Interview by Kirsten Mowrey | Photographs by Tobi Hollander
Births are important, special times that draw our attention. New babies are kept close and beheld with awe, admiration and wonder at their possibility, a future in one's arms. Any creative human endeavor holds the same promise. The personality of places: libraries, universities, villages, towns, and cities, are built on the many intersections of people meeting and birthing a community together. Understanding the characters involved in those births is important to understanding the unique character of a place: its quirks, kinks, shadows, and blessings. So too, a city like Detroit: when we query history and examine it closely, we perceive the present incarnation in its origin as a borderland between cultures, landscapes, and peoples.
This fertile ground is the terrain of The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (The New Press, 2017). It was with great delight that I spotted this book by Tiya Miles one fall day in Ann Arbor. I knew immediately that this book was important. I knew that this was a fellow searcher for clarity, for understanding, for bringing the truth to light, and that I needed to talk to Tiya. “Truth,” being, as writer Parker Palmer puts it, “…an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.”
Tiya Miles is a professor of African American & Native American History at the University of Michigan, a MacArthur Fellow, and a historian tracing the intersections of race, place, and economics in her work. Her nonfiction storytelling approach breathes life into historical politics and people, giving them faces, ambitions, and all too human frailties. Tiya’s early Detroiters are as varied as the city itself. Her style highlights that none of us lives only as a lawyer, a woman, middle class, or a father; we all have many sides to our characters and personalities.
Her curiosity and engagement with the modern city led her to explore the story of African American participation in early Detroit, and unearthed the city's history of slaveholding, a fact most Michiganders aren’t aware of. She led a team of undergraduates in a study examining the nitty-gritty of historical documents, scouring reams of paper to glean information on slaves and slaveholders, and bringing to light the extent of slaveholding. The result produced an interactive Google map of slavery sites in the city. Tiya also contributes to The New York Times, writing on race, current events, and their relevance to American history.
I liken her latest book to a Midwest cousin of the Broadway musical Hamilton, telling the stories of early Detroiters that history has overlooked, wrestling with the historical record, and then asking: What would a person in this situation do? She looks at Detroit as who it was at its beginning, making an argument that the past is not gone but lingers and feeds the present. Although the British redcoats, French fur trappers, and slaveholders are gone, their legacy lives on in globalization, human trafficking, and border control.
Since Tiya lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and children, we were able to meet on an all too brief Winter Solstice at the Crazy Wisdom Tearoom. While holiday music piped in above our heads, we discussed her books, our places in society, as well as white supremacy and privilege. Tiya (pronounced “tie-yaa”) has a smile that lights up her face and a soft-spoken voice. Her manner is calm, her fingers slim and graceful as they curl around her teacup. She will tuck her dreads behind her ear, duck her head and smile slightly when she explains a point, listening intently to my questions. Discussing weighty topics and historical wounds may not be typical teatime fare, but her curiosity and engagement embraced and celebrated core values that define America.
Kirsten Mowrey: I was at Literati when I saw The Dawn of Detroit had come out and I thought, Wow!
Has there been a lot of interest in your book?
Tiya Miles: There has been, it’s been exciting, somewhat surprising, the range of interest. This one in particular because it’s on one city, and sometimes in academic fields, U.S. history, people have an interest in broader sweeping kinds of projects that look at whole swaths of things: they look at regions, big questions. This project would be considered a micro-history, since it’s so focused on a particular place, and sometimes those kinds of histories find very focused audiences. But I think there’s something about Detroit, (pause) still, that just resonates with people; it seems to symbolize for them something about the present and even the future of the country, especially the post industrial city.
KM: Exactly. How did you come to history in undergraduate work?
TM: Well, I came to it after being in school for quite a long time actually. I'm originally a literature person, and when I went to college I had a strong interest in the novel especially, but also essays and memoirs, African American, mid American and early twentieth century, so that was kind of my way in. I think probably the first book that captured me was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
KM: Ohhh, amazing book.
TM: Yes, and then Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Narrative. I became really interested in the ways in which black women were using literature, were using story, symbol, metaphor, as a way to talk about the trauma of history, so it was a sideways shift to history from that point on.
KM: Did you decide to do that in the middle of your Ph.D. work?
