Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview: D’Real Graham

A few weeks ago, longtime Ypsilanti resident D’Real Graham left town for Washington, DC, where he’ll soon be restarting his college career. Before leaving, D’Real and I had the occasion to exchange a few emails about his memories of growing up here, how he’d seen the city change over his lifetime, and his plans for the future. I hope those of you who just perhaps knew D’Real in a single way… like as the educator who ran the 826michigan Tutoring Lab on Washington Street, or as the civil rights advocate who took on Brian Mackie as a write-in candidate for the position of Washtenaw County Prosecutor, or as the community organizer who helped launch the grassroots organization Keep Ypsi Black… enjoy knowing a little more about his history here in Ypsi, and the path he’s currently on… And, with that, I give you D’Real Graham’s official exit interview.

MARK: OK, D’Real, let’s start at the beginning… Where were you born?

D’REAL: On the morning of February 22, 1987 my mother labored, later giving birth to me at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

MARK: What’s your first memory?

D’REAL: Listening to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton while secured in a child safety seat in the backseat of my father’s automobile in commute on I-94 to enjoy a picnic at Belle Isle (in Detroit).

MARK: Do you remember the picnic, or just the trip there?

D’REAL: I don’t remember that exact picnic on Belle Isle, but I do recall my father being very intentional throughout my youth when it came to Detroit, introducing to me to his old stomping grounds, sharing the places that gave him his first memories.

MARK: Do you remember anything specific that your father shared with you about his experience of Detroit as a young man?

D’REAL: While visiting Detroit, especially during the summer months, between the age of 5 and age of 16, my father would give me a tour of the outdoor basketball courts across Detroit proper. Upon arriving to each site, he would share with me his memories of on-court success and introduce me to his peers. Often my father and I would challenge folks to a half-court games of 2-on-2. Winning at basketball with my father provided me the confidence necessary to excel on-court throughout my adolescent athletic career. My father also believed that it was important to travel, and to learn from other skilled individuals.

MARK: How are you and your father most alike?

D’REAL: My father and I are most alike in our willingness to be a teamplayer on and off athletic courts/fields. We are both very protective of our loved ones, we are both known for being unapologetically petty, and dedicated to self improvement.

MARK: And what kind of kid were you?

D’REAL: Curious about the world and its inhabitants. Playful. Engaged in club sports and local recreational activity.

MARK: So, what was it that brought your family to Ypsilanti?

D’REAL: Transgenerational trauma. My grandmother visited Ypsilanti with her children (including my mother) during the summer of 1969. Upon returning to their home in New Orleans, it was discovered that robbers had removed all of their worldly possessions, forcing my grandmother and her children to start a new life in southeastern Michigan. My parents decided to live in Ypsilanti due to its proximity to their workplaces.

MARK: What was it that brought your grandmother and her children to Ypsilanti during the summer of ‘69? Did members of your extended family already live in the area?

D’REAL: Many people of color, including my grandmother, would visit Michigan during the summer months. My grandmother was invited by a friend to lodge and retreat in Ypsilanti for a few weeks. Prior to the summer of 1969, no extended family settled north of the Mason Dixon line.

MARK: So Ypsilanti was a vacation destination for people of color in the ‘60s? I wasn’t aware of that. I new, of course, that we had a large African American population at that time, and that people would travel from the south to see relatives who had moved north to take jobs at the factories and the like, but I wasn’t aware that people without extended families in the area were coming up in significant numbers to vacation.

D’REAL: Gateway cities, including Ypsilanti and Idlewild, often called the “Black Eden,” were visited by well-known entertainers and professionals, and everyday people of color, from throughout the country between 1912 and the mid-1960s. At its peak, Idlewild was the most popular resort in the Midwest, with as many as 25,000 people coming at the height of the summer season to enjoy camping, swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, roller skating, and night-time entertainment. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up other resorts to African-Americans, Idlewild’s boom period subsided, but midwest gateway cities, including Ypsilanti, continued to serve as a vacation destination, a retirement community, and a landmark of African-American heritage.

MARK: It’s amazing to me that I’ve never heard that particular chapter of Ypsilanti’s history. Thank you for sharing that.

D’REAL: Yes, black Americans of color didn’t just migrate north for job opportunities during the Great Migration. They also vacationed here, in hopes of, at least temporarily, escaping the oppressive conditions of the south; the lynching, an unfair legal system, inequality in education, and denial of suffrage. Cities in the north, including Ypsilanti, provided my grandmother and her peers temporary relief.

MARK: When did you become politically conscious? Was there there something specific that you can recall…

D’REAL: I credit Dr. Rev. S.L. Roberson for helping to raise my political consciousness. I attended the Metropolitan Memorial Baptist Church located on Hawkins, south of Michigan Avenue, from 1987-2010. During said time period, S.L. Roberson provided me leadership pathways that challenged me to think critically, to act diplomatically, and, most importantly, to commit to a lifetime of being a selfless servant. S.L. Roberson gave me my holy orders as a child, and appointed me as a deacon before his death. Having direct access to S.L. Roberson gave me the confidence early in my life to contest the status quo daily.

