In her column “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
My great aunt Cora Mae can’t hear well. She is ninety-eight years old. When the global pandemic reached Michigan, the rehabilitation center where she was staying stopped accepting visitors. There were attempts at FaceTime, but her silence made it clear that for her, we had dwindled into pixelated ghosts. She contracted COVID-19 and has been moved again and again. When my mother calls to check on her every day, she makes sure to explain to hospital staff that my great aunt is almost deaf, that they have to shout in her left ear if they want to be heard.
Cora Mae has a bawdy sense of humor. Most of the time when she speaks, it’s to crack a joke that would make most people blush. She wears leopard print and prefers for her hair to be dyed bright red. I have tried to imagine her in the hospital, attempting to make sense of the suited, masked figures gesticulating at her. She doesn’t know about the pandemic. She doesn’t know why we’ve stopped visiting. All she knows is that she has been kidnapped by what must appear to be astronauts.
The film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, begins with a little black girl gazing up into the face of a white man wearing a hazmat suit. A street preacher standing on a small box asks: “Why do they have on these suits and we don’t?” He refers to the hazmat men as “George Jetson rejects.” It feels wild to watch the film right now, as governors begin to take their states out of lockdown knowing that black and brown residents will continue to die at unprecedented rates, taking a calculated risk that will look, from the vantage point of history, a lot like genocide. The film’s street preacher sounds obscenely prophetic. “You can’t Google what’s going on right now,” he shouts. “They got plans for us.”
Under quarantine in Detroit, my father, a photographer, has been sifting through boxes of slides in his sprawling archive. Each image unleashes a story for him. Last week, he told me about arriving in Sarajevo while covering the Olympics. He stayed with a family of friendly strangers eight years before the war. “I wonder if they survived,” he mutters to an empty room.
When my cousin was a police lieutenant, she told us about getting a call for someone who had died. At first glance, they thought the man had been hoarding newspapers or magazines, but then his daughter explained that he was a composer. The papers in those leaning stacks were original compositions.
When we hear on the news that Detroit is struggling, that people are dying, do we imagine composers? Do we imagine a man who sifts through photographs of Bosnia before the war?
In a painting by Kerry James Marshall, 7 am Sunday Morning, a long, horizontal city street appears mundane on one side, but morphs into hexagons and prisms and diamonds as the eye moves right, as if the block is being seen through multiple panes of differently angled glass. If you peer closely at the building on the left, what look like wisps of smoke wafting out of a brick building can be discerned as delicately rendered musical notes. They curve underneath a flock of birds that flutter over a beauty school and a liquor store. The almost unbearable majesty of this ordinary city block evokes Detroit for me. Some summer afternoons, a lens between me and the world gets cracked, and the light and the people and history and the sky go wonky and the moment feels achingly eternal.
Last year, the Detroit Institute of Arts mounted an exhibition called “Detroit Collects,” featuring mostly black collectors of African American art in the city. One room was lined with giant photographs of well-dressed collectors. Immediately I recognized the wry smile of a woman named Dr. Cledie Collins Taylor.
My parents have been telling me about Dr. Taylor for years. “You’re going to love her.” “Her house is a museum.” “She used to live in Italy.” “She loves pasta.” When a friend came to town, we thought we would go to the Detroit Institute of Arts, but my father took us to Dr. Taylor’s house instead. The sun was spilling across the horizon, raspberry sherbet bleeding into orange, and the temperature was in the low teens. A handful of houses along the street had big paintings integrated into the architecture of a porch or a window. We knocked on a security gate and a woman in her nineties welcomed us inside.
“Every February, someone discovers me,” Dr. Taylor joked, nodding at the coincidence of receiving extra attention during black history month. I felt a twinge of embarrassment. Here I was, encountering one of Detroit’s most important artistic matriarchs for the very first time.
Art in this city is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the most gorgeous, palatial museums I’ve ever visited. Spectators can gawk at Diego Court, their faces striped with sunlight, imagining the ghost of Frida Kahlo off to the side of the room. But art also bursts out of the city’s residential neighborhoods. You can find paintings by one of the city’s biggest rising stars, Tylonn Sawyer, tucked inside a gallery like N’Namdi Center or projected onto a screen at the DIA, but you are even more likely to see it flash like an apparition in your periphery (two children gazing upward, golden orbs radiating behind their heads) as you drive past a nondescript building near the warehouses surrounding Eastern Market.
At Dr. Taylor’s house, we sat in the living room and talked for a while. The impeachment hearings were playing loudly on a television in her bedroom. “A lot of my collection is upstairs, why don’t you go take a look.” We crept carefully through a room that seemed to be fitted with exactly as many books as it could tastefully hold, toward a narrow stairway. Upstairs, canvases leaned against the walls. A figurine stood, stark, in a room off to the left. There was a photo-realistic painting of a black woman with short hair, in profile, wearing a pink turtleneck and sitting on a white couch. A black-and-white print of a man with hair like Little Richard peeked out from behind a stack of frames. In a round canvas, a man with an afro slouched behind a shiny wooden table, seated in front of geometric panes of blue, including a massive window framing a cloudy blue sky—as if Questlove were relaxing to “Kind of Blue” inside a Diebenkorn painting. Ordinary scenes of black life, exquisitely rendered, were scattered across the room, a collection relaxing into itself with a kind of easeful, dusty abundance. We were called back downstairs.