TM: Well basically, yeah, that’s pretty close. Maybe not quite in the middle, but probably about year one or two in my Ph.D. program, but I had done a master’s before then in women’s studies. I did my graduate work in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I did my master’s right before that at Emory University in Atlanta.
KM: You’ve written a novel and this is your second work of nonfiction?
TM: No, it’s actually, it may be number four. I had a first book, which was basically my dissertation. It was about slavery in the Cherokee nation, focused on an Afro-Native mixed race family, and a black woman slave was at the center of it.
KM: That’s the book about Shoe Boots. [He is a Cherokee man. The book is: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom.]
TM: Then I did a book on a similar topic, but instead of focusing on a small farm family, looking at a large plantation that was owned by a really wealthy Cherokee site holder. That place is still a historic site that people can visit. The collection you are talking about [Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds] came right in between those two.
And after that one, I did the novel based on the research of the second history, and then a short book on ghost tourism in the South. And now the Detroit book. It’s hard to count them because they are really different in genre and some of them stack up on the side of academic work, some on the side of creative exploratory work.
KM: There’s a difference in voice between your Shoe Boots book and Detroit book.
TM: (Surprised) You know what, a mentor of mine, who’s also a colleague, told me that. I didn’t know that. How did it change to you?
KM: I would say there’s a surety in Detroit and a clarity. I don’t know at what point you went from writing your dissertation to teaching, but teachers often interpret for their students.
TM: That’s really interesting what you are saying and really helpful and instructive to me. This friend/colleague/mentor, when she said this to me, she said that, “This is not the voice of the Shoe Boots book.” And she said she thought I sounded kind of (pause) angry in the Detroit book. Which in your words, I think, is being characterized as more assuredness or greater clarity.
A couple of things happened. One does have to do with — I’ve written a handful of books in between. Another is, that first book on slavery — was something I was working on in a moment when that was a very contentious issue, because there were descendants of freed people who had been owned by Cherokees, who were really pushing for their rights in the Cherokee nation, pushing for citizenship rights, and I knew people on both sides of the issue. And I remember thinking I wanted to be very careful, very judicious, very balanced to present both sides of the situation, and was actually trying very hard not to reveal my own opinion about it because I wanted people on both sides to be able to trust my scholarship. So I definitely took on, I guess a stance of withholding in that book, and also in the second book, and I think in the novel is where I expressed a little bit more my viewpoint about that whole issue.
KM: Now in that chronology — Shoe Boots, second book, novel, where did the MacArthur grant come in? Are those grants, is that for a particular work?
TM: Between the second book and the novel. I’d already been working on the novel and it came in somewhere. No, they call you and say “no strings attached.” They basically say that the recognition and the funding support is a way of acknowledging past accomplishments but also paving the way for future accomplishments. And they don’t want to put constraints on what that might look like. It’s wonderful to have it.
KM: What happened for you when you received that?
TM: Well, for me, it was a kind of a complicated moment because I had just agreed to serve as the Chair of our African American Studies Program here at U-M. That is a three-year administrative services assignment. It’s very time consuming; [you] have to put your work to the side to do that. And I think I found out about the prize in the first month of the new job. [I had been at U-M] about ten years, something like that. It was…a bit of a dilemma, because one thing the prize allows for and is wonderful for is time. Everybody wants time, right, to do your work.
KM: Except you have this new administrative job!
TM: Exactly right. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to meet with some former people who had received the prize and I asked them what they had done, and with people who were just mentors to me, and there was a pattern of response which said you’ve got to get out of that administrative role, but I didn’t feel that I could because I had already signed up. People expected me to be in it not just one year, but for multiple years, and the school year had started. So I didn’t withdraw from that post, which meant that I didn’t get immediate benefits from the prize in terms of time. Financially speaking it’s great, I paid off my and my husband’s student loans, which changes a life, really. As far as the really beautiful thing you get with the prize, time, I had to…defer it for three years, and that was not easy.
KM: In terms of the all of the benefits, the fullness, it settled then.
TM: It really settled. Working on the Detroit book was part of what I felt I could do with some of that time.
KM: Did the Detroit book precede the Mapping Slavery in Detroit Project?