MARK: I wasn’t aware that you were a deacon. What does that work ential?

D’REAL: Dr. Rev. S.L. Roberson died before I was able to understand the full capacity of my appointment, or holy orders, and I did not participate in much activity at MMBC following his death. Instead, I focused my attention on studying biblical texts including literature outside western thought (e.g., the Tao Te Ching, the Quran), and pursued a career as an educator.

MARK: But, before his passing, the church was a big part of your life growing up here in Ypsi?

D’REAL: Yes. The church hosted creative activity, year-round, making available plenty of opportunity for fellowship, learning, and volunteer work. Actively participating in programming at the MMBC helped cultivate habits that have benefited me in my adult life.

MARK: What was life like for you as a kid in Ypsilanti? When you weren’t at church, or in school, how did you spend your days?

D’REAL: As a young person, when I was not in church, or in school, I would spend my days in practice (either with a club sport, band, writers’ club). Most of my time outside of my childhood home was dedicated to practice or service.

MARK: And where is it that you’ll be going when you leave us?

D’REAL: The District of Columbia.

MARK: Why now? What makes this the right time for you to leave Ypsilanti?

D’REAL: It is a high risk to be in the streets advocating for equity and inclusion. And with millions of white supremacists, etc., galvanized in response to the election of the 45th President of the United States, it seems appropriate to spend time on the yards of Howard University.

MARK: Given the climate in the nation right now, I can see the appeal of an historically black university. I’m curious, however, as to your choice of Howard, as it’s in D.C., just a stone’s throw from Trump’s White House. Was that a consideration? I mean, as you say, you’re moving, at least in part, in response to the white supremacist movement which has galvanized around our current President, and I’m curious as to how much, if at all, you struggled with the idea of moving closer to his administration?

D’REAL: Ta-nehisi Coates refers to Howard University as “The Mecca.” “Established in 1867, Howard University is, ‘the only truly comprehensive Black university and one of the major engineers of change in our society’.” Along with Ta-nehisi’s enthusiasm, I’m drawn to Howard’s rich history of developing technically competent and morally committed individuals. Howard students are prepared to advance social justice and the preservation of humanity. Returning to Ypsilanti in five or ten years with an undergraduate degree in creative writing, and a graduates degree in women’s studies, will help me advocate for the “elimination of inequities related to race, color, social, economic and political circumstances.”

MARK: For what it’s worth, I wasn’t questioning the fact that Howard is a terrific school. I was just wondering to what extent the current situation in D.C. played into your decision, and whether or not you were at all apprehensive about moving closer to the current administration, given your feelings about what Trump’s presidency has unleashed.

D’REAL: Howard University has a strong creative writing program. HU’s legacy of consistently educating black writers played into my decision to enroll, not the current administration in the White House. Faculty at Howard University are known for being dynamic and engaging individuals, and I cannot wait to study under revered professors and lecturers of color.

MARK: I know it’s difficult to look ahead five years, but what do you see yourself doing upon your return to Ypsilanti? Or, more to the point, what would you like to do upon your return?

D’REAL: With a B.A. in creative writing, and an M.S. or PhD in women’s studies, I hope to offer my talent to an organization or institution dedicated to providing upward mobility pathways to people of color, most importantly youth and women of color.

MARK: Have you given any thought as to what form your political activism might take in D.C.?

D’REAL: In D.C., I will make time to stand in solidarity with individuals against dominator culture.

MARK: What does activist culture look like at Howard these days? Did you get a sense of it when you visited the campus, assuming you went down to check the campus out before signing up…

D’REAL: Since 1867, “Howard students and professors have since established a tradition of political protest.” You can find out more about HU’s legacy of activism by reading the article “At Howard U., Anti-Trump Protests Echo Past Activism” by Alex Arriaga.

MARK: Did you accomplish everything here in Ypsi that you’d wanted to? I know you said you’d eventually be coming back, but do you feel as though you still have unfinished business right now?

D’REAL: I have outlived my usefulness in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It makes sense for me to relocate rather than being further disenfranchised by post-colonial settlers.

MARK: By “post-colonial settlers” are you referring to gentrification? Also, for what it’s worth, I think many in this community who know you would object to your characterization of having outlived your usefulness here.

D’REAL: The term gentrification, like the sympathetic support of the 45th President, has received too much attention post-Election 2016. Instead of focusing on a term or a phenomenon that disenfranchises people of color at a higher rate than people of non-color, I’d like the readers to understand that I have decided to venture outside of Washtenaw County in an attempt to better understand “Howard University’s long held commitment to the study of disadvantaged persons in American society and throughout the world,” and be a part of the change.

