A Twisted Tale: The Real Halloween Spirit of Detroit

    "Money rich don't mean nothing if your spirit too poor to turn on your porch light!"

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    Growing up in the ’60s, we lived on Fischer Street in a tiny, two-family flat on the eastside of Detroit, sandwiched between the wealth of Indian Village and the Grosse Pointes. My earliest memory of Halloween was pure excitement. We were going to trick or treat in Indian Village that night. The people who lived there were rich. Maybe they would give us a quarter! We turned down Burns Street. It looked cold and dark. We knocked at the first house on the block. “Get off my porch, you little niggers!”

    We sang “Trick or treat”

    Frightened, we bolted to the only house on the street with porch lights turned on and sang, “trick or treat!” The door opened, just a crack, and a frail white hand put a penny in each of our bags. Later, when we told my mother about our adventure, she snapped, “Money rich don’t mean nothing if your spirit too poor to turn on your porch light!” So, the following year, she instructed us to trick or treat in our own neighborhood, where everyone’s porch light was on. Neighbors opened their doors wide with smiles, shoving big handfuls of candy into our bags. Back home, we emptied our bulging sacks onto the living room floor admiring the sugary loot. We squealed, compared the sizes of our three piles, negotiated trades and ate the confections while my mother nagged us about cavities. She was just as determined to protect us from the horrors of racism. Under her keen guidance, we learned that a generous heart is perhaps the truest wealth.

    Black were often the “help” to affluent White families.

    My mother, Annie Lou McGruder, earned a living as “the help” to affluent White families in Grosse Pointe, Plymouth and the wealthy who lived in the once-fabulous penthouses along East Jefferson Avenue. The view of the Detroit River, Windsor and the lake beyond was spectacular from their rooftop gardens. She boarded the bus early in the mornings, a crisp white uniform stowed in her bag. We knew little of her experiences inside homes so big they seemed to swallow her whole. She would gossip with friends about the mundane drama of her employers’ lives. Occasionally, I would overhear outrage in her voice over something one of “her ladies” said or did. My mother had a favorite family. The Stanwoods. She practically raised their kids we rarely saw and never played with. We watched them grow up on the family photo inside the greeting cards they sent every year at Christmas.

    We never saw my mother weekday mornings. She was like a spirit, a Casper the Friendly Ghost. When we got up, our toothbrushes were lined up, toothpaste squeezed onto the bristles, waiting. The table was set, bowls filled with Rice Krispies, all we need do was pour the milk. We grabbed brown bag lunches with our names written on them in her scrawl, then slipping latchkeys around our necks we happily headed off to school.

    By age 12, Halloween had lost much of its appeal for me, but my 8-year-old brother, Terry, was still excited. As soon as my mother stepped off the bus, he raced to meet her.


    “Mama. When you gonna make my costume? Mama. The contest is tomorrow. I’m gonna make your costume right after dinner, sweetheart.” My mother’s too-bright smile didn’t match the exhaustion in her eyes. She breathed heavy under the weight of grocery bags, and her swollen ankles went unnoticed as she climbed upstairs to begin her evening chores. Throughout the night, I heard the whir of the Singer sewing machine weaving in and out of my dreams.

    When we got up, a hobo suit, resplendent with colorful patches, was draped over the La-Z-Boy. When my brother saw it, he started dancing. When my mother got home the next day, she was eager to hear how his costume fared in the contest. Terry was despondent. “What’s the matter?”

    Vintage Halloween costumes.

    “They said my costume looked homemade, that my family was too poor to buy one, and I’m a ‘bum!'” I will never forget that look of raw hurt on my mother’s face, just before she masked it. “Them store-bought costumes cheap. Ain’t worth the paper they bought with!” I heard the failure to protect him in her tone. Being a good mother was important to my mom. She felt guilty for spending more time with other people’s children than she did her own. The next year, however, she redeemed herself. She bought Terry a Superman costume, from Sears, and got some sleep in the bargain.

    Over the decades, we grew up, became parents and passed the pagan holiday down to our children. Shortly before the birth of my son, my mother retired from domestic service with plenty of time to spend with the grandchildren we gave her. She lived to see great grandchildren born before she died in 2005. When Halloween comes around each year, I remember my mother who was the heart of Halloween and at the center of our lives. Her quiet dignity and strength made it possible for us to dream without restraint, to pursue those dreams and, above all, achieve.

    Satori Shakoor is the executive director for The Society for the Re-Institutionalization of Storytelling and creator of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers. Learn more at TwistedTellers.org.

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