Dr. Taylor walked us through the house, and took us on a tour of the basement. African masks, sculptures, shields, and figurines were pinned to pegboard the way other basements showcase drills and rakes. I placed my hand on the baby bump of a pregnant wooden figure. “Somewhere along the line, the collecting idea just catches you,” Dr. Taylor said, humbly.
“You could tell where the problems were because you’d get a lot of things from that place,” she said of collecting work from Africa. “I realized that people were responding to what they needed; certain things in their family shrines they could part with, just to eat.” She told us about her friend, a playwright who convinced a general not to kill her family during the Biafran War. Dr. Taylor tried to hold items and then give them back when wars had ended, once she realized why they’d become so available, but she struggled to get past corrupt middlemen.
She told us story after story about the objects in her home, rendering details of character and plot to bring each item alive—“she got some men who carry lumber to carry her under their wagon,” and “he was a smooth talker, very good looking.”
Dr. Taylor has been around the world twice. A trip to Iran ended early when the Shah fell ill. She has spent entire years on sabbatical living in Italy, often bringing young members of her family along to learn the language. She was a teacher at Cass Tech, a Detroit public high school. She taught fashion design and made art out of gold in her spare time. “Do you still?” we asked. “I don’t go near the fire because I can’t run fast,” she explained.
“Do you want to see the gallery?” She offered. It seemed unthinkable that there might be more.
We walked down the steps of her porch and immediately up the stairs of the house-cum-gallery next door. Arts Extended Groupe was established in Midtown Detroit in 1950 by Myrtle Hall, along with Dr. Taylor and a group of other artists and teachers . They wanted a space that could serve as an educational tool, not simply catering to the art market or to the growing air of elitism infecting the art world. Later, Dr. Taylor moved the space to her neighborhood. We stood underneath a small painting called Ladies of the Good Dead and listened to her describe an old Brazilian tradition of displaying fabrics upon the occasion of somebody’s death. It was a way of collecting funds to buy young men out of slavery. The day outside darkened, slipped closer to single digits. We prepared our coats to go.
After we’ve been in lockdown for a while, I call to find out how Dr. Taylor is faring. She is doing fine, she tells me. She talked to her friends in Italy just last week. There is a woman on staff who goes to the gallery every so often to let in light and water the plants. There is a new show up for no one to see, photo-realistic drawings of the tales of Osei Tutu, detailing the founding of Ghana. She is making plans for the gallery’s next phase: a turn away from brick and mortar, in the direction of something more like a foundation.
The doorbell rings and she excuses herself. When she gets back on the phone, she says, “You can’t see the smile on my face. It’s big, I can assure you.” Two of her great-grandsons had just come by, and when she got to the door they were standing on the sidewalk, waving. “That was so nice!” Her voice conveys a haze of emotion so palpable it catches in me, too. “The second from the oldest, he calls me on his phone sometimes to tell me he misses me.” Their father, her grandson, is a phlebotomist who lives next door, she tells me, and he takes care to strip down and shower before greeting his family when he comes home. As I imagine the scene playing out, I visualize a kind of Charlie Chaplain figure, or a magician. Her tone is so infused with wonder. It takes her a moment to compose herself.
A curator chose a painting from Dr. Taylor’s collection to hang at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s titled Little Paul. It is a portrait of her grandson, the phlebotomist, that she commissioned from a little-known painter named Robert L. Tomlin years ago. A boy sits in a chair wearing a gray blazer, jeans, and tennis shoes, gazing intently at the corner of the room. In an article about the exhibition, a curator from the museum muses about the life behind the painting, notes how it intrigues her.
In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the sidewalk preacher shouts: “I urge you. Fight for your land. Fight for your home.” The protagonists of the film fly by on a skateboard, passing frozen scenes of black life, scenes of a city that is disappearing in real time.
I remember, years ago, watching an interview with Kerry James Marshall, in which the painter carefully confronts two white art collectors who have amassed an impressive collection of contemporary black art, including his own, and exhibited it as part of a highly regarded traveling exhibition. He brings up the fact that no black art collector could do what they have done. His words are delivered as a statement, but in my mind, they hang in the air like a question.
When I think about the specific importance of a black art collector, I think about the moment we are living, or not living, through. There are stories inside every black life lost to the virus in Wayne County. I think of my great aunt, who bafflingly, just tested negative, and was released from the hospital last night. I think of Dr. Taylor’s attic full of artwork, which remains precious to her whether it falls in or out of fashion. I think about the affection that radiates from her voice. How it lingers. It is infectious.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan Writers’ Program.