I grew up on Burns between Warren and Moffat on the east side of Detroit. I was in this weird juxtaposition between families living in and keeping up Grandma’s house, drug dealers squatting in bungalows and selling dope on the porch, and renters tearing shit up and leaving their lawn so tall we all thought it must be a dead body in there. It was the family hood. Mama, Daddy, Granny, Grandpa, a cousin or Aunt, Ray-Ray and Pookie with the Regal outside, sporting Cartiers and Eight Ball jackets. Bikes and basketballs left on the grass. And in the corner of Warren, stuffed animals soaked with rain, discolored from the sun, tied around the light pole where some young Black person’s life was taken… hit and run, shooting, police brutality, and forgotten. The first time I saw the death bears on the utility pole on Warren and Burns, next to the mailbox, I felt like the Tenderheart Care Bear, wet and dirty from the rain the night before and splashed mud from the street, was staring a hole in me.
They were always there, every time we passed Warren to go downtown, turned down Warren to get wherever we were going, and often on our way I saw several more in memoriam tributes to lives lost in the hood. Big State Fair stuffed giraffes, the almost sad looking bears and rabbits with scraggly fur and missing an eye, sometimes baby dolls whose previous owner cut them a real bold haircut… I used to stare at those collections that left me both a little heartbroken and very confused. Representations of childhood, fun, affection, and carnivals, turned into symbols of death and more importantly the forgotten lives of the dead by everyone except the hood. These displays were basically art installations to mourn the death and celebrate the life of the lost… sad but celebratory, another kind of strange fruit, tied up and hanging from poles and trees, but colorful and vibrant. A representation of how some of us loved Black life and how others of us saw no value in it.
Usually one of the stuffed objects would catch my attention as we rode by. I never asked what happened and never confirmed or expressed an opinion or emotion. Yet it made me both angry and curious. It made me militant. It made me realize the people in my house, at my schools, myself … the personification of excellence… were still marginalized even if we continuously pushed ourselves outside those margins. We were crushed alive by white supremacy and eaten alive by cultural cycles of poverty, less opportunity, even less success, and a lack of privilege. In the city, it was as if we were left to die in this once thriving metropolis that now couldn’t keep a business open, had a ghost filled downtown area, dilapidated buildings and houses, homelessness and drugs, violence and chaos. Racism was unleashed to ensure that the hungry lacking money, jobs, food, and protection would eventually bite each other. State sponsored gladiator shit. Lynching by proxy. Those stuffed animals, our representative carcasses.
I have long moved from Burns, and in that time Black men and women, boys and girls who have lost their lives in poverty stricken, low opportunity, segregated, yet steadily gentrified areas aren’t represented by furry toys but blasted across social media. Dash cams, videos, surveillance, and technology ensures they are no longer faceless. Yet at the same time that’s both more traumatic and somehow more brutal. Out of that trauma, we have stood up and moved as one to protest and make noise against anti-Black policies and policymakers. We have called for companies who want our dollars to dismiss workers who display racist and discriminatory behavior. We have busted and rebuilt ceilings plastered with apartheid and painted in an ominous hue of black hatred. We are arming and protecting ourselves in an act of radical political warfare in a nation that still throws racist rocks and hides its white supremacist hand. We are saying their names.
And I imagine the souls on those light poles, long abandoned by their fur, are being freed from their perch, their ties popped, and they jump down and take in the new world around them, free. Southern trees bear strange fruit and urban light poles bear the souls of Black folks.
Dedicated to the life represented by Tenderheart Bear, Warren and Burns, 1983.