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An excerpt from Keith Ellison's "My Country 'Tis of Thee'

An excerpt from Keith Ellison's "My Country 'Tis of Thee'

From the Black Bottom to Cane River

I have lived my adult life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My American journey actually began long before that. My story is best told through the people who raised me, because their history shaped the man I have become.  Both of my parents grew up in a Jim Crow America where opportunities for people of color were limited. Both of them managed to fight through adversity to build success, but their paths were quite different.

My mother was nurtured and even cosseted by a strong family unit that provided the opportunity for her to grow. In fact, her nickname was Pet. My dad, however, had to fight a culture, a city, a nation, and sometimes his own family. His constant battles made him tough and callused enough to forge ahead to success but, at the same time, left him altered by the experience.

Leonard Ellison Sr. was born in Detroit in 1928. Today it is one of the most complex cities in the United States, filled with both great pride and serious challenges. It has some of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country and also some of the most racially polarized. It has some of the most beautiful architecture surrounded by some of our most dilapidated communities. It is the original home of Motown Records and General Motors. It brought the world everyone from Eminem to Madonna, from Dr. Ben Carson to Charles A. Lindbergh, from Henry Ford to Berry Gordy.

Though we were both born in Detroit, my dad and I grew up in different times and in different cities. I was raised on the West Side, which was relatively affluent and safe. It’s where my father wanted to live as an adult.

The Detroit of his childhood was best known for the Black Bottom, made famous in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Many people think that the area got its name from the color of the people who settled there, but the real reason was its black soil.

Before World War I, the area was predominantly Jewish, but after the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the northern industrial cities like Detroit, the color of its inhabitants began to match its soil. The Black Bottom evolved into Detroit’s central community of black-owned businesses, lodges, churches, and nightclubs. It became renowned for music and entertainment: blues, swing, and jazz.

Every major urban area has a center of black culture, and certain streets have an iconic status. In Detroit, it was Hastings Street, which was to the Black Bottom what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans, Beale Street is to Memphis, and 125th Street is to Harlem.

My dad loved to regale my brothers and me with stories about Paradise Valley, another name for the Black Bottom. As a teen, he would sneak into the nightclubs on Hastings to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, and Pearl Bailey. Aretha Franklin started her singing career in her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist, also on that street. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, most of Hastings Street had long since been bulldozed to create the Chrysler Freeway segment of Interstate 75. But my father talked with pride about the hustlers who displayed such class and cachet that they almost had celebrity status on the streets. He made the era sound so thrilling and exciting that I could vividly imagine it.

This was my dad’s world during the height of segregation—segregation northern style. There were no Whites Only signs per se, but you knew where you could and could not go. Blacks everywhere faced structural isolation and denial. The silver lining of this oppression was social cohesion. The doctors, undertakers, and lawyers, as well as the pimps and the hustlers, all lived in the same segregated community and contributed to the tapestry of the Black Bottom. My dad was exposed not only to the greatest entertainers and most successful professionals but also to the worst of the criminal element, and he was influenced by it all. The Black Bottom contributed to my father’s character and soul as much as his unique upbringing.

My father was the son of a farmer turned factory worker turned entrepreneur. My grandfather Zollie Crawford Ellison, born in 1896, was a part of America’s Great Migration, detailed in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. He originally hailed from a farm near Sardis, in Burke County, Georgia. His father, Crawford Ellison, was born into slavery in 1862. And his grandfather Jacob Ellison lived and died a slave.

We knew all this family history because my father and his only brother, Uncle Bob, would sit around and talk about these men.  They drilled those names and their stories into my four brothers and me. They gave us a sense of belonging and meaning and purpose.  We knew we had a slave heritage, but it wasn’t given to us with shame. My dad always exuded pride and strength. For him, that heritage was a source of pride, a mark of perseverance, of survival over terrible odds.

As a young man, Grandpa Zollie left the farm and “went north” to work in Detroit’s factories. He wasn’t educated—not in a classroom— but he was a genius when it came to understanding how to succeed in this world. Grandpa Zollie was smart and industrious. In addition to working in the factory, he also saved his money and acquired several residential rental properties and opened a neighborhood store.

