MINING FOR GOLD IN MUDDY WATER . . .
RETURNING THE PAGE
The city of Pontiac, Michigan was celebrating its 150th birthday in March 2011, and my role in the festivities was “hometown girl made good.” Being honored as a lifetime achiever by Pontiac is no small thing—my hometown has produced two Olympic gold medalists, renowned jazz musicians Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones, and the noted playwright Phillip Hayes Dean, a Chicago native whose family moved to Pontiac when he was young. I am flattered and pleased, though the achievements for which the city recognized me could never have happened if I had stayed within its boundaries. I could describe my blessings as unimaginable, except for my belief that they came to me precisely because of my imagination.
My life in New York and improbable career in advertising have taken me into the world of famous people, from President Clinton, Bill Cosby, and Johnnie Cochran to Magic Johnson, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Spike Lee. Advertising Age magazine once named me one of the best and brightest in a mostly white industry. The leading organization in multicultural advertising has awarded me the standing of “Legend.” I have been a senior vice president of Motown Records, home of musicians I idolized during my youth in Pontiac. The work I am lucky enough to do for a living, my hometown watches on TV. That night in Michigan, my fellow honorees would include a retired NBA basketball star, a billionaire real estate developer, a noted author, a legendary union leader, and an award-winning New York journalist. I wondered how many of them, like me, were motivated to succeed by the feeling that their hometowns were too small to hold their dreams. Had they, like me, ever fallen from grace and had to pick themselves up? I thought of the years I had spent longing to leave Pontiac in order to “make good,” and of the time I had spent clawing at the imaginary walls that held me there. I even wondered if a bit of prodigal confession should be part of my remarks.
On the way to the program where I was to be honored, I attempted to drive through the former site of the public housing project where I grew up, only to find it impenetrably reclaimed by nature. The sapling trees of my childhood were now tall and strong obstructions to my attempt to revisit the past, and the land was overgrown with thick brush, grasses, and cattail reeds. The location of my childhood home once again belongs to creatures that were there long before me, and nature’s reliable cycle of destruction and resurrection was not to be interrupted. Gone was the horseshoe-shaped drive where fresh-off-the-line cars had once cruised in search of fast young girls. A pleasant memory fragment of a passing white convertible, the R&B tune “Knock on Wood” wafting from its radio, drifted through my mind. Trailing behind it was the realization that nostalgia blunts the pain of the past by filtering it through the comfort of now. My adolescent angst was now as ephemeral as a recollection floating on a brain wave. From the condos across the lake, the view is now of a tranquil natural habitat. When economic times are better, and we humans make our presence felt again, the critters will likely be displaced by housing befitting the valuable waterfront setting. An unexpected surge of real affection for my working-class homestead washed over me as I realized that it, too, is destined for change and upward mobility. I drove away from my invisible past, finally understanding what it could tell me about my present: that life is a constant process of becoming and transforming. As I sped away toward the equally hidden future, there was a comforting clarity. I recognized that the weight of my challenges helped shape the successes I hold dear.
Before Michelle Obama forced America’s consciousness to accept black female intelligence as more than science fiction, I was a precocious little girl in the Lakeside Housing Project, sensing a larger life beyond it. I developed the strong conviction that I would be somebody in life and achieve things that most people around me only dreamed of. In the midcentury environment into which I was born, I had few light posts en route to my destination. I saw no black people like the person I am today. To be sure, there were smart people, hard-working people, talented people, and accomplished people. Yet, none of them lived in the buttermilk churn of big-league advertising, where, like a pesky and resilient fly, I would survive and become part of the mix.
Pretending, for me, has ever been the ultimate creative act and a form of self-salvation. Early on, I became adept at imagining a life I could not see, and then acting “as if.” Like irrationally ambitious little Eddie Murphy, who performed the entirety of Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden in the family basement while his brother stood shaking his head and saying, “You crazy!” Or like young Marguerite Johnson pretending Maya Angelou, my hero, into being, I was given the gifts of blindness to obstacles and of making a fool of myself without surrendering to shame. While pretending to be that successful, creative person, I began to become her.