TM: No, no, they were connected. A few things happened at once. One is I was becoming interested in local history; because a class I taught had gone on an Underground Railroad tour organized by this group of people [who] organize themselves as “the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.” They didn’t have a building at that time, now I believe they are renovating the building on Pontiac Trail, which is very cool [to learn more, including details on the bus tour, visit www.aachm.org]. The tour was organized by them, we took the tour, and it intrigued me — I had never had Michigan history. [I grew up in] Cincinnati. I got off on a research tangent because of that. And from the administrative role, I had always been aware of this undergraduate funding program [Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, UROP] and I thought this would be a great project to apply with. Local history and students could have a personal connection with the places we were going to explore. I got the funding, and again, it was another project I could do while administrating.
KM: Interesting the constraints of the administrative position and you seeking those creative outlets that come into work after.
TM: Exactly. We did the research, we created our map, we visited the historic sites we had pinpointed and — that’s when — kind of two years in — when I realized, this material is not only compelling but there might just be enough of it to be able to develop a narrative around this topic. And then I finally started getting my leave time.
KM: And then it snowballed into the book. [How] has the response been, because it’s coming at a time in our own nation’s history when issues of privilege, the colonial history, are up? I know Princeton University is working on a project [The Princeton and Slavery Project investigates the University’s involvement with the institution of slavery, slavery.princeton.edu] and other universities. So what’s the reception been like?
TM: I think that it does fit in to a certain extent with these various universities’ exploration of their ties to slavery and slave system wealth. Most of those places are, of course, in the Northeast and the South. The Midwest is a little bit different, we don’t have the same kind of comprehensive embroilment with slavery as some of these other places, but we do have a history of it. And there is a line between the wealth created in Detroit and the University of Michigan. I explore that in a little bit in the book.
KM: I was going to ask you about that particular piece. How the Ottawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi set aside the land that is the University of Michigan. And that slaveholders in Detroit gave the money for the founding of it. It’s not the clarity in the case of the South, where there is a line, and yet, there was colonialism and there was slave holding and it’s gray.
TM: Yes, that’s right. It’s not the same kind of, I guess, smoking gun we have for places like Brown, Princeton, University of North Carolina, all these places where slaveholders were all very clearly contributing to development of these universities and where college presidents had enslaved people right there with them, on the grounds. And in Georgetown, where enslaved people were sold to benefit the school, it’s not like that.
But it is definitely the case that the oldest and wealthiest families in Detroit were the people who not only really supported the idea of a university but who gave financially for the early university and who served on the Board. So without them, I don’t think we’d have a university. The tricky thing becomes that, by the time the university is being founded, in 1817, slavery has already really declined and so there’s not a one-to-one relationship between “this person owned slaves, this person gave money.” It’s more like, this family had wealth based on slavery, and somebody from that family served on the Board, a son or nephew.
KM: It seems there may also be, although you chose not to make this distinction in the book, a difference between African American slaves and Native American slaves. I remember the quote from a student of yours that their education was “prepaid in land and blood.”
TM: He’s from the Grand Traverse Bay band in another part of the state, and yes, he did say that. There is a difference, really having to do with the fact that slavery was being practiced here all the way back to the early times of European settlement. Native people were the first and most available people to be captured and held as slaves. African Americans were enslaved a little bit later, just because of opportunity, it wasn’t about any kind of principles.
KM: In terms of America right now, there’s a national conversation about enslavement of African Americans, but not much about Native Americans.
TM: Not much, there’s more. The scholarship has been building around this over the past twenty years or so. Recently we’ve had two big new books that focus on native people’s experiences in California, which are very much deigned by history to be slavery and sexual violence. They are both very general and broad. One is called An American Genocide [Benjamin Madley, Yale University Press, 2016] and slavery comes in there as part of the story. The other one is called The Other Slavery [Andrés Reséndez, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016] and it’s a general exploration of all different kinds of labor exploitation and abuse in California.
KM: I have been taught American history of slavery and in your book you use the term “enslaved peoples.” I found myself with that choice of wording, it [the emotional impact] hits more deeply than the object term (slavery). It’s a very human dignifying term.