My grandfather was a driven man and not someone to mess with. I will never forget jumping in the car with my dad to check on Grandpa Zollie after we got a call that some guy had tried to rob his store. My grandpa, who stood just five foot four inches, had thrown the would-be robber through the display window.

“A strong farm boy,” my dad joked, shaking his head as we stood surveying the broken glass on the sidewalk. Grandpa Zollie had a few scratches on his knuckles but otherwise was none the worse for wear.

I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He would take my brother Brian and me to our Little League baseball practice, and to see the Detroit Tigers play at Tiger Stadium. We’d sit in the senior citizen seats for just fifty cents. On the weekends and during the summers, my brothers and I used to help cut the grass at his rental properties. He would ask us to make out the rent receipts while we were there.

“I can’t find my glasses,” he would say by way of an excuse for not doing it himself.

“But, Grandpa, your glasses are on your head,” I would point out.

“Boy, just fill out the receipts!” he’d fuss.

One day, after cutting the grass, as I was rummaging through the kitchen for something to eat, I asked my mother, “How come Grandpa always tells us to write out the rent receipts?”

My mother, who was usually mild mannered and patient, shot me a stern look. “What did you say to him?” she asked.

“Nothing, really. He said something about not being able to see, and I told him his glasses were on his head.”

“Don’t you ever embarrass your grandfather like that!” she said angrily.

“What?” I was confused. I didn’t think I had embarrassed Grandpa.

 "You know Grandpa never had a chance to go to school like you.”

It had never occurred to me that my grandfather couldn’t read.  He was one of the smartest men I knew. He seemed to know everything.  Plus, everyone else in my family was educated. My father was a doctor: a psychiatrist. Uncle Bob was a dentist. My mother had her degree. My mother’s deceased father had been college educated, as was her mother. I just assumed that everyone knew how to read. I couldn’t imagine the times in which my grandfather was raised in Georgia, just a generation removed from slavery.

In such a hostile environment, choices were limited, especially for women. My paternal grandmother, Marian, married Grandpa Zollie when she was just nineteen and he was thirty. I never knew whether they fell in love or if they joined forces for convenience.  Whatever the case, their marriage didn’t last long. You know it had to be bad, because hardly anyone got divorced back then.

After his parents split, my dad and his brother were raised by their grandmother, Marian’s mother. Grandpa Zollie had to work, and to the best of my knowledge, Grandma Marian started a new life.

My dad’s grandmother died when he was about ten. After that, he and Uncle Bob lived briefly with their mother, but that didn’t last long. My father was headstrong, willful, and boisterous. I imagine he was resentful about his broken family as well, although we’ve never talked about it. In any case, his mother couldn’t manage him, and he was sent to live with Grandpa Zollie’s sister, Carrie, who had moved up to Detroit and, like Grandpa Zollie, was quite enterprising. Aunt Carrie, according to family legend, operated an after-hours establishment.

My father recalled that he liked staying with Aunt Carrie. For a while, he made good money on tips, bussing tables and getting cigarettes or drinks for Aunt Carrie’s guests.

Someone finally decided that it wasn’t a good idea for a teenage boy to be living in that kind of situation, so my dad moved in with Grandpa Zollie, who had remarried. That arrangement didn’t work out for very long, either. The new wife didn’t take to my dad, and at this point, my father wasn’t trying to accommodate anyone.

So, at fifteen, near the end of World War II, my father finagled his way into the United States Army. He was stationed in Hawaii and remembered that he spent a lot of time in the library, but he didn’t talk much about his army time. The rampant segregation must have made his stint very lonely and difficult.

When he was discharged, he came back to Detroit, finished high school, and enrolled in college. The GI Bill gave him the start he needed. He joined Uncle Bob at Wayne University (now known as Wayne State U), majoring in pharmacy science. He was on his way to graduation and a better life when he ran out of money and had to drop out. But he went to work in one of Detroit’s auto factories and saved up enough to go back to college. When he finished at Wayne, he was a little older than the other grads, but he made it.

With a background like that, my dad never made any excuses.  His mantra was, “There are no handouts or handups.” So guess what? None of his sons would have any excuses either. If he could make his own way in the world, so could we. Period. End of discussion.  And believe me, no one gave my father any back talk.

He had lived what some would call a rather rough life. He had to work for everything he got. He had watched his own dad build a business by the sweat of his brow, with no help and no educational foundation, so he knew that the effort would pay off.

