s Own Black History Museum Is Now Open. HISTORY LIVES!

    “So don’t tell me; you got bored and decided to build this last night, right?”

    Rebecca grinned, then rolled her eyes.

    “C’mon, you. Let’s go explore. The store’s not going anywhere.”

    “And this is?”

    Rebecca raised an eyebrow.

    “Have you ever seen this before? In the three years and four months we have lived in this neighborhood have you ever seen this or anything that looks like this? Have you ever seen a museum just appear out of nowhere?”

    “OK, OK. Let’s go. Geez.”

    Photo provided by Keith Owens

    Rebecca hopped out the passenger side door like a kid arriving at Disney World for the first time, her long, ankle-length tie-died skirt flowing behind her like a huge butterfly wing. The closer she got to the building, the wider her smile stretched across her face, revealing two rows of near-perfect pearl-white teeth.

    The look on Jeremy’s face was closer to fear. He was experiencing a harsh metallic buzzing between his ears that he couldn’t explain and that seemed to ratchet up in intensity the closer he got to the museum.

    “Something isn’t right about this,” he said quietly, almost to himself. 

    “What did you say?” said Rebecca as she began practically skipping toward her discovery. Her voice seemed to be coming from far away, at the far end of a tunnel.

    Jeremy shook his head slowly.

    “Something isn’t…”

    “Come on,  Jeremy, Geez. You’re starting to act like an old man and you’re only 32!”

    “I’m 34 and I’m your husband so you should know that. Where is everybody else? Are we the only ones visiting this museum? There’s nobody in the parking lot which, by the way, is something I didn’t see was there until just now. Did you notice that parking lot?”

    For a brief moment a look of confusion clouded Rebecca’s rainwashed hazel blue eyes, as if she had been shaken awake out of a short nap. She looked at the empty lot, which was now to the right of the museum and seemingly brand new with sparkling white parking spaces and asphalt that looked as if it had just been paved that morning. 

    “There’s no cars, Rebecca. If this is such a hot attraction, and it should be, then why isn’t anybody else here on a Saturday afternoon in the summertime?”

    Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head sharply, as if trying to clear some fog that had settled in her brain.

    “I don’t…”

    “Hello there! So good to see you!”

    The museum doors, located at the top of five concrete steps heavily decorated with various signs and symbols, were now open wide. A heavyset smiling woman with skin the color of coffee-no-cream stretched out her arms to the couple in greeting. She wore a majestic red and green-patterned African gown with a cherry red headwrap to match. Rebecca’s brief confusion faded like mist as she bounded up the stairs to greet the woman, who pulled Rebecca into a smothering embrace. Jeremy noticed – or thought he noticed – the woman’s eyes flicker and spark like pinwheels as they regarded him from over Rebecca’s bare shoulder, embedded in a broad face that couldn’t seem to hold its shape. He could have sworn he recognized the woman from somewhere…

    Aunt Jemima…?

     Suddenly the metallic buzzing sound that had been running riot between Jeremy’s ears disappeared.

    “Come, Jeremy! Come on up here and give Momma J. a hug! I can tell your wife isn’t the only one who needs some love.”

    Jeremy frowned, resisting the near-magnetic tug trying to drag him up the stairs to join Rebecca who was motioning almost frantically for him to join her. Pleading…

    “How did you know my…”

    Come, Jeremy. This museum is just for you and no one else. A special treat! Just for you!”

    Jeremy shook his head, backing away. The inviting warmth in Momma J.’s face moulded the caramel flesh into something  less recognizable as she spun around and dragged Rebecca inside.

    “Jeremy please,”  she said, before disappearing into the museum. The huge wooden doors slammed shut.

    Once inside, Rebecca felt her skin turn cold as her mind struggled to make sense of the surrounding ‘exhibits’ behind a wall of glass dividers inside a room that seemed somehow to stretch as far as she could see in any direction. There were no other visitors except for her and Mama J., who held her close as she watched a re-enacted scene of a terrified white man about to be lynched from a tall tree as smiling Black parents and their children cheered while licking ice cream cones and other treats. On the other side of the room she watched a young white girl in raggedy clothes fleeing for her life as a pack of snarling dogs gained on her. Several Black children sat on a nearby well-tended porch, seemingly oblivious to the ruckus as they sipped lemonade and shared a plate of cookies. 

    She looked at Mama J.

    “Who are you? What kind of museum is this?” 

    Mama J. offered Rebecca a grotesquely distorted and out of proportion smile as she leaned in close, her breath like a furnace.

    “Which exhibit would you like to be in, my child?”

    Read more of Keith’s work here: Detroit Stories Quarterly website.

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