The Rapidian

Auburn Hills: Anatomy of shielding

This article is part of a series of pieces which chronicle the development of Auburn Hills, one of our city's first racially integrated spaces.

Auburn Hills: Race in Grand Rapids, from Past to Present

The intent behind this series of articles on Auburn Hills is to serve as a launching pad for a deeper exploration into the current lived experience of African Americans in our city. In so doing, we hope to create space for a more full understanding of our racialized landscape. It is our desire that through this exploration, we might begin to again envision new spaces like Auburn Hills; spaces that we can collectively move into.

The interviews of the original residents of Auburn Hills are the brain fuel for these articles. These videos are the result of the hard work of Jeremy Moore, Joel Van Kuiken and Denise Evans.

Cole Williams and his son Nathan

Cole Williams and his son Nathan /Photo Courtesy of StoryCorps

Original Marketing Flyer for Auburn Hills

Original Marketing Flyer for Auburn Hills /Courtesy of Franks Family Archive

The story of Auburn Hills is a story of triumph - where in the face of fear and unfamiliarity, our community saw the creation of a new space, an integrated space. This series documents this important piece of our city’s history, and includes video of the original residents of the neighborhood and their experiences. We will also use the story of Auburn Hills as a launching pad for a deeper exploration into the current lived experience of African Americans in our city. In so doing, we hope to create space for a more full understanding of our racialized landscape. It is our desire that through this exploration, we might begin to again envision new spaces: spaces that we can collectively move into. 

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Shielding

Most parents are familiar with the discomfort of having to have “the talk” with their children. Even if you’re not a parent, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of the “there’s-this-thing-called-puberty talk” or the “kitty’s-gone-to-heaven talk.” Some of us might have had one of those talks and not the other. Maybe our parents were too uncomfortable, or maybe our parents just didn’t have the right words. Maybe they felt the need, as many parents do, to preserve our childish innocence for just a while longer: to shield us from some of the harsher realities of our world. 

In the case of Auburn Hills, we found that parents of the black families that moved to the development shielded their children from the racially charged vitriol of the time.  Shielding, as our interviews begin to show, is not just a matter of withholding information; it also involves a changing or adapting of the narrative to make it understandable for a child. 

Humanness of Shielding

Beverly Grant was a young child when her father, Dr. Julius Franks, began the process of purchasing and developing what we now know as Auburn Hills. We asked Beverly if she has any memory of the racial tension of the time, and she described how it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that she became fully aware of the kind of tension that was going on around the development.

“Never did [Dad] tell me the difficulties of how that was," she says. "He would always tell me that there are good white folks, and there are good black folks. You just need to figure out who they are, and work with them.”

This conversation is a very human one. Most of us can relate to an experience of when we “softened” a story depending on who we were telling it to. It is shielding that explains why we have code-words like “the birds and the bees,” or why we soften our language around the death or passing of a loved one. Embedded in this softened narrative are often nuggets of wisdom or truth.

What is unique for families of color is that many of the shielded conversations that parents have revolve around race. In families of color, parents are oftentimes forced to shield their children from the realities of raising a child of color in America. 

Paula Triplett was also young when her family moved to Auburn Hills. We asked Triplett for her perspective on the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s.

“I was more interested in what was the new record from the Jackson Five,” says Paula, “We knew- and it would happen- where people would call out 'words' to us, and we would have to run... The people who didn’t like us, we knew to avoid them. We knew to go to someplace safe. But we didn’t carry this chip on our shoulder because we grew up here.”

While listening to Triplett, we began to wonder how she knew. How did she know who to avoid? Who told her? What did those conversations sound like? So we took our questions on the road, and began to ask other families of color. What do conversations about race sound like for you now? 

Demoor-Tannor, Party of Seven

Joanna Demoor-Tannor is a native Canuck. The daughter of a Dutch immigrant, she moved to Grand Rapids in 1999 where she attended Calvin College. There she met her husband, Gabriel Tannor, a born and raised Ghanaian. The Demoor-Tannors have five children. The three youngest are biological (ages 3, 5 and 7), and the two elder joined their family four years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo (ages 17 and 20). Demoor-Tannor and I met at a local anti-racism workshop. I was so intrigued by the complexity of her families ethnic, and racial composition, that I wondered how that diversity would nuance their family conversations about race. 

Curly versus straight 

I asked Demoor-Tannor what conversations about race sound like in her home. Our discussion wandered and covered a myriad of fascinating subjects, but one in particular stood out to me.

