a fieldwork blog
Michelle S. Johnson
An Innovations Catalyst in Public Scholarship
An Innovations Catalyst in Public Scholarship
Calibrating History: Detroit, Idlewild and Saginaw
In less than one week I’ll be across a table from Carlean Gill, a woman retired from several professions and living in Dallas. Perhaps the most glamorous occupation that interviewers and the curious like to glimpse, rises from her time as a dancer and an inner workings confidant for the Idelwild Review. This will not be my first chance to draw out and listen to the stories linking Carlean, Black people, work, business, entertainment and spaces since the 1950’s. As part of an extensive oral history project, Community Spaces of the Industrious: The Oral Histories of African Americans and Latino/as in Saginaw Michigan in my hometown, Carlean and I recorded 13 hours of testimony that highlights particulars and the context for one of Michigan’s most famous Black resorts, Idlewild, it’s urban counter part, Paradise Valley in Detroit and my similarly auto-industry fueled Saginaw. Learning about these places through Carlean’s lens informed my later scholarship as I further researched and wrote about the history of Paradise Valley and Idlewild. Though the stories I collected from residents and patrons of Detroit did not dig as deep as my privileged time with Carlean allowed, these conversations and other primary and secondary sources resonated with the insights I gained from her and contributed to the permanent public art installation at Harmonie Park.
During the heyday of Idlewild between 1915 and the mid 1960’s, Black men and women forged networks and interconnections that linked key cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Atlantic City, New York, Boston and Washington D.C. with the histories of Black artistic, entrepreneurial, educational and social initiatives. Idlewild organizers, artists and audience members maintained a rural entertainment culture informed by and informing these rich national communities. All the individuals and groups who organized, visited and maintained Idlewild contributed vastly to the fabric of the entertainment spine of the area. Celebrated literary figures like Charles Chesnutt and Zora Neale Hurston and numerous, yet less visible, members of social and literary clubs clearly contributed to the entertainment roots of Idlewild. In fact, not unlike the famed Harlem Renaissance of which the Chesnutt and Hurston were a part, the artist’s work, the venues and the artists of this next artistic wave provided Black’s the opportunity to create and enjoy art almost exclusively on their terms. Unlike the Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance however, this movement was not confined within a neighborhood’s borders; it resonated in Idlewild and cities such as Chicago, Detroit and St Louis creating a nexus of artistic space and place invaluable to the Black psyche. Activity amongst artists like Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Della Reese, The Four Tops and others from this period who took their mediums to national musical or dance stages and nightclubs in particular, found their figurative and literal voices behind and on the stages of Idlewild and thus, Idlewild amplified the performance pulse of and contributed significantly to ongoing national and international entertainment cultures.
Now, almost 20 years later, I’m flying south west across the country to catch up on previous themes and ask some new questions in old and innovative ways. Much has happened for us both since our last marathon when we sipped beverages, ate the fufu Carlean prepared or I ravished the hot and spicy bean curd and she, more delicately, ate Egg Foo Young from the standard-bearing Panda House. Carlean closed two of her Saginaw businesses, sold her farm, relocated to Texas and has happily settled in as the matriarch of her daughter’s family made up of an adoring husband and soon to toddle, girl-boy twins. She has also helped build habitat homes, went skydiving and presented her important perspectives to audiences at libraries, museums, tours and other venues.
I will be arriving with loose questions about her thoughts on leaving home, aging gracefully, what happens to black spaces over time and the connections between historic and contemporary political, economic and social issues. And this time around, I’m bringing other question “sets” or Interrogatory poems by national award winning poet, Denise Miller. Miller’s publications include the unearthing of intersecting stories of race, history, gender and violence and center on providing authenticating voice to the unspoken or misspoken. Miller will expand her earlier work where she wrote from Community Spaces of the Industrious interviews and compose and video-record, a new set of poetic questions of Gill and myself based on her further engagement of the original interviews and the interview process. The final project will include a series of presentations by Gill, Miller and myself at the Carr Center in the historic area of Paradise Valley, a neighborhood of significant change as the cities cultural capital shifts during “redevelopment” in Detroit.
“American Rose Art club, Invicible Music and Dramatic Club, Junior Matron Arts and Social Club, Cherokee Social and Literary Club and Fleur De Lis Art Club in 1922,” Chicago Defender, Oct 7. 1922, Proquest Historical Newspapers.
 See Michelle S. Johnson, The Idlewild Performance Venue: Nexus of Shared Places, People, Art and Community. 2008.