Easter in Detroit (or St. John 19, 31-37)

Book 10, pages 183-185


Dear Mom and Dad.

This is the most shocking Easter I have ever experienced.
I am now in Detroit, which is nothing less than a night-mare. On the way from San Francisco I stopped off in Chicago to visit Denia, the young black writer I lived with at Christmas. Even there the horrors began. You remember the two girlfriends of hers that she and I spent so much time with? She told me that one of them, Theresia - that tender, quiet nineteen-year-old girl - has since been murdered. She was probably killed by someone she knew, since it seems she opened the door to the murderers. She was found by her fiancé, shot and cut up with knives. She was the second person I have known in America who has been murdered. Denia has now bought a gun and has begun target-practicing. That night in Chicago I also experienced my first big shoot-out, probably between police and criminals. We were on a visit on Mohawk Street when it suddenly broke out down below in the darkness. I tried to look out, but Denia pulled me away from the window.

Well, I have almost forgotten all that, compared with the things that have happened here in Detroit. First I lived with a well-off automobile-worker's family in one of the respectable black neighborhoods at the seven-mile limit, way out there where the white areas begin. Their son had picked me up and invited me home - the third black home I have lived in. Beautiful people. Easter morning they took me to church. But then I moved into the ghetto itself with three students, and since then it has been a nightmare. One of the first days I was here, Thigpen, whom I had just been introduced to, was murdered. He was a fantastic person, big as a bear, and a poet (I am sending you his collection, Down Nigger Paved Streets).

Apparently for no other reason than that he had written a harmless poem about the narcotics trade in the city, he was found the other day executed by narcotics gangsters along with two of his friends. They were tied up and laid on the floor and shot in the back of the head. But what shocked me most was the reaction of the three I am living with. One of them, Jeff, had known Thigpen for years and is photographed with him in a book. But Jeff just came in calmly with the newspaper one morning saying, "Hey, you remember this dude, Thigpen, you met the other day? Look, they blew him away too." It made no greater impression. This is how they react to all of the violence, which really is getting to me. But still, they are afraid themselves. It is not only me who is trembling from fear here.

The nights are the worst. I'm beginning to get really down from the lack of sleep. Jeff and the two others sleep upstairs, while I stay down in the living room. Every night they shove the refrigerator in front of the door and put some empty bottles on top, so that any attempt to open the door will make the bottles fall and wake them up. One night the cat leaped upon the refrigerator and knocked over the bottles with a crash, so I shot upstairs to the others. I am a nervous wreck by now and constantly lie listening for footsteps outside (nobody but robbers dares to go on foot at night in Detroit as far as I can tell from here). Once in a while I hear shots outside. I have never really trembled before, but now I sometimes get the same jelly-like sensation as that night I was mugged in San Francisco. My heartbeat alone is enough to keep me awake.
In fact, I really didn't think I had closed my eyes once the entire week, until I suddenly woke up from a terrible nightmare.

I almost never dream now when I am traveling, but that night I dreamed about a sunny day when I was eleven, lying on the living room floor at home in the parsonage. I was lying there eating oranges, I remember, when the radio news announced the murder of Lumumba. I didn't understand anything then, yet I remember it vividly. This scene I now saw clearly before me in the nightmare, but it kept changing to another scene somewhere in Africa, where I was lying on the ground while some Africans fired one machine-gun burst after another at me. I shouted to them to stop, but the bullets just kept on drilling into me, a terrible sensation. I woke up to this real Detroit nightmare, which I now suddenly found quite peaceful in comparison, and a bit later I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep.

But the nightmares are not always over when day breaks. One of the first days I was there, I ventured out in the streets on foot. Scarcely half an hour had gone by before a police car with two white cops stopped short and they called me over to the car. I was almost happy to see white faces again and walked over. They asked to see my ID. You are constantly being stopped like this when you walk around in the ghetto. I often ask myself what difference there really is between being in the ghetto here and being a black in South Africa, when you must constantly show your identity papers to white policemen. So almost automatically I stuck my hand down into my shoulder bag to get out my passport. Immediately the cops' pistols jumped out right into my face: "Hold it!" It is a terrible experience to be looking into the muzzle of a gun, and I began trembling from fear. But nothing happened, they were just afraid that I had a pistol in my bag. It felt like a miracle that their guns had not gone off.

How can people live in such a world where they have so little trust in each other? They gave me the usual warning: "You better get yourself or of this neighborhood quick!" I had regained my self-confidence and answered audaciously, "I live here!" The longer I live here, the more I look at the whites with the eyes of the blacks, and I can't help but harbor an ever-increasing hatred for them.

It is a strange sensation to live in a city like Detroit where you never see anything but black faces around you. Little by little you undergo a slow change. The black faces become close and familiar, and therefore warm, while the white faces seem distant and unknown and therefore cold. In spite of all the horrors, I certainly have no desire to go out into the cold icy wastes out there where the ghetto stops. So you can probably understand the shock I get each time I turn on the TV and suddenly see nothing but white faces.

