The following is a Flintside opinion piece by writer Xzavier Simon. Have an idea for an essay or opinion piece you'd like to write for Flintside about life in Flint? Email [email protected]
FLINT, Michigan -- In his 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, James Baldwin states, “I don’t think anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are one, and then, you haven’t got any choice—either you live that life, or you won’t live any.”
Now, as a man, that discovered that he is, in fact, a writer, I find myself asking: how do I create a new narrative—a paradigm shift in conscious thought here in Flint? To even face that question, I must draw our attention to those who develop stories about this city in the first place. As a writer—whether through the lens of an author, scholar, poet, or journalist—I am an illusionist, a magician, crafting and creating narratives that can rain destruction or plant life.
I was born in this city but raised in the Beecher community. I remember being shocked when my grandmother—who taught second grade for 30 years in Beecher—recalled a newspaper article that said the district was the worst-performing school in the state of Michigan. As a fifth-grader, I vividly remember the media frenzy surrounding Kayla Rolland’s shooting at Buell Elementary School. We joked about the news articles referring to us as Mt. Morris Beecher when it came to academics but Flint Beecher when it came to sports. We knew this because of the news outlets and journalists who reported it and retold the same stories. As a young boy, they filled me, my classmates, and my community with feelings of hopelessness. These stories and more were often written by those who weren’t from Beecher.
The landscape of journalism in this city has a tradition of pillaging its residents’ essence and centering their attention upon chaos and, if not chaos, its “marketability” to Outsiders. It does not spread love or enlightenment, but instead, gives a platform to voices Granted only to them. Inequality, exclusion, and gatekeeping undergird the words we ingest and the newsrooms they originate from. I not only ask, where are our Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian journalists, but why are they not referenced when we speak of the city’s music, culture, literature, and art? Where is the equity? Why is Flint full of nonprofits financed by a handful of funders? Where is the investment into the queer community? Why are entrepreneurs, musicians, authors, artists, and the Flint creative scene vastly ignored and only recognized once their brilliance is stolen, encased in glass, and told to dance for Downtown’s continued gentrification?
Instead of answering these questions and others, I believe, we, as news outlets and journalists, choose—consciously or not—to focus our energy on perpetuating a narrative of crime and degradation. We advertise ornamental stories about phantom Blackness—palatable mediums of Blackness and Black culture that make Outsiders and the grants they keep feel less guilty about what they said about Flint and less accountable for their privilege and access. We must go beyond the strategies of representation in the newsroom and look up and out. What is the message we want to spread, and how is it we, as gatekeepers of Flint’s attention, can strive to “leave a mark, not a stain” in the words of the late Executive Director of Educational of Initiatives Tendaji Ganges?
I’ve written several books, created a nonprofit organization, own the cities only African-American LGBTQ+ magazine—the Modern Queer—and have freelanced with two of Flint’s largest independent news operations. Still, I never stopped to intently consider my role, or rather, my purpose in doing this. I, too, was sold a dream early on in solidarity and understanding with the many creative artists and entrepreneurs I interviewed. This dream had all the representation I could have asked for with nice headers and titles to match. But underneath and behind the smile, there was nothing—just an empty belly in need of validation trying to fill itself through methods of appropriating privilege as property and right.
As I watch the news, interview Flint residents, and hear the gossip, there’s a tangled web of destructive codependency on behalf of Granted parental replacements and a lack of self-confidence and belief in what has aided us for generations—spirit, love, and unity. Living in this city, it is clear we live for and thrive off of negative thoughts, even at the cost of our humanity. We are driven by ego and lack of humility, wallowing in recycled and self-inflicted trauma that we are, and the dreams we possess aren’t worthy enough.
As 2021 ushers in its grace, I am deciding to foster life. My work with the Modern Queer has sown seeds into the LGBTQ+ community after years of abandonment and dehumanization by the Flint community. It is an avenue where Black and Hispanic queer people can conjure their authentic selves, tell their stories, and be free. My time at Flintside has spotlighted Black-owned business entrepreneurs, both young and old, LGBTQ+ endeavors, and recently shined light on Flint’s music scene, who have broken with little to no media coverage, Flint’s glass ceiling. All of this in Flint, and all of this from one of its residents. Through these avenues and more, the answer to the question I asked myself has manifested. How do I create a new narrative? I only need to consciously and authentically make it.