My father knew what so many Americans believe: that if you put your mind to something and are willing to work hard, you can achieve your goals. My dad wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to see Dr. in front of his name. After graduating from Wayne State, he enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School and got his medical degree with a specialty in psychiatry.

While at Michigan, he met my mom, Clida. She was, on paper, his polar opposite. But she provided just the balance he needed in his life. She had the right kind of strength to match his fire.

So I was raised by two very different but equally strong-willed personalities.

My mom is ten years younger than my dad. She was born in Cane River, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, in 1938. It is an isolated, self-contained place on the banks of Cane River Lake—a tributary of the Red River that got cut off long ago—where the inhabitants survive on farming. A distant ancestor of my mother, Augustin Metoyer, the patriarch of a set of interrelated families who populated the area hundreds of years ago, built the Saint Augustine Catholic Church, in Melrose, around 1829. His portrait hangs in Saint Augustine Church to this day.

My mother’s father, Frank Martinez, was the product of a Spanish father (from Seville) and a black mother. People often mistook him for something other than black. My mother’s mother, Doris Balthazar Martinez, was the distant granddaughter of a French merchant, Thomas Pierre Metoyer, and Marie Therese, known as Coincoin (pronounced “ko-kwe”), a slave. Metoyer freed Coincoin and gave her several acres. My mother was born on one of those plots of land.

My mom, an only child, was raised with a ton of love and support on a farm with a host of aunts and uncles, her grandmother, and chickens, pigs, dogs, and horses. Mother describes her childhood as wonderful and smiles when she recalls her horse, Pocketbook.  Growing up like that must have been fun.

She worked on the farm alongside everyone else, but mostly she attended school. She was sent to Holy Rosary Institute, a boarding school in Lafayette, Louisiana, because my grandparents wanted to protect her. Grandpa Frank, you see, was a civil rights activist, fighting for civil rights and voting rights, and the Ku Klux Klan used to harass him. My mom tells the story of how one time they set up a burning cross outside her family’s home on Lee Street (which is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive). After high school, she went to New Orleans to attend Xavier University of Louisiana, where she graduated with a degree in medical technology.

Education was a priority in my mother’s home. My grandma Doris, whom everyone called Dot, taught the neighboring farm kids reading, writing, and arithmetic in a one-room schoolhouse.  Children of many different ages gathered in that classroom, some attending only sporadically, but she managed to make sure they learned the basics. Grandma Doris’s father was also a teacher, specializing in industrial arts.

As I mentioned, Doris was the distant granddaughter of Coincoin, who was a medicine woman, trained in pharmacology and nursing—skills that she passed along to her children. Both of Coincoin’s parents were straight off the boat from Africa, and I’m sure they handed down some old-country knowledge to her. We know that she was from the Ewe (pronounced “EE-vay”) people who inhabit the coastal nation of Togo.

I didn’t know the impact my grandmother had on the community until her funeral. I stood there with my mother at Saint Augustine Church on Cane River as person after person came up to her.

“Your mama would be there day after day and made sure us children got our lessons,” one said, clutching my mother’s hands.

“Some of us never had no schooling ’cept what your mama gave us,” another said, tears in her eyes. “I really thank your mama.”

My mother was so proud of Doris. My mom also clearly adored her father too. He died in 1957 when a tractor overturned on him.  His brother-in-law, my great-uncle Boo (Carroll Balthazar), tried to lift the tractor off him, but it was too heavy. Uncle Boo sat there holding my grandfather’s hand until he took his last breath. Uncle Boo, my mother’s uncle, was a farmer and industrial arts teacher like my grandfather. He was such a loving and supportive figure in our lives, I wonder if he thought of himself as looking out for his dead friend’s grandchildren. He was so awesome, I kind of think so.

My mom always talked wistfully of her dad. Besides being an activist, he was also a skilled mechanic. He trained black soldiers to fix airplanes during World War II. After the war, he continued to teach young black men how to fix trucks, cars, and planes.

She was very much a daddy’s girl and also a bit of a tomboy.  Probably because she was his only child, he taught her all the things he would have wanted a son to know. So while she learned to take care of a home, she also could build things and work around the farm. My mother was raised to be confident, resourceful, and selfreliant, and I am trying to raise my daughter, Amirah, the same way.

