Detroit’s ‘Slough of Despond’

City of Detroit

My professional friend is occasionally given to one of his periodic “fits” of musing over the condition of the city: the “slaughterhouse” it has become and the sheer incompetency and “mendacity” demonstrated at every level by its elected officials.

He is primarily driven by the fear that the social fabric of Detroit has become so thin and tattered that it is increasingly absurd to think about “mending” it.

It occurs to my friend, who has achieved a position of prominence, that in discussing our “problems,” we increasingly have externalized the causes – poverty, the economy and racism. The list, he says, is endless.

“But we never seem to ask the more basic question: For what am I responsible?  Am I responsible for my own behavior; that of my children, the quality of their schools or even how my home and neighborhood looks and functions?”

This gentleman of distinction grew up in Detroit during the 50s and 60s – a time of significantly more overt deprivation of opportunity. The adults in his community knew they had to shoulder responsibility for themselves, their children and community. Clustered neighborhoods contained families that struggled, yet were nurturing and produced sons and daughters that excelled and moved on to a better future.

“We knew that we had to work harder and smarter to succeed in a society that did not value black people,” he painfully recalls. “That’s what I was told as a child and it was a powerful message of achievement and personal responsibility.”

From these difficult circumstances emerged doctors, lawyers, chemists, engineers, teachers and other professionals who became notable “firsts” and made their parents proud. Their progress was championed and celebrated. The achievers were held up as role models to be emulated.

But they were hardly exceptional. For generations, black families understood the relationship between upholding personal standards and successfully attaining goals. The black middle class of bygone eras never lost sight of this critical link. They gave us the structure of stable home life; the moral authority and a code of conduct that helped blacks persevere and “overcome.”

“Strange that in this time of greater opportunity,” my friend continued, “we no longer think (at least publicly) about the role of personal responsibility as a precondition for success.  Indeed, ‘success’ has perversely been transformed into a cultural negative – ‘acting white.’”

He constantly agonizes over the suspension of traditional moral codes. He believes respect for others has largely disappeared from city life. He’s torn that the reckless actions of many city residents show a regression into a degraded culture where only the self is glorified.

Activity once considered impediments to progress, has become the norm. Young girls believe they don’t need a daddy in the house to have a baby. It is socially acceptable for boys to make babies without the slightest idea of what it means to be a father.

Our community code, if there is one, does not embrace the values of honesty, truth, respect for neighbors and their property, loyalty and commitment to one’s spouse and children and a work ethic. Discipline and self-control are no longer expected.

Young thugs don’t think twice about carjacking and assaulting a senior citizen or firing a volley of bullets into a crowd of children. Young people aren’t getting the message that there are three simple rules for escaping from poverty: finish high school, get a job-any job-and stick with it; and wait until married to have children.

This is a vast departure from previous generations of Detroiters who saw such behavior as the social debilitating disease that it is.

My troubled friend is convinced that others cannot save people that no longer aspire to succeed. And he’s not sure how to rekindle aspiration, or if it is even possible from where we stand.

“The gravitational pull of the Slough of Despond,” he laments, “seems hard to escape when those it captures have no faith or hope.”

1 thought on “Detroit’s ‘Slough of Despond’

  1. I had to look up “Slough of Despond” because I did not recognize the phrase. Having never read “Pilgrim’s Progress” I have now downloaded it to my Kindle, and for free I might add, though there are ‘e’ copies with the original illustrations available for only $2.86.

    With the passing of James Wilson of “Broken Windows” fame last week, I have been thinking a lot about how to reclaim our communities. In truth, while Detroit is in many ways the most egregious example of a community in despair, it is certainly not the only one.

    As I have traveled around South Carolina it is really shocking to see what you can only think of as physically decayed communities, which are often majority-black but in general, mostly poor. What is worse however, is talking to the people living there who have just given up. They just do not believe that it can ever be any different for them or their children.

    The decay of the mind and belief in the possibility of a better day is much worse in my view, which is I guess the point that your “friend” was making. I would only point out that from where I sit, the “Slough of Despond” is as much a class issue as one of race in America.

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