At age 19 I left the Michigan town where I grew up and I never returned. I lost track of Benton Harbor because my family and high school friends had all moved away like me.
The first time I heard Benton Harbor mentioned was a program on the radio called "Chickenman." It was a superhero spoof along the lines of the cornball TV series "Batman." I couldn't believe my ears when the radio host said:
"And now the adventures of Chickenman, the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known. When he is not combating crime, the white-winged warrior assumes the identity of soft-spoken Benton Harbor, shoe salesman in a large downtown department store. Unfortunately, selling shoes keeps Benton tied up Mondays through Fridays, so he is available only on weekends to combat the forces of evil (pronounced E-ville)."
"Chickenman" was the brainchild of a Chicago radio disc jockey and eventually became a popular program all over the world. I could picture the Chicago DJ driving 90 miles to Benton Harbor, checking out the sad-looking town, and deciding to poke fun at it.
Years later I was in a bar in Hawaii when I met a tourist from Michigan. I told him I was originally from Benton Harbor, expecting him to raise the specter of "Chickenman," but I got a completely different reaction.
"You mean Benton Harlem," he smirked.
Which reminded me of the racial situation in Benton Harbor. When I lived there, about one-third of the population was black. The white population was a mixture of lifelong area businessmen and farmers (Republicans in a strongly Democratic state) and the second generation of blue-collar workers who had immigrated from the Deep South after World War II. This created explosive racial tensions between conservative whites and blacks who lived in poverty on the fringes of society. When I was in high school, I once saw an acquaintance I thought was sane hit a black kid in the head with a brick for no reason.
A few years after I left, downtown Benton Harbor was razed in what was called an urban renewal project. Whites began moving away in droves. The only well-known person who moved to Benton Harbor was boxer Muhammad Ali and he was black.
In the 1990s I picked up a newspaper one day and I was stunned to see an article about Benton Harbor. The article said the town had lost a larger percentage of its population than any metropolitan area in America. Downtown Benton Harbor was boarded up like a ghost town. Close to 100% of the remaining residents were black. Most factories and retail businesses had closed, unemployment and crime were sky high, and Benton Habor had turned into a black ghetto.
I recently learned that Benton Harbor had been the scene of two bloody race riots -- in 1967 after the "urban renewal project" forced most blacks into government housing projects and again in 2003. The riot three years ago was sparked when police fired 41 shots and killed an unarmed black motorist following a car chase.
This year a group of American radical socialists (who called themselves communists before Russia ended the Cold War) went to Benton Harbor to investigate the social situation. They tried to blame Whirlpool Corporation, the largest single employer in the area, for most of the problems. This was a tired excuse by dogmatic thinkers. I know for a fact that Whirlpool paid both blacks and whites the same decent wages when most other businesses discriminated against blacks. If it hadn't been for jobs at Whirlpool, many blue-collar whites wouldn't have stayed in Benton Harbor as long as they did and many blacks couldn't have afforded to buy houses for their families.
I didn't leave Benton Harbor because I disliked black people. At age 19 I wasn't very politically aware, but I was no racist. I left because I wanted to see the world instead of working in factories as my father did for most of his life. I also hated the winter weather and I dreamed of living where the climate was warm year-round.
Benton Harbor's fate was repeated in other parts of Michigan when the auto industry scaled back, closed plants and set up new factories in foreign countries where labor was cheap. Michael Moore has bitterly depicted what happened to his Michigan hometown in films and I don't blame him for feeling betrayed. It was a social tragedy a generation ago and it is now playing out all over the U.S. as high-tech jobs are outsourced overseas while low-paying Walmart-type jobs take their place.
I won't ever return to Benton Habor. The downtown I remember is long gone and I wouldn't recognize the disintegrating remnants as my hometown. The turn of events in Benton Harbor has left me with a vague identity crisis. My past seems like the sensation of awakening from a long dream -- as if it never happened in reality. This is not a pleasant feeling.