Monday, May 02, 2011

Remembering Hazel Dickens at Flint

Here's my new column for East Village Magazine:

This week I remembered a thrilling Flint moment.

It was March 22, 1990, and in the UM-Flint Theater, bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens stood in a spotlight on the stage and sang her powerhouse elegy Black Lung a capella. Her four-man backup band waited, reverently idle, behind her. Sitting alertly in about the tenth row, nervous because I had been in charge of getting her there, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as her haunting plaint echoed out:

"Black lung, black lung, you're just biding your time
Soon all this suffering I'll leave behind.
But I can't help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine..."

It was a hell of a show.

And when Dickens died recently at 75 of pneumonia in her adopted hometown of Baltimore, I felt as if something essential, someone passionately essential, had left us.

Her visit was part of how I came to a deeper, more vivid understanding about the significance of the country's labor struggles and history — particularly in my own adopted hometown, gritty old Flint.

I wanted to remember all the details of her Flint visit.

Dickens' appearance was part of UM-Flint's Women's History Month. In only my third year at UM-Flint, I was the coordinator of what was then called the Adult Resource and Women's Center. We invited Dickens, along with the amazing Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey and the Rock, to perform.

As I recall it, there was one long set by each of these astonishing singers.

Our funding for that event came from the Ruth Mott Fund. We were very grateful for it, including the Ruth Mott Fund's last minute willingness to pay for Dicken's superb backup band. Two of them were Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and Tony Trischka on banjo, and I think the other two were Dudley Connell and Ronnie Simpkins.

(Thanks to Paul Gifford, UM-Flint Library archivist, for helping me recoup some of these details.)

I remember a buzz in the hall as Ruth Mott, 89, appeared and was ushered into a seat in the front row.

Dickens, a West Virginia native then 55 and a longtime advocate for the rights of the working man and woman, requested just one thing on her few off hours in Flint.

She wanted to see the site of the Sit Down Strike.

I drove her to what was left of Fisher Body Plant 1, and pulled the car over just in front of the historical plaque that never seems like enough of a tribute to what happened there.

She asked for a moment.

We got out of the car. She read the plaque and then looked up at the building, gazing at its rows of windows where workers hung on, during weeks of drama in the national spotlight, from Dec. 30, 1936 to Feb. 11, 1937. The outcome was earth shattering — a one-page memo recognizing the UAW as the bargaining agent for the General Motors employees.

I suddenly realized Dickens was crying. She stayed there for a while and then got back into the car. She was quiet the rest of the way back to her hotel.

Her heartfelt respect for Flint's history and struggles powerfully affected me — and I have never forgotten it.

As the readers of this column know well by now, my relationship with Flint has always been charged with ambivalence, and I well know I am not the only one.

Part of that, obviously, is Flint's complicated labor history. Through my years here I have gradually learned what this means.

When I came here I knew nothing about labor history, even less about Flint's role in it. I had never heard of the Sit Down Strike.

But by 1998, eight years after Hazel Dickens' visit, during UAW strike against General Motors that started here in Flint, my sense of this town's difficulties had taken an elegiac turn.

In a commentary broadcast back then on Michigan Radio, I said: "There's an old French custom. When a loved one dies, friends stand at the grave, shouting curses at the corpse. That's sometimes how it feels to live in Flint."

But in that commentary I described how I finally found myself on the workers' side.

Later, I helped advocate for and organize the Lecturer Employees Union for nontenure track faculty at UM-Flint.

Flint has indelibly marked me.

There are some things that should not be forgotten. Here we are in another moment when the country seems to be turning its back on its labor history — the significance of the labor movement shaped with raucous and audacious energy partly by the working men and women of Flint. It seems like a long time since those workers' hopes and idealistic aspirations forced the Boss Man to recognize them.

Many things improved for workers after the Sit Down Strike. But things are worse now for the working man and woman than in 1990, when Hazel Dickens came to Flint. She knew justice requires continual vigilance and tending, and had continued faithfully to sing and advocate for workers right up to her death.

Another stanza of Black Lung goes like this:

“He went to the bossman but he closed the door/Oh, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor/Your not even covered in the medical plan/ and your life depends on the favors of man.”

Hazel Dickens told it like it was — in the minefields of West Virginia and right here on the stage of UM-Flint. The truths her mountain voice sang out so gorgeously are needed today more than ever.

We will miss her.