Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Covert, Michigan: Ordinary or Extraordinary?
A Stronger Kinship is a story about a small town that decided to be fully integrated 100 years before most of the country was integrated. Fully integrated--think about that. At the same time when our nation was fighting a war over race-based human bondage, African Americans in Covert owned property, were elected to powerful political positions, send their children to the same schools as the white kids, conducted business together, were friends, went to the same churches, read the same books from the same library. Covert started on the right foot and never looked back.
Covert was a diamond in the rough, a city on a hill, a promised land for people of color. But this only makes sense if we have historical perspective. Living in the northern states as an African American (or Native American) was no picnic. The author quotes an editorial from the Illinois State Journal, 1862, which captures the feeling of many African Americans after Emancipation:
"The truth is, the nigger [sic] is an unpopular institution in the free states. Even those who are unwilling to rob them of all the rights of humanity, and are willing to let them have a spot on earth on whcih to live and to labor and to enjoy the fruits of their toil, do not care to be brought into close contact with them" (quoted on pg. 45).
If you learned in school that slavery and discrimination were "southern" problems that the "north" fixed in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation (as I did), then you might wonder why Covert is so special. Sadly, that history is as glossy as when people say the war was about "states rights." The truth is that slavery existed in the northern states too. A book from our reference collection says:
"a British census taken in 1782 counted 179 slaves among the 2,191 people living along both shores of the Detroit River. In 1796, 31 adult black slaves and 16 black children, presumably the children of slaves, lived in the Township of Detroit among a 'free white' population of 238. The actual number of slaves was probably higher becasue many families in Michigan owned Indians as slaves..." (The History of Michigan Law, p. 20).
Even when the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in 1787, it still existed in practice. Also, I think the ban was repealed in 1807 for ten years (because the Indiana Territories wanted white slave holders to move into their territory for economic reasons). And this is to say nothing about other forms of discrimination that existed in myriad forms at various times. As depressing as it is, slaves were freed only to find out they were not free.
So what was the secret of Covert? Why did Covert happen? Here is the beauty and the thesis of the book. There is no secret. The author, who is coming to KPL to speak by the way, says it best:
"Why did Covert happen? Although it may be the first question that comes to mind, it may not be the most powerful one. The question Covert should raise is, why not? Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm, that unfairness and injustice are the natural patterns that the nation falls into if given half a chance. That assumption is not surprising, given the horrific and sorrow-filled history of race relations in this country, but Covert reminds us that that terrible history was a choice. That choice may have been made by millions of whites over many decades, but it was a choice, not a given" (208).
It's the story of ordinary people making ordinary decisions. Perhaps they seem extraordinary because "we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people" (Charles Payne, quoted on pg. 201). It's easy to wallow in the depression of history and throw your arms up. What's your view of human nature? What do you think of yourself? And as you think about these questions, people are doing acts of kindness. We cannot take anything away from the amazing men and women in this book--they were giants.
A Stronger Kinship