TM: It is. If you read my books over time, you will see that’s been a transition for me. It’s a transition for the field of slavery studies and especially for the museum and historic site interpretations of slavery. It has to do with, just as you are suggesting, the recognition that people’s lives included so much more than their objectification as chattel. When you just say “slave,” you are completely ignoring that.
I remember being at an event in D.C. that was taking place before the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and hearing some of the audience saying very passionately — a black man, another black man — he didn’t want to see the word “slave” in that museum. And the director of the museum said: “Already done.” So this is a shift, and I’m glad that it worked for you the way that it did. It does, it changes, basically a noun, something that feels fixed, to a process…
KM: Brings up a interesting point in your book, different from other history books, is this desire to place yourself [Tiya Miles] and give that viewpoint, especially where there is no historical record or very limited record.
TM: Well, that comes from, I think part of it is how I see the role of history in my life and the lives of people. It’s not distinct, I don’t think it’s anything approaching objectivity. History is very meaningful to me and I think, to individuals and groups. I always carry that with me in context; on this project in particular, because I was witness to and sometimes a participant in a public conversation about the history of Detroit.
I started this in around 2010, or 2011, somewhere around there. I think I have written more precisely about that on my website or in a talk. This was a time when Detroit was really in the news, for all kinds of negative things: bankruptcy is right around the corner; various journalistic histories being published — exposés about Detroit; there were events going on in Detroit, other nearby urban areas, and also here in Ann Arbor that were geared toward thinking about what Detroit studies could mean for understanding other urban areas.
All of those conversations actually led me to want to do more research on the topic and shaped how I would enter into the research. It was never me in a room saying, I’m going to separate my mind and do a cerebral study (laughs with delight) on this topic and then stand a distance from it and report on my findings. I mean I’m not like that anyway, but this project especially wasn’t like that because it was born from local history interactions, with students in the classroom and students in that project that you mentioned, events going on in the area.
KM: There is a strong local conversation happening in Detroit and outside of Detroit for a while. I took an urban agriculture class and we heard Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network speak. He noted that most of the conversation happening is with people who are white and suburban and not Detroit natives, and that the African American population needs to be at the table.
TM: Yes, absolutely. Another thing behind this, which I didn’t think to mention until you brought up the Detroit Food Network, is I took a group of students to visit them. I ran a project for about five years called ECO Girls. It was an environmental education project for girls in Southeastern Michigan that connected up middle school age girls and elementary school girls, too, with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff at U-M to explore environmental issues. To try to develop environmental consciousness and to get to know the place where we live. Actually Crazy Wisdom chose us one year for their community organization and gave us like $300! (Laugh) It was totally cool.
Through ECO Girls, as an Ohioan, I really hadn’t visited many places in Michigan. I also got a chance to experience first hand the geography, the landscape, and people’s connection to it, diverse people’s connection to it. That was when we visited Dtown farm in Detroit. The kids did all kinds of [things], lifting muck, moving it around — they love it, straw. I don't think I’d ever made a one-to-one correlation, but I know all of this was behind what led me to do this project.
Because so much of this Detroit book is actually about nature, it’s about land, it’s about earth and ground, it’s about water. How people orient their lives around it, for better and for worse; how the Detroit River was absolutely essential to Detroit's founding and growth, as a central fur trade hub, which is the reason why they wanted to hold slaves; so that means that the river and slavery were inextricably linked. It’s all interconnected, how this came about.
KM: It’s always struck me that the first division seems to have come when people separated themselves from their landscapes and saw themselves as outside and other instead of intact.
TM: I agree with you. They separate themselves from land and non human beings living on the land with them and began to see these various aspects of the world as commodities, as things that could be commodified. And then, once they had kind of bulldozed through their own lands, started looking for other people’s lands to take.
KM: And once they have “othered” their own land, they start othering of other lands and every being on it. No wonder they are linked. And as a women’s studies major, I’m sure you know the way the feminine gets linked into that.
TM: Absolutely. I touch on this in the book, but only just slightly because I felt it might be pushing readers a bridge to far. I did really want this book to be accessible and I wanted it to feel applicable to people’s lives, especially to people in Detroit and Michigan. So I didn’t take this to its furthest limit.
