The Author Robert Turley has written a book about a community I am familiar with having grown up there myself. It is a story my friends, neighbors and relatives need to know about and the world we live in needs to know about. What follows below is just the first chapter of a superb piece of writing; of which I am profoundly jealous: Enjoy!
America’s Most Violent
and Inspiring Small Town
The residents of our 99% black neighborhood have been quite gracious; in our 46 years here, no one has minded nor mentioned it is my family that has kept our community from achieving 100%.
In my hometown of Inkster, Michigan, I have occasionally experienced having a police officer stop to ask me,
“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
I reply with the only answer I’ve ever been able to give to this question,
“Living in it” . . . “and loving it.”
This statement of pride in our rich cultural life and expression of the devotion that lives here, would sometimes result in a confused police officer and a demand for my ID. (In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department found our police department to be among the least racially representative in the country.)
I admit Inkster has a murder rate 60% higher than Chicago’s and 6 times that of New York City’s. And with a population of 25,000, it is the smallest of the cities listed in America’s ten most dangerous. (These numbers are from comprehensive data from all law enforcement agencies: neighborhoodscout.com/top100dangerous.)
But that is the tale of the statistics. The story I offer here is that of a life shaped, and propelled throughout, by a city and a family.
Don’t try to picture Inkster, because you can’t. If your image of violent cities comes from popular entertainment, you may expect swarms of menacing youth wearing gang colors and hanging out in front of graffiti-covered buildings riddled with bullet holes. You might be surprised or perhaps even disappointed by the almost-rural appearance of this suburb of Detroit—with its rolling green hills, small-town tranquility, well-maintained lawns and gardens, and cheerful greetings from neighbors. A Hollywood director would never use this place as a set for a crime-plagued city.
There isn’t the sort of organized crime that is romanticized in popular television shows and movies that feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for glamorized criminality. It is largely unorganized crime—random, violent, stupid, heartbreaking.
Such as the so-called Inkster Craigslist murders that are in the news as I am writing this. I can see our house on the TV news clips. One of the murders occurred on our block just a few doors down from us. Another took place on the next block. Someone is placing ads online to sell an item, then robbing and murdering the victims in their cars when they arrive with cash to make the purchase. The first victim, James Nguyen, father of four sons (including one with special needs), often bought and sold cell phones online. The second victim, Dakari Mitchell’s last words to his family, as he was heading out the door of his home in Detroit, was that he was driving to Inkster to pick up a Sony Playstation that he saw on Craigslist for $200. My body collapses in on itself as I watch Dakari’s friends and family members, from his mother to his little son, generations of agonizing grief that will be felt for lifetimes beyond ours, wailing in broken voices, “How could you take him from us?” . . . for two hundred dollars.
Also in recent Inkster news is the conviction of the murderers of two-year-old Kamiya Gross. They shot her just before shooting her father, because the last thing they wanted him to see before they killed him was the sight of his little daughter being shot in the head from point blank range. The murder took place just ten days before her planned third birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Her father survived the shooting and was able to testify. Without his testimony, this could have ended up as just another unsolved and desperately inexplicable act of brutality in Inkster. Still, it is one more tragic act in an overlong play of violence.
My family members have been both victims and perpetrators of the violence. My immediate family still lives in the same house in Inkster that they have occupied for 46 years now. I left for New York City 28 years ago, at the age of 26, but Inkster has never left me. It remains in me as an aching yet comfortable feeling. It isn’t a painful ache. It is more of a yearning ache, to story forth my hometown and my family, and a life influenced, informed, and inspired by them both.
In that process, what bears consideration is not just the tragedy, but also the absurdity of violence, crime, and circumstance. My cousin is currently serving a third-strike felony sentence because he concluded an armed bank robbery with the clever getaway plan of changing into clothes he hid in a dumpster behind the bank, but then dutifully standing directly in front of the bank he had just robbed to wait for the bus (all while holding a large and quite visible bag of money). Another felon first cousin just recently completed a prison sentence for committing an equally witless crime.
The family tragicomedy is peopled on my father’s side by broad-shouldered men and women all towering well over six feet, some nearly seven feet tall. My mother’s side provides balance with characters five feet tall and some under five feet who, despite their small frames, are equally willing to carry the weight of a long and contentious history with the authorities. It is a legacy that has hopefully come to its conclusion with my federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department (and with all four brothers in my family settling into average height).
