Imagine a dialog that takes place throughout the state of Michigan, in areas urban or rural, about a contemporary reading selection written by a Michigan author or based in a Michigan setting, covering an important topic central to any community. While it sounds like a daunting task to coordinate, it does happen, through the Great Michigan Read, a bi-annual program of the Michigan Humanities Council (MHC). The MHC provides nonprofit organizations the materials necessary to build community discussions, and eligible organizations may apply to receive free copies of the assigned books.
The most recent Great Michigan Read, covering the 2011-2012 school year, was Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, written by Kevin Boyle, a Detroit native.
Arc of Justice tells the story of Ossian Sweet, an African American doctor who moved into a previously all-white neighborhood. A mob gathered outside his house to protest his arrival, and Sweet, or one of his defenders, shot a gun, accidentally killing one of the people in the mob.
Sweet’s story soon became a controversial symbol of equality, and the book weaves the police investigation and courtroom drama of Sweet’s murder trial together with history that documents the volatility of America in the 1920s.
Boyle himself is a history professor, and his inspiration for the book came out of teaching.
“I taught a course on civil rights history, and I loved teaching that course,” Boyle explained. “I wanted to write about the Northern experience of civil rights. The most enduring form of segregation is housing segregation—we still live in cities and suburbs that are overwhelmingly segregated. I wanted to explore where that segregation came from and how that happened.”
The Great Michigan Read program included a series of events around the state, including a traveling exhibit on housing discrimination done in conjunction with the Michigan Roundtable of Diversity and Inclusion. “We Don’t Want Them” traveled to nine Michigan cities from October 2011 to June 2012.
“My experience with this program was really exciting,” Boyle said. “We traveled everywhere, from Flint and Detroit to the UP and Grand Rapids, and talked to everyone from high school students to community groups, and literally hundreds of people turned out for the events.”
Boyle noted that people want to talk about the issues that shaped—and continue to shape—their communities. Using the book as a starting point was a great way to frame the discussion.
“You can’t go to a city like Detroit or Flint and not see the meaning of segregation,” Boyle said.
At the events, Boyle noted that people wanted to talk about the particular incident that is covered in his book, but frequently people of all races also wanted to talk about their own experiences with segregation. They wanted to connect their experiences to a wider story about Michigan and the experience of race.
According to the MHC’s website, more than 300 partner organizations signed on to host programming in their communities around Arc of Justice, reaching approximately 53 of Michigan’s 83 counties. A media partnership with MLive and the Detroit Free Press also provided an extended program reach through newspaper insert promotions, and the MHC estimates that more than 1 million people were exposed to the Great Michigan Read.
The 2013-14 Great Michigan Read is expected to launch in the spring of 2013. The MHC is currently working with a selection committee to determine the next Great Michigan Read title. Check www.michiganhumanities.org to find out what the next great read will be.