I remember the day my mother got it into her head that she wanted her children to have a sandbox. She was tired of packing us up and trekking to the local park when we had a perfectly nicesized backyard to play in.

She decided that she would build this sandbox herself. The only problem was that she couldn’t haul the materials in her own car. So she took my dad’s brand-new white Cadillac convertible with red leather interior (and whitewall tires, of course) and headed to the local hardware store. With the top open, the Cadillac was perfect.

It was a running joke in the neighborhood that my dad had all of these nice cars—including a Ferrari and even a Rolls-Royce at one time—and my mom drove around in these old, modest cars.  But if you knew my parents, that was perfectly normal. My father was a flashy, over-the-top personality. He wore tailored suits and was opinionated. A real character. My mother was down-to-earth.  She was no wallflower, but she was never loud or boisterous. She was levelheaded and even-keeled. The only time she would really show a lot of passion was when it came to her kids. If we needed something or she decided she wanted us to have something, nothing was going to stop her.

That day, she put us all in the front, so she could load up the backseat of Dad’s convertible. She put down plastic to protect the precious interior from the bags of sand, pieces of wood, nails, and fasteners. Once we got back home, she built us that sandbox. I was about five years old, but I still remember her determination to get it built. And I remember the fun my brothers and I had in it.

My father, who worked fourteen-hour days at his practice and didn’t drive the Cadillac convertible except on weekends—his get-around car was a Pontiac Sunbird—didn’t get home until late.  You can imagine the argument that erupted when he noticed sand on the precious red leather of his baby. Apparently the plastic my mother had put down didn’t protect against all of the sand.

She heard him out but wasn’t fazed by his anger, and she wasn’t apologetic. She’d done what she had to do. She was taking care of her children.

This fierce desire to protect us played out a number of times while we were growing up. The year before, we had moved into a mixed neighborhood in Detroit, and a rash of robberies occurred shortly after we arrived. One of our neighbors who lived across the street started telling everyone to “watch out for those Ellison boys.” He claimed we were the ones committing the robberies.

When my mother caught wind of this, she gathered us all up and said, “Come with me!” We didn’t know what was up, but we all stopped what we were doing and followed her. She marched across the street with us trailing behind, went up to this man’s house, and knocked on his door. When he came to the door, he looked shocked.

“Sir, these are my boys,” she said firmly. “They are not doing anything to your property or anyone else’s. Before you start saying what the Ellison boys are up to, you should know what you’re talking about.”

She then turned and walked back across the street with us following, leaving that man standing there with his mouth open. She had made her point. My oldest brother, Leonard, was only nine. I was six. In other words, we were all little kids. There was no way that we were the menaces this man was claiming, and my mother wasn’t having anyone talking badly about her boys. We all thought it was funny: “Man! Mom is tough! Ha‑ha.”

My mother usually worked outside of the home, but she was involved in the PTA and the neighborhood watch, she came to our various sports games, and she was very active in the community.

When we were all old enough to go to school, she went to work at my father’s practice, running his office. But she was always home in time to cook us dinner. She was the one who made sure that we had lunch packed for school, did our homework, and got to bed on time. She was a disciplinarian, but her biggest threat when we misbehaved was “I’m going to tell your father.” None of us wanted that. We were all scared of that. We didn’t want her telling him anything.

We kept in line—all five boys—primarily because our mom instilled in us a sense of right and wrong. We didn’t get into much trouble, because to have done so would have reflected poorly on her.

I believe she was the right woman to raise five boys because she had the right father to raise her. My grandfather may have died before we came along, but my mom made sure we knew about him.  She embodied a lot of his strength and wisdom. His picture hangs in my home as a reminder. And I’m certain that it’s the spirit of Frank Martinez that enabled my mom to bring up five boys. She knew exactly how to handle each of us.

While my father showed us valuable lessons through example—getting up every day and going to work, working hard, demanding excellence from himself and everyone around him, and carrying himself with immense pride—my mother was more hands-on in teaching us values, humanity, and what it meant to love one another.

Together they raised five men who by society’s standards have done well. Because of our parents, my brothers and I had a chance to live the American dream. I can speak for them when I say that we all, in our own ways, work to extend it to everyone.