The casualties and culprits among my classmates include one from high school who was doused with kerosene and burned to death as he was walking on our elementary school’s street, and one who was stabbed to death by my other classmate because a pair of new shoes was stepped on.
But of all the events and images, there is one . . .
I was sitting in my 3rd grade classroom at the beginning of the school day. The substitute teacher was taking attendance and called my best friend Jeffrey’s name. There was an unforgettably cold silence. I anxiously looked over at his empty desk. I had just played with Jeffrey the day before, and was looking forward to playing with him again that day. There is nothing quite like the love that little friends feel for each other, and the warmth and excitement they stir in each other’s hearts.
I learned at that moment, from another classmate, that my cherished companion Jeffrey would not be coming to school anymore. His mother, a kindly woman who was the only person who ever asked me “What did you learn in school today”, was stabbed to death by her husband before he shot and killed himself.
I always remember the unique anguish of a child’s heartbreak, with the suffocation of feeling as though your heart is going all the way up into your tiny throat, the innocent little mind too easily and deeply confused to be consoled, feeling like you are going to choke on your own tears, wanting the crushing sensation to go away . . . and just hoping against hope that you will somehow see your friend and his sweet mother again. It was a hurt that visited me so many times, I eventually learned that when searing pain keeps mixing with the burning blood in your little heart over time, it creates a chemical reaction . . . a fire that can either burn you destructively into useless ashes or blaze you brightly into a beacon of change—change to yourself and to your world.
Inkster has taught me much about both violence and peace, degradation and inspiration, deliberate ignorance and insatiable curiosity, deep hatred and profound love. There is a peculiar mix of disgust and pride that you feel when you come from a place like this.
For me, pride is the stronger feeling. For such a small town, Inkster has a remarkable history and has cultivated an impressive list of residents: from Malcolm X to the Marvelettes, Motown’s first act with a #1 pop record; from the iconic Rosie the Riveter to NASA Director Dr. Woodrow Whitlow; from Olympic medalist Earl Jones to NFL player Tyrone Wheatley, and a number of professional athletes and musicians, including Bill Summers, original member of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters band whose first album Rolling Stone Magazine placed on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (Bill also played with Michael Jackson, Prince, Sting, and a long list of other music stars), and my classmate Rhonda Griffith’s father was Funk Brother Johnny Griffith from the Oscar-nominated documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Inkster is named by Alex Haley in his book Roots as home to descendants of Kunta Kinte. One-time Michael Jackson business partner, Don Barden, was born and raised in Inkster. America’s first black-owned radio station, WCHB is in Inkster.
Inkster was the home of singer Syreeta Wright, a prolific songwriter who gave the Spinners their first hit (“It’s a Shame”) and whose songs were recorded by Smokey Robinson, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Phil Collins, Diana Ross, B.B. King, Peter Frampton, Edgar Winter, Chaka Khan, Charlie Daniels, The Osmonds, Joan Baez, Jose Feliciano, Michael McDonald, among many others. She sang with Ray Charles, George Harrison, Quincy Jones, Billy Preston, and many more. The haunting melody that she sang on “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” became a standard among the greatest guitar players, such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Steve Lukather with the Crusaders, John Mayer, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and others.
Most importantly, as a teenager, Syreeta Wright sang in the choir at Mission Baptist Church on John Daly Road in Inkster, and she performed in our high school talent shows. A little girl with dreams of becoming a ballerina, who lost her father at the age of five when he was killed in the Korean War, who was raised with her two sisters by their single mother, moved from her little house on New York Street in Inkster to a home in New York City with her husband . . . Stevie Wonder. Upon Syreeta’s passing in 2004, Stevie said of his experience co-writing numerous successful songs with her and the influence she had on his songwriting, “She played a significant part in my working with songs and really getting into songs.” Humble little Inkster, in its own way, inspired even the greatest.
And as if to make a game-ending play in a contest for City of Irony, this town with some of the youngest fatalities was the home of the oldest living person in the world, Jeralean Talley, until she passed away on June 17, 2015 at 116 years old. Her life spanned three centuries: the 19th, 20th, and 21st.
When the world’s last living person from the 19th Century departed this earth, her final sight was of 21st Century Inkster. She closed her eyes for the last time, and dreamed of that concluding vision: Inkster and her family, and all our families who faithfully abide here, struggling but never giving up on our town or on each other, continually dreaming along with Jeralean of a powerful people and a picturesque land of great promise and potential.