MARK: I don’t want to belabor the point, but I’m curious as to what you mean when yous say that gentrification has “received too much attention.”

D’REAL: Readers are familiar with the term, but are less familiar with the process.

MARK: I suspect that some people reading this are, in fact, familiar with the process, and are concerned about the fact that, as Ypsilanti becomes a more popular alternative to Ann Arbor, some in our community, especially people of color, will likely start being pushed out. With that said, though, we can move on, if you like… What are you most proud of having done while you were here?

D’REAL: I am most proud of having challenged the current County Prosecutor for his seat in November 2016. Running a creative write-in campaign educated me on the functionality of the County Prosecutor Office while also teaching me how to engage the public in the election process. Having had a chance to amplify the concerns of 3,500 unique Washtenaw County voters that decided to write in D’Real Graham on November 8, 2016 remains the most humbling experience had in Ypsilanti.

MARK: Now that you’ve had a taste of politics, do you think it might be something you pursue in the future?

D’REAL: No.

MARK: It’s kind of an odd question, given that you intend to come back, but I always ask folks how they’d like to be remembered by the people of Ypsilanti.

D’REAL: I would like to be remembered by the people of Ypsilanti for my contributions to the field of education. And, my early attempts at connecting black artists/creatives/students, etc. with materials, organizations, and tools to make upward mobility possible.

MARK: And I also always ask, “If the people of Ypsilanti were to erect a statue of you, where would you want it placed, and what would the statue show you doing?”

D’REAL: Please don’t erect a statue of me, especially if I happen to experience premature death by the hands of law enforcement, or a bigoted vigilante. Instead, use monies to support projects and activity that reflects the values of the people of Ypsilanti.

MARK: And what do you perceive to be the values of the people of Ypsilanti?

D’REAL: Equity, Inclusivity, Sustainability.

MARK: How has Ypsilanti changed in the time you’ve lived here?

D’REAL: Ypsilanti has changed from a stigma filled small gateway city to become a small, reputable, international political powerhouse. People from all over the world look to online and offline activity in the City of Ypsilanti and its people to witness the level of resistance needed to affect social change. Hopefully more people will pay attention to the City of Ypsilanti and its people, and learn from the changes that have help shape Ypsilanti.

MARK: How, if at all, do you intend to stay engaged with Ypsilanti during your absence? I mean, I know you’ll stay in touch with family and friends, but I’m curious about how you might stay engaged on the activist front, and whether or not we might see any input from afar.

D’REAL: I will continue to edit and publish content online. And, when I will provide logistical support to Ypsilanti-based freedom fighters when needed.

MARK: Let’s talk about the work you did for 826michigan…

D’REAL: I helped launch the Washington Street Tutoring lab in Ypsilanti in 2013, managed drop-in writing sessions across the Ypsilanti District Library branches from September 2012 to June 2017, and supervised creative writing workshops at 826michigan’s flagship location from September 2015 to June 2017. I also contributed workplace solutions to the Ideas Group, an autonomous collective of educators and writers committed to fostering diverse, fair and impartial, inclusive work environments across the 826 National network from June 2015 to June 2017.

MARK: Do I understand correctly that you’re going away party took the form of a roast? If true, I love the idea… I’m curious, though, as to what made you gravitate toward that format.

D’REAL: The Roast of DRG gave attendees an opportunity to learn more about my work and education history 2007-present, while laughing at the same time.

MARK: So no roasting the pre-2007 D’Real?

D’REAL: Feel free to review The Roast of DRG participation form.

MARK: How would you like to see Ypsilanti change, if at all, during your time away? What would make you happy to see upon your arrival back home after graduation?

D’REAL: I would be most happy to see the Elijah McCoy memorial placard located in Depot Town restored and free of vandalism… Continue to flourish, Ypsilanti!

[Among others, the above photos were taken by Chris Stranad, Kate de Fuccio and Nick Azzaro.]

[Curious as to why people are leaving this place we call home? Check out the Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview archive.]

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8 Comments

  1. Claudia Gerard
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Safe travels D’Real.

  2. City Watch
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Ever onward D’Real.

  3. Gabby
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Soooooo proud of the young King you have grown into!!!! Continue to grow and let nothing or no one stop you! Love you!!!

  4. Lynne
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Although I never met D’Real IRL, I’ve long thought that he has been a force for good in our city. I am sorry to see him go but am happy that he plans to return once he has more education. Good luck to him!

  5. maryd
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Happy Trails D’Real…

  6. Robert Davis
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    You were always a good person D’Real.
    Good Luck,

  7. Julia Collins
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Since our first meeting I have had sincere affection and respect for D’Real. I wish him all the best.

  8. Misha Tuesday
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Sorry to say it, D’Real, but there will probably be a statue of you one day.

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