by Christine Hume
You cannot click through this darkness. Night is not a sleeping screen; it is not the back of god. It offers no image except your own memory, which is an imaginary film. Even though it’s impossible to tell where the music is coming from and how much of it we carry inside us, we follow the imaginary film’s soundtrack. Walking in the dark, we need something to follow. Walking in the dark is like trying to hear our own whiteness, which is everywhere and therefore impossible to locate. We can’t walk away from it; we must follow sketchy outlines, whiffs, and barely audible voices. Our soundtrack isn’t cinematic because there’s no climax, no convulsive, sudden pitch. It lingers and persists, the collective cries of no, the ghostly acoustics of marvelous dogs and fallen machines, as we walk through this former sundown town. Our ears sensitize as the night falls. Soon, you’ll start to hear it, a white tinnitus, a vague complaint whining in your skull.
Here’s a nice marshy place to grapple with your own fictions. Built on a swamp, Ypsilanti can best be described as shifty. Once, this ground was part of the Great Sauk Trail, then a stop on the Underground Railroad. People had always moved through. Then white settlers buried streams in clay pipes under the water table and sunk tiles to absorb soggy earth. In 1916, Black workers from the Great Migration made a road running from Chicago to Detroit. On this wetland, we’ve built a thousand buildings, acting like a thousand microphones that conduct the murmurings of the fluid underworld. When you stand in a house built on top of unfathomable depth, you don’t have to wonder why you hear things. Each building contains the memory of someone taken away or sent back, someone made to stay against their will, someone harassed, beaten, shot, or raped. Inside buildings, viral viruses and rooting roots come into earshot. Pipes gurgle and gasp. Before the sun sets, Black workers go home, out of a town that turns fully werewolf; overtly, vampirically violent at night. Digging the noises up from the ground, hammering the sounds down to the page. Either way, once you hear it, you must remember it doesn’t belong to you. Even as you narrativize it or copwatch for the young man handcuffed with his face in the grass as the maskless cop spits at you and keeps saying that he has seen you before.
This is an example of something you could not hear before, but you can’t stop hearing it. The white rooms filling with white noise; the clouds of white explanations, judgments, and corrections; whole atmospheres of white volume impossible to turn down because someone broke the knob off, because it’s always already happening and happening. Because we keep exhaling white supremacy, like warm breath on a cold day, and saying it doesn’t exist. Saying “what noise?” Saying, “I don’t talk like that.” Saying “I don’t see ghosts.” Saying “there you go again being obsessed with race.” Because the white judge cried when she convicted the white shooter. She said her hand was forced. Yes, that exact expression. Her voice cracked, “it’s not about race,” she said through white tears. Because you remember your own tears when the cop pulls you over again and again as a teenager, never once giving you a ticket. Each cop giving you a gentle or stern warning until you feel your own inner siren coming on each time you hear a state siren. It is you they blare for.
When a Black man comes to your porch asking for money, what do you do? Or a Black woman driving home late one night gets into an accident and steps into the porch light of your home to ask for help. What do you do? The porch is a soft threshold, a gravitational pull, a suspension of time. A porch raises but cannot settle questions of belonging. A person might be walking around lost in the dark, or on your porch, knocking on your door. You probably know that Detroit is the most segregated city in America. Within city limits, it’s also the least diverse. White people live in a wrap-around porch called the suburbs. Read: no solicitors, wet paint, guard dog. A porch cannot completely hide what is on the inside. Half an hour outside of Detroit, our neighborhood listserv instructs us: please lock your doors and keep your porch lights on. Call the police for even minor incidents. A porch clings to its house.
You can’t tell by looking, even in the daytime, but where we are now standing was a stop on the Underground Railroad, where Elijah McCoy transported fugitive slaves in a false bottom of his wagon. He also patented “the real McCoy,” a lubricating cup for factory machines, and the lawn sprinkler, which helped domesticate and divvy up the prairie, making tidy lawns for nuclear families. Ypsilanti’s white noise is like a sprinkler moving back and forth over the entire town. If you are in the stream, you feel the humming vibrate your cavities. You feel it up through your feet. If you are not, you think the others are out of their minds. Are those people in the park being too loud? What is that man even doing here? Or that car stereo too heavy on the 808s? Does something feel off, not quite right? When I put it like that, you know exactly what these thoughts are lubricating.