Yes, in a strange way the white faces become a substantial part of the Detroit nightmare. For it is not only the crime which keeps me awake at night. It's just as much the television and the radio. Everywhere in the ghettos of Detroit and Chicago it's a habit among the blacks to leave the television and the radio on throughout the night to make robbers think you are still awake. Another thing is that they have gradually become so accustomed to sleeping with the TV and radio on that it has become a kind of narcotic; many of them simply cannot fall asleep without this noise.

I discovered this one day when Denia and I wanted to take a nap in Chicago and she automatically turned on the TV so as to fall asleep. It is shocking how early some people become addicted to this noise-narcotic. When lived a young black mother in Jackson, fifty miles outside Detroit, I discovered that it was almost impossible for us to live together. When we went to bed she always turned the radio. I then lay there waiting for her to fall asleep, after which I slowly tried to turn down the volume, as otherwise it was absolutely impossible for me to fall asleep. But every time I got the volume down to a certain level, it made her two children, two and three years old, wake up and start crying, so I immediately had to turn, the volume again. I could only take it for two nights, after which I had to move. We were simply, as the woman said "culturally incompatible."

But I think there are terrifying implications if so many blacks in the urban ghettos are equally dependent on this noise. You quite simply cannot imagine in Denmark how primitive American radio is: the constant boom-boom music interrupted every other minute by what they call "messages". All the time you hear the soporific message, "Leave the driving to us." It all feels like one big white conspiracy against the blacks. Just as they bombed the South Vietnamese population into "strategic villages" in order to brainwash it, so it almost seems as if in the USA they have forced the blacks away from the small villages into these big psychic concentration camps, where they can better control them with the mass media.

It is incredible how as a result of this oppression they conform almost to the letter to every view of their oppressors. In the South you could at least think, but here you are constantly bombarded with what others want you to think - or rather, you are prevented from thinking. Doesn't all this music and noise stifle a person' capacity for independent and intellectual development? Is it strange that many of these people seem like zombies, as they themselves jokingly call it?

The three I live with are some of the few politically active people in Detroit. Jeff has given me some books about Cuba that he wants me to read. But it is impossible for me to read in these surroundings, with all the noise, nervousness, trembling, and fear of something, though you don't even know what that something is. Jeff is one of the increasing number of blacks who have traveled illegally to Cuba through Canada. He tells me so many fantastic things about it, and I listen, but much of it seems so irrelevant in these cruel surroundings. He says that Cuba is the first place he has been able to breathe freely. All the Cubans are armed, just as here in Detroit, but nevertheless he was never afraid in Cuba. The only thing which disappointed him was that the Cuban blacks don't yet have Afro hairstyles.

Jeff was so happy in Cuba that he tried everything possible to avoid being sent back to the U.S., but he was not allowed to stay. Now, after the trip, he has had problems with the FBI, who twice visited his parents. His student aid was suddenly cut off and he was expelled from college. He has therefore become a taxi driver, and goes around in his own dream world reading books about Cuba in the taxi. He told me laughing one day that he "held himself up" a few weeks ago. Since taxi drivers are always being mugged he "stole" $50 from himself, called the police, and said the robber was black, looked so and so, and ran in that direction. Then he did not have to work any more that day and drove out to Belle Isle to read his books on Cuba.

Unfortunately, he does not want to use his experiences to work politically here in Detroit; the system is so massive and oppressive that it's no use, he says. So now he is just working to get back to Cuba. He does, however, want to go to Washington in two days to demonstrate against the Vietnam war. One million are expected. We will drive down together. I can hardly wait to get out of this hell, and only hope it is more peaceful in Washington so I can get some rest. But I have to come back to Detroit. Just as in Chicago, I have met such warm people here that I simply cannot fathom their goodness toward me. I cannot understand how two such cruel and oppressive cities can contain such exceptional people. It has to be possible for me to learn to live with the ghetto, for I must come back to these people. But it will take me a long time to get used to the conditions. Just a trip to the corner store in the evening requires that we take the car. Jeff and the two others simply do not dare to walk one-and-a-half blocks!

I will remember Detroit as an endless gliding drive through a ghost-town to the sound of the car radio's newest black hit, "For god's sake, give more power to the people," which is being pounded into my head. And then every day the newest murder statistics. Since it's Easter week, only 26 people were murdered. They expect to reach 1,000 before Christmas! More lives are lost in one year in the civil war here than in six years in Northern Ireland. Yet in the newspapers, "five people killed in yesterdays violence in Detroit" merit only a notice on page 18, while the front page headlines decry the loss of two lives in Northern Ireland's "tragic" civil war. By the way, did the Danish papers write about the stigmatized black girl, who was bleeding during Easter? Anyway, I hope you have had a more peaceful Easter.

With love, Jacob


Copyright © 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.








the show
the photos
the reviews
Jacob Holdt