But I did try to talk about how European men who were interested in forming relationships with Native women — sometimes they were free, sometimes they were enslaved by them — that they were imagining a symbolic relationship between Native lands and Native women and access to Native women felt like, and sometimes actually literally was, access to Native land. Treatment of the land — the violation of it — was akin to violation of Native women. For them it became a complex, in which it was all interconnected. The feminization and the racialization of Native people and African descended people was key to how this whole process of abuse could be rationalized and carried out.
KM: Because it continues, that otherness and commodification.
KM: I ask, as a women of European descent, here I am, deeply desirous of not perpetuating colonialism. What would you say to me? What is the constructive way to act?
TM: That is such a complicated question and we could talk about it for hours and hours —
KM: And that’s the national debate right now.
TM: Well, it’s part of it. I don’t think a lot of people are at that point where they want to ask that question. But I can say that I had a conversation with students in my class about this, in one of my classes about this recently. Because we were talking about white supremacy, and we were defining it. And some students begin with this idea that there is a clearly defined group of people who are guilty for all kinds of crimes in this community, and there are those of us who there is no responsibility whatsoever. And so we have to talk about how white supremacy is an ideology, it’s not a person; and that various kinds of peoples can actually subscribe to this ideology, and carry it out, consciously or unconsciously.
One thing that I try to underscore to them, which is my view, is that we are all responsible in some way for the harms that human beings actually do to one another. We have differing degrees of responsibility where we are located, depending on where we are located in history and in our present time, in terms of power, but unless you are an indigenous person from this region right now, your life is actually possible by colonialism. That includes African Americans. Even though I would want to conjure some types of language, different layers of nuance to understand African American relationships to the land. It’s not the same as the relationship of descendants of the French settlers, for instance, but it is the case that we are here, in this beautiful tea shop, because this is no longer Potawatomi land.
KM: It makes me think of a conversation with a Latina woman earlier this year. We were in Costa Rica and I said I have a level of white privilege in American culture — because she was American — that I didn’t necessarily do anything to deserve. I just inherited it. And then I said we have a level of privilege as first world citizens here in Costa Rica that we didn’t necessarily earn. It was interesting to observe; she got the first piece, but the second piece was very new to her, that she also had privilege in a different context.
TM: Right, yes. I think it’s difficult for us to shift our lenses no matter who we are. So in terms of people of color, it’s difficult for some people of color to be aware of colorism and the fact that it matters if you are darker skinned or lighter skinned. Because there is a color hierarchy. That can be a barrier to get over, for people who have identified as color, to people who have a strong identity as people of color, or our nation’s identity of color and have a hard time seeing that lighter skin is a privilege too.
So I would say, I don’t want to let you or any of us off the hook, I mean we all have to be aware of our privilege and privilege with others. That privilege is real, it functions in the every day. I experience it myself when I am with friends who are white. I see the way they are treated, the kinds of things they can do. (Big smile)
One story comes to mind. I can’t resist telling you this. I have a friend, she is a white scholar and she is also older than me, so race and age are an aspect. We were in Chicago together one time for a conference and we were looking in a shop window and she spotted this coat that she thought would be great on me, right, but the store was closing. I said, “They’re not going to let us in, the store’s closing,” and she said, “Oh — no, let’s go in.” So I tried to start going in as the person was trying to close the door, and they weren’t going to let me in. My friend moved into the space, showed herself to be an older white woman and…they opened the door. So this is the kind of thing, in that case she used her white privilege for me, right, but this is the kind of thing that happens all the time. It’s so subtle that oftentimes people don’t recognize it.
What I think we should all try to do is try to see where we stand in relationship to other people and to recognize that that might shift. It can change as you said, that depending where we are, the moment in time, the context, that interaction. And if we have privilege, to try to use it for the good and also to be active in unmasking structures that protect privilege. At this moment, it’s really depressing to think about it, but to be active in trying to just take apart, to dismantle structures and the ways that are dysfunctional.
[…] I am definitely a believer in possibilities of the cultural realm helping to make political and social change. I think it’s maybe slower, but it’s an important part of social transformation, which also has to be political and legal…. anything we can do makes a difference.
Kirsten Mowrey has written a number of feature stories for the Crazy Wisdom Journal. She also writes its Green Living column. She can be reached at www.kirstenmowrey.com.