Tracing the noise’s origins is complicated by who hears it, and when and where. Except for Michigan Avenue, which divides the hood from the hipster town, all the streets are one-way, letting commuters get through fast. Residents, however, feel enmeshed in a kind of sonic plaid, something like a Celtic electric fence. We feel the vacuum effect of cars leaving town, radios jamming, car doors locking at the red light. The push-pull of opposing traffic directions creates a Doppler effect of sirens on Arcade Street. This street should be named “David Ware Street,” after the unarmed Black man a white cop shot here or Ware Street, a pun not lost on you. Everywhere Street. Does the sound of gunshots gradually transform itself into the sound of sprinklers? Tick, tick, tick, hiss. Duck, duck, duck, golden goose egg. Waiting and chasing, staying and leaving, this is our signature sound. You have to know who you are to hear which way traffic is moving.
We adopt filters for our ears, or we believe our filters dissolved when we heard the recording of our mayor’s racist remarks, the mayor we voted for, and pressured her to resign. When we first found Black friends, we believed we were hearing as if for the first time; virgin listening comes with the usual nausea and regret. We recall the landmarks: here is where I strung up a piñata for my white daughter’s birthday party; here is where I wore box braids and extensions; here is where I had empathy for a Karen and did not intervene; here is where I told my students to “powwow” about a poem; here is where I had my reasons. I do not know if speaking of filters will help us become sensible to the meanings of filibustering, vocal thunder, choral outrage, a loud silent cringe, or the graduated spectrum of screams. Can you hear beyond the clamor of another white crisis? Here on this spot is where, in 1867, Frederick Douglass spoke about overconfidence and false hope in the White House; he spoke out against a president acting as if he were king, and his incendiary words caught in the wind. Words have nothing on the wind. Later a fire destroyed the entire third floor of this building.
What do you imagine hides in the dark? This is exactly the wrong question. Immediately we become nostalgic for a time when it was unquestionably the right question. You cannot step through that time neatly into another. You carry it with you like a virus, like the sound of starlight reaching you in another century. Remember half of what you hear is tinnitus, a sound your brain makes up to keep you from knowing you are alone. Tinnitus, linked etymologically to the jingling of coins, is the sound of capitalism, a sound we’ve invented to keep us from ourselves. Whole cities suffer it. You keep working through the uprising, you keep working as if the world needs you. You stand by a bar and wait for it to open. You rent a house with good Wi-Fi by the lake for a couple weeks. You stand by the mailbox and wait for a new shipment to arrive. You cannot remember what you ordered, but your dog knows the engine pitch of the Amazon truck.
Imagine your tongue being pulled out of your mouth. Imagine that in order to be heard, you must stuff your mouth with someone else’s words, pronunciation, cadence, and vocal dynamics. Imagine that what you might say cannot be parsed. Imagine then being imitated badly, voice shoved through the nose. Words flatten and derange. Your vowels shred. Your echo snaps the syntax of your sentence, breaks your sense of belonging. Remember the panic of the girl running down the street crying, lost maybe, absolutely scared, and you cannot recall enough Spanish to help her? All your high grades will not help this girl find her peace or her family. Nonetheless, you correct your daughter when she comes home from school speaking Black vernacular. You say “’tooken’ is not a word,” but that is not true and not the point. Yes, it’s the language of her friends; yes, it is a rich language; no, she cannot text “imma be;” she cannot have that, too. The white noise coming out of our own faces congeals in amnesia about who built these roads and logics. Ypsilanti’s throat throbs with languages that are impossible to disentangle unless you ignore everything you don’t understand.
