By Jon Melegrito
Driving up North on I-75 towards Flint, I see signs on the highway pointing to Lansing, Port Huron and Saginaw.
“Saginaw? I’ve heard of that place before,” I say to myself. It’s from a Simon-Garfunkel song, about two lovers making a trip from Michigan to New York City, traveling east in a Greyhound bus through the New Jersey Turnpike. These soul mates are hopeful, I recall, filled with optimistic exuberance as they “walked off to look for America.”
The song is playing in my head as I cruise through Michigan’s fast highways at one o’clock in the morning, taking in the scenery at 60 miles per hour. I’m tired and weary, longing to lie in bed after a long day in airports, waiting to board delayed flights, taking off, making connections and praying we’ll make it through the night.
After landing in Detroit and calling Elvie to tell her I’m safe, I head to Flint in a rental car, sent by AFSCME to help our union sisters and brothers deal with a struggle that threatens more than just job losses. It could shatter their life long dreams.
Saginaw, like Flint and Detroit and other towns along Interstate 75’s automotive corridor, has been abandoned by residents and forsaken by the auto industry. Once thriving centers of commerce, they have fallen apart after General Motors closed its factories in the area years ago, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed and displaced.
Even in the dark of night as I drive through Flint’s neighborhoods, one can sense the depression and feel the blight. In a way, it feels like the City of New Orleans, battered and bruised after Katrina, its landscape altered forever. In both places, though several years apart, the landscape of inner lives were also altered, leaving scars that may never heal for a very long time.
Having been on the road many times before, I am learning more about America each time. I am reminded of people’s kindness and compassion as they reach out to fellow human beings in New Orleans. I am also haunted by acts of cruelty and inhumanity that led to the beating death of Vincent Chin more than 20 years ago in Detroit. Two auto workers blamed foreigners for their personal frustrations and took it out on an Asian American.
Today in Detroit and elsewhere, it’s anti-worker, anti-union governors and legislators who are beating up on public service workers and blaming them for the country’s budget crisis. Old wounds may have closed but new ones have opened.
“Michigan may seem like a dream to me now.” The ordinary men and women who continue to toil and struggle here still believe in that dream despite the devastation left by shuttered plants and factories. Yes, they are still aching. Minorities, working people and the nation’s poor they all feel the pain these days. But they don’t wonder anymore what went wrong. In their guts, they simply know why.
And they don’t need to look elsewhere for America. It’s here in the heartland. That’s why they are fighting like hell to take their country back, fighting like never before against greedy corporations and politicians who don’t care about sharing the wealth, who talk about shared sacrifice only as it applies to hard-working families struggling to survive. Meanwhile, the riches produced by laborers have only accumulated at the top of the economic ladder.
Before he was gunned down fighting for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis 43 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about stars in the dark, that sometimes it takes a pervasive gloom for people to see the light:
“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
Filipino American writer and worker Carlos Bulosan also knew about stars in the dark. Despite feeling like a hunted dog in the land of the free, he never lost faith in this country’s capacity for fairness, compassion and justice. America, he said, is in the heart.
One night six years ago, after driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans sent by AFSCME to help look for union sisters and brothers who may have perished in the storm I saw a full moon rise over the bayous of Louisiana. It was comforting to see that bright, peaceful orb after dark days and long nights of strong winds and rain.
Today, among the boarded-up buildings in Saginaw, residents have scrawled the words “Gone to Look for America.” It’s a reminder, they say, that – as invoked in another Simon and Garfunkel song – they too “don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, don’t have a friend who feels at ease, don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees.” It’s a simple affirmation of hope, of determination over despair. The stars in the dark are hundreds of thousands of sparks, ignited by ordinary men and women, lighting the way for this generation and the next ones to come.
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