Pressure Makes Diamonds is meant as a beacon to my fellow foolish dreamers. Though every journey is different, and there are parts of mine that I would not wish upon another, I have every confidence that pretending leads to believing and belief creates reality. My journey is about seeing oneself winning the race from wherever the starting line might be, even if that place is a project on the wrong side of a muddy Michigan lake.
These days, Pontiac is being tested as I was in my youth. When I was growing up, the city was a thriving municipality. Tax dollars poured in from factory workers’ pockets and corporate coffers. That abundance built a new downtown city hall, library, and police station. The sprawling new Pontiac Mall bustled with optimism as customers purchased everything from kids’ clothes to riding mowers and boats. Young people had the option of going to college or taking abundant factory jobs right out of high school. The streets reverberated with the throaty roar of Firebirds, GTOs, and Camaros that were bought on the ninety-first day of employment, when young men completed probation and received the almighty union card. Young people from as far away as affluent Grosse Pointe came to hang out and car hop at a Pontiac drive-in hamburger joint called Ted’s.
Then, when the auto plants closed and GM’s Tech Center relocated, Pontiac moved steadily to the brink of extinction. The city is now broke, and nearly broken. Almost every municipal building is up for sale, with no takers. The finances of Pontiac are in the hands of a state-appointed manager. The Silverdome that hosted a Superbowl is a ruin that recently sold for a relative pittance. Plan after plan to revitalize the downtown core has sputtered and stalled. Saginaw Street, the main drag that was home to two banks, multiple department stores, two five-and-dime stores, and five movie theaters, is so deserted that a tumbleweed would hardly look out of place. The last great hope, a parking structure, office building, and train station called the Phoenix Center, seems destined to fail. Pontiac is a city that no longer pretends good things will happen.
Waiting for the ceremony to begin, I looked across from the stage to the audience of hometown faces. Many were people I had all but forgotten. A handful were central to the evolution of my dream.
Right up front was Ruth Ann, my best friend of more than forty years and my doppelgänger in this place where we bonded as teenagers. I left; she stayed. She married early and later divorced; I married in my thirties and remain with the same man. She has been a career social worker; I have changed companies and cities chasing advancement. We have remained close, vicariously living the choices we did not make. Our sons are our mirrors. Her son Burt has forged a stellar career as a Ford Motor Company executive; my son Brian has followed his heart around the country, working his dream job as a sales executive with NBA teams.
Next to her sat my mother, a constant of my life whether near or far. Always too cool and too Christian to brag or lose her composure over the straight-A report cards of my childhood or the recent six-figure salaries, her presence reminds me never to think that mere achievements make me better than anyone else. My eldest brother, Gary, serious and still handsome, was also in the house. Gary taught me a lot about falling and getting back up. As a youth, his classmates called him the Sidney Poitier of Washington Junior High. After college, youthful rebellion and drugs led him to prison, like so many black men. Yet he quickly found redemption through his Islamic faith. After his release he rose to become imam of his mosque.
Hubert Price Jr., the former state legislator who made his way to the stage to officiate the proceedings, was a fellow smart kid who saw something special in me, and the respectful, loving relationship we developed after the birth of my son reminded me who I was and helped bring back my self-esteem. Long after we amicably parted and he married his wife Carolyn, I was grateful for the two years we were together.
Without Pontiac and its people, I might forget that my life today was once the dream of a little black girl trying to see past a polluted lake. I might not remember that their expectations helped create my own. I might lack the resilience to punch out the dings of life like an auto repairman envisioning something shiny and renewed. I might have no useful words for teenage mothers, black women, or people of color wrestling with corporate demons on the road to getting “somewhere.”
I searched my grateful heart for something I could say to give hope to the people of Pontiac. I decided to speak about Harlem, my classic New York neighborhood that has risen from disrespected no-go zone to vibrant, desirable enclave. What I really wanted to say is what my straying life has taught me: Believe you are meant for great things. Dream big, pretend accordingly, and nothing can keep great things from you. But without knowing my life story, who would believe the answer could be that simple?
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Excerpted from Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be by Valerie Graves, copyright 2016 by Valerie Graves, Used with Permission of Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com) and Open Lens.