Can we understand the acoustics of a place by referring to our own experiences of it, or is it best to go back further? We have come to the mostly demolished Ford bomber plant from World War II, designed by Albert Khan, once a mile-long assembly line that built half of all the B-24 Liberators. You can’t hear the protests of all the white Rosie the Riveters who did not want to work with Black Rosies, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you did. All their daughter’s daughters, all of us, not meaning any harm yet going to the police, please help me, offloading our violence and complicity. On this spot is where that history gathered around the tidy visual propaganda of a white woman flexing.
Just look at our confused and embarrassed images reflected in the store front window. We can see our mouths moving, but can’t hear what we are saying, even to ourselves. Can you hear through what are you doing here to the fuck you it contains? We barely even hear the false confessions dripping and welling up inside us. We keep walking into white noise, like wind trapped in a condemned house, panicked, shrieking between cracks in the boarded-up windows and slamming the doors over and over. See the window reflected in the window? In this room, when a student at the local college explains to the Judiciary Board why he was protesting racist vandalism on campus, no one can hear what he’s saying. When he tells them what he hears at the sight of a white cop with a gun, the Board shoots their incredulous “really?” and condescending “now there” into his testimony. When he tells them the cop’s voice wasn’t what he was listening to that night, all their heads cock, lips smirk. What they hear is “yes” or “no,” but mostly “no.” What they hear is a vacuum in the room next door. What they can’t hear is the ever-present sound of fourteen to forty gunshots coming from behind, and before that the sound of bulldozing a Native burial ground to make a “Student Center.” What we hear now accompanies the silencing of what we once heard; everything we hear is echoed in full absence, full eerie mourning.
I have forgotten to tell you about the river. It organizes the city’s sonic inventories. Right now, it sounds like an open digestive track, but only so much can be broken down or absorbed. The banks of the river are the best place to imagine your own death. You remember the world you lived in and you had to kill that life. The sun is always frozen or sweating in the postcard you send back; nostalgia is always dividing the world into a time when we didn’t believe in two worlds and a time when we could not escape two worlds. We who are left have volunteered for the future, of which we are already ashamed. Down the pike, even white supremacy will not need white people. Ypsilanti was once the intersection of several trails, formed by four tribes: the Huron or Wyandot, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. Their early settlements along the Huron River are where our city’s story begins. We have shoved these stories into little pockets of deafness all around town. As you walk, notice all the vacant buildings; think about those buildings holding absence, like absent-minds or museums of erasure, like holding cells for hidden lives, like small monuments to missing or incarcerated people, like hotel rooms waiting for the next economic wave.
What you can’t see is that our city looks destroyed. If you can’t feel it, put your finger in a bullet hole in the wall and scream. Abandonment stretches into something just alive enough to crawl under the porch and die. We who live here have an affection for deserted things as if umbilically attached to disappointment. If you suspect that everything you’ve heard on this tour is fraudulent, the piped in soundtrack of the new cinema, I cannot say for sure say that you are wrong. Sounds outside our hearing range tend to cause ominous feelings and colorful hallucinations. If you are getting the feeling that Ypsilanti is a cage designed to make you inaudible, know that our ears are the first paranoid organ. In this way the place resembles Caucasia, the fabled land between the breaking waves of the Black and Caspian Seas, where our narcissistic disorder began. On this very spot in 1958, three white men, each believing himself to be Jesus Christ, were put in the same room at the Ypsilanti State Hospital. There they remained until their loneliness made them friends, and they refused to destroy one another’s identity. Only the youngest of the Christs morphed into something more imaginative, but all three heard voices telling them who they were. Can you pluck a single voice out of the pitchy tangle of crisscrossing signals? Do you know which one is yours? Do you find your own thoughts become louder when a white man named Jesus or something else is talking?
Christine Hume’s collection of essays on sex offenders and women’s bodies, Everything I Never Wanted to Know, won the 2021 Noemi Prose Prize. She is also the author of a lyric portrait of girlhood, Saturation Project (Solid Objects, 2021), which the New York Times says, “arrives…with the force of a hurricane,” as well as three books of poetry, and six chapbooks. She teaches at Eastern Michigan University.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · January 2022
Header by Christine Hume.