Impressions Of Motown

 Motown Ladies In Black, Brown and Beige

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Out cattin…this satin …doll

 

Detroit has many faces. But alas, the face best known to the rest of the world is of a distressed city on it’s last leg; a poster child for post-industrial urban decay.  I just saw a grim portrayal of life in the “Big D” for the chronically unemployed working class, black and white.  It was the biopic based on the life of the white rapper M&M, and it was a depressing scene which gave you the feeling that anybody who made something of themselves and managed to escape the myriad pitfalls that surround them in Mo-Town has performed a miracle.  But that’s not the Detroit I know.  All the black folks I know in Detroit – and I only know black folk in the Motor City – are livin large!

My first impressions of Detroit were formed as a result of two things.  First there was the student from Detroit that I met as a freshman at Florida A&M in 1959.  Since that was fifty years ago and he and I were not close friends I remember him only by his nickname – although I’m not sure if I ever knew him as anything else – which was “Spider.”   Coming from the Motor City in the hey day of the auto-industry, when American cars dominated world markets, Spider naturally had a fly ride.  And he was always dressed to kill, so Spider was a standout on campus – one of the stars. 

Aside from being a serious student and a ladies man, Spider was also entrepreneurial; he was an independent sales agent for a major vacuum machine company.  And he was evidently good at it because he was always taking ladies to dinner and buying the beer when he was hanging with the boys.  Spider was exactly my idea of the suave man of the world; I wanted to grow up to be like him

The first time I went to Detroit was after the great riot in the 1960’s, a time when the music of Motown – Smokey, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops, Martha and the Vandella’s et al -was the sound track of black urban life.  I was invited to deliver a series of speeches at the local branch of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a franchise of the national OIC of America founded by “The Lion of Zion” Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan, headquartered in Philadelphia.  The town where I resided at the time, and I had been a side kick of Rev. Sullivan’s from the inception of OIC.   My hosts were well heeled public sector bureaucrats with lots of “War on Poverty” dollars to spend on consultants, conferences and retreats.  So I was paid a generous fee for my services, but what I remember most was all of the beautiful women who worked for and attended the program.  Hence from the outset Detroit meant two things to me: A town that produced great music and beautiful black women.

 A smile that can light the dark caverns of human Nature

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 Her lips…generous succulent objects de art!

 

 A Rare Elegance

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 Exquisite!

 

High Style!

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 A woman of style and substance

 

A pout inviting a Kiss

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 The Queen wears black

 

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Looking at Ingrid White’s sensitive poignant portraits of the ladies in her circle one can gain a good feeling for scenes of black life in the Motor City that Aretha Franklin recalls from her teenage years – which was around the same time I met spider.   In her memoir Aretha recounts summer nights when all the young people went out to the skating rink, then promenaded down the boulevards arm-in-arm in romantic bliss. This was just before the “Mo-Town Sound” captured the world and put that pride and passion in song and recorded it for the world to hear.  It was a time before romance was sacked for pornography and misogyny in “popular music.” 

The pride and love in this remembrance is palpable.  The almost genteel elegance of that bygone life style, a time and place in which black urban life flowered into a high level of civilization built upon an economic foundation based in the auto-industry.   This was the golden age of what the New York Times Editor/Columnist Brent Staples calls “The era of industrial prosperity,” and black folks had abandoned the cotton and corn fields of Alabama and Mississippi in favor of the wider vistas offered by the Motor City and Chi Town.   And in Detroit especially, their dreams came true. 

Maybe it’s because black Americans had to struggle so hard to overcome an enforced poverty that we wear wealth so well.  With white folks a Lincoln Town Car, Mark V’s and El Dorado’s are just big cars; in the possession of black folks they become dream machines.  The same thing is true of clothes.  I have long argued that if aliens were to land in an American city on Sunday Morning they would surely conclude that Afro-Americans were the rulers of planet Earth.  Our President and First Lady are splendid cases in point. 

However in their case it just so happens that they do rule the world…and that’s on the real!   It is also a long standing conviction with me that middle class black women are the most elegant women on earth.  It is a well know fact that Michelle Obama, who is from “the hood” just up the road in Chicago, selects all her on attire yet she is rapidly becoming a fashion icon whose taste thrills the fashionistas.

 The Elegance of our First Lady

Michele In Black 

 Stunning From Any Angel

As a Midwestern girl who is representative of the high level of elegance in style and manner achieved by cultivated black city women, Michele mirrors the ethos of black women who have shown such independence, imagination and daring in the way they decorate themselves.  This essay is a salutation to them, a text inspired by the dashing dusky daughters of Detroit.   The poignant portraits of Ingrid White’s capture the grandeur of their “Derby Day” Bonnets.  Nobody at Church Hill Downs did it better!  If the state of a civilization can be determined by the state of its women, all’s well in the black bourgeoisie.

 Motown Women Abroad

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 On the Sidewalks of New York
 Wayne State Professor Melba Boyd and Daughters

 A Motown Gal in the Magic City

The Jazz in the Gardens Concert 004 

Nighttime at Jazz in the Gardens, Miami Florida 

 

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 Text by: Playthell Benjamin
Pictures by: Ingrid white for the women in hats.
Playthell Benjamin for “Motown Women Abroad”

 

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