Book Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

I wanted to like Charlie LeDuff’s new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. I really did. I learned about the book through the interview with LeDuff on Fresh Air. The interview made me hopeful because LeDuff seemed well aware of the difficulty of talking about Detroit.

My work has to do with living, breathing people and the difficult task of getting through this moment – which we will – and building a future. So no, I don’t look at it as ruin porn at all. This is a document of us getting ourselves back together.

So many Detroit narratives strip out the tales of people in the city, and LeDuff seemed ready to bring in the voices of people’s lived realities instead of framing his story with the ruin porn/utopia narrative we so often read. LeDuff promised to follow not only his own narrative, but that of his sister, who died on the streets of Detroit. He promised a story about real people.

In part, LeDuff delivers on this promise. He introduces the readers to firefighters struggling to make do in a city that does not give them enough resources. He tells us about his sister, his brother and his mother, all of whom are in some way affected by the city’s problems. LeDuff deserves credit for these narratives because they so often go untold. These are interesting, real and say something about how while people have hopes for the city, people also have to get by. And they very often do get by. He shows how people in the city are resilient and it is that resilience that gives LeDuff and the reader hope.

If only he had stuck to telling those stories. Perhaps the book’s cover should have tipped me off:

Book Cover of Detroit: an American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

LeDuff stands alone, looking like the Lone Ranger riding into Dodge City to clear up the riff-raff. From his American-Flag-patterned boots to the cigarette in his hand, LeDuff is the epitome of the rogue savior of Detroit. He’ll get stuff done, but he may break some rules.

That one man could save Detroit with a book and a pair of cool boots is problematic on its own. More problematic is the white savior complex that LeDuff cultivates. In the chapter titled, “From the Ashes,” LeDuff tells the history of his family. Specifically the story of his grandfather, who, when living in Louisiana was classified as mulatto (which made him black by default). Upon moving to Detroit, his grandfather quietly ticked the box that marked him as white, thus allowing his family the privilege that people of color do not enjoy in these United States.

This history in and of itself is interesting and illustrates the transformative power of Detroit. But it’s rather mortifying when LeDuff uses the story to classify himself as, “The palest black man in Michigan (221).” Hey Charlie: that’s not now how race works. In case you have any doubts as to LeDuff’s assumptions about race, he later says, “So am I black? White? Mulatto? How much of anything am I? (227).”

Lovely. LeDuff has lived his whole live with the privilege of being white. But he discovers that there is a percentage of black running in his family history, and suddenly he claims association with the racial disparity of Detroit. If this book weren’t getting read, this would just be embarrassing  But LeDuff is all over the place these days. It is his narrative and his interpretation of the city that is getting play.

This is a problem for a city that hasn’t figured out how to understand the who, what, where and why of its story. With LeDuff’s book, people will understand that Detroit’s solutions lie in some great white savior, some Lone Ranger saving the city.

Remember, Tonto was smarter. But he was the butt of the jokes. The Lone Ranger got the glory (and the show). And let’s not forget that a white man will soon play Tonto.

A book from a man claiming to be the lightest skinned black man in Detroit is the worst thing that could happen for the city. It is the embodiment of the worst of racial politics in Detroit and in the nation because it deletes an entire category of people from the discourse. I’ve sometimes thought that part of Detroit’s problems have to do with the elimination of certain voices in the narrative, and LeDuff’s book seems to confirm this.

I do believe the Internet has a response to this: Le Sigh.

This review originally appeared on my occasionally updated blog, The Most Pretentious Blog You Will Ever Read

By [E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

4 replies on “Book Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff”

I’m going to reply with the sentence that raises hackle around the (internet) world: Can it not be about race for once?
With some nuance: Can people please stop claiming an heritage in such a way that they can make it about race? Did this story really need a “black under white skin” narrator to work?

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