“I have a lot of conversations with my daughter,” says Demoor-Tannor, “and it's because of her hair. It’s soft and curly, but she wants straight blonde hair… She often talks about how she wants that kind of hair. I tell her that when I was a little girl, I really wanted curly hair, and I realize now that it was such a waste of time. I remember how much time I spent wishing I was something that I wasn’t and it never changed anything. And then I tell her, just for the record that ‘I love her curls.' [Her hair] is also something that people comment on all the time. People often mention it and try to touch it and mention it. Maybe part of her discomfort comes from how much attention she gets.”

There, embedded in Demoor-Tannor’s loving words, was an attempt to shield her daughter from the external pressures of female beauty. And coupled with that was a nugget of wisdom about the frivolity of wishing for something that just cannot be. But there was a nuance to that conversation, a nuance that is necessitated by Demoor-Tannor’s daughter’s mixed race heritage and the historical legacy of black hair in America.

Dating White Women

Cole Williams is an African-American father. Williams is a native of Benton Harbor, but now lives in Grand Rapids where he works as a social worker. I first heard Williams, and his son Nathan Williams, in a story on a StoryCorps interview that they did back a few years ago. 

I asked Williams what kind of shielded conversations he has had with his son. One conversation in particular grabbed my attention.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this out loud,” Williams confesses, “but him and white women. I’ve always talked a great deal about, you know, just being careful. No, we’re not talking about Emmett Till days, but I also just want you to be conscientious of your surroundings. A young white girl who says you touched her or raped her could give you some time. So you know, I always was cautious of who he dated. I never told him that he couldn’t date outside his race, but we definitely talked about the possible impacts of him dating outside his race and what could happen to him. Now I don’t know if white men have these conversations with their sons, if they want to date a black girl, but I know for me that was a conversation that him and I had to have.” 

Again, we see in Williams’ conversations with his son that familiar structure of shielding. Williams softens the potential threat to his son, “no, we’re not talking about Emmett Till days,” and then offers his wisdom, “but I also just want you to be conscientious of your surroundings.” 

The Cost of Shielding

Through our conversation, Williams and I began talking about some of the potential implications of shielding: how the “wisdom” offered by a parent to protect their child can begin to reinforce unfair social hierarchies. Williams is a big man, and is very conscious of how his size and presence has the potential to be perceived as threatening, particularly in a profession that is saturated with predominantly white women. We talked about how he is forced to carry the negative stereotypes of black men as aggressive and threatening, and how he has learned to act in a way that diffuses this threat. I asked Williams, how he thought this might have translated to his son.

“I don’t think [my son] is perceived as threatening either, but I wonder too if he’s not perceived as threatening because of the way he’s modeled after me. I was very intentional about teaching Nathan how to communicate," he says. "Because I understood from the messages I was receiving too, that if you’re an angry black man, there’s not a place for that in society. And this is what I told him, ‘you can’t be an angry black man in this society. If you are an angry black man, you could potentially find yourself without a job, or incarcerated.’ If you want to be able to navigate this society that we live in, you’ve got to blend. And I think I taught him that. Wow, I've never thought about that before. I've taught my son to blend... And it silences me.”

“Wow, I’ve never thought about that before. I’ve taught my son to blend... And It silences me.”

Stories of Resistance

In our interview, Demoor-Tannor tells me about some of the ways their family deals with the realities of being a family of color in America. One mechanism is a kind of simple, albeit poignant, honesty

“[We are] honest with our kids about the realities that they face because we can’t cover over those things indefinitely. I don’t want them to have to figure it out on their own someday without me there as a resource to help them through it. I think even at a young age they are capable of understanding quite a bit. They approach it with their child-likeness that teaches me things,” she says.

I asked Williams what the larger community can do to begin to change the narrative and lessen the need for race-based shielding. He tells me that we can offer affirmation. Affirmation that takes into consideration one’s full identity, not just as a man, but as a black man. 

“What I want for my son is [for him] to be affirmed that who he is, is good. To be affirmed that as a black man, he has dreams. To be affirmed that as a black man, who has these sorts of struggles, that there are others who share in that. And that he isn’t alone. I think, one thing the community can do is to provide safe places for that to happen.”

Creating New Spaces

In the spirit of Auburn Hills and the creation of new spaces, it is our deepest hope that we can begin to again imagine a new space. A narrative space, where the messages that inform our children’s identities are not laden with race-based biases or assumptions that shape who they are. Creating this space requires work and effort, and a collective will to begin to change. But thanks to Auburn Hills, and the countless triumphs that have gone before, we know that we are capable. The question is, are we ready? 

I think we are. 

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