When I began working on The Poisoned City, my book about Flint, I knew I wanted to tell it as a collective narrative. This is, after all, a story about a city. It is about power: how it is made, how it is taken, and how it is rendered invisible. What happened in this place—since the infamous water switch, yes, but also over the past century—is experienced intimately. But it is not individual.
That’s how I wanted my book to be. Intimate, but full of voices. Spacious, sweeping, and steeped in history, just like the city itself. Personal, but not singular. Flint is my main character.
So, in my research, I gravitated toward Rhonda Sanders’ Bronze Pillars: An Oral History of African Americans in Flint. Sanders, a reporter for the local newspaper, published it in 1995. She did interviews with a broad cross-section of the community, collected archival photos, and organized the book in sections that mimic the many dimensions of civic life: Neighborhoods, Jobs, Athletics, Churches, Social Life, and so on. To spend time with the book is like spending an afternoon on a chatty front porch.
Bronze Pillars is threaded together by Sanders’ narration, but she keeps herself in the background, giving space for Flint residents to tell their own stories. Some of them recur throughout the book; others we meet only briefly. What I love is how this remarkable American city emerges through the collective ring of their voices. Not only was Bronze Pillars informative, but it helped me to feel the pulse of this community.
I was interested in connecting the water emergency in Flint with the history of segregation, infrastructure inequality, and dysfunctional urban policy. In sections about the St. John neighborhood, for example, and the South Side, and Schools, and Prejudice, and Protest, Sanders’ books distills that history in the form of collective memory—the stories that are passed down, informing our present-day lives in ways that we can’t always see. The tales are sometimes light, sometimes heavy, and sometimes contradictory. But it is a lived truth. It reminds me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s call against “The Danger of the Single Story,” a particularly resonant idea for a place like Flint.
(Might be worth mentioning here that my original title for the book was Water’s Perfect Memory: The Poisoning of an American City. It is inspired by a line from a Toni Morrison essay: “Water has a perfect memory and is always trying to get back to where it was.” That remains my epigraph, and a through-line for the book. “Water’s Perfect Memory” also lives on in the title of the book’s final section.”)
I also wanted to look at more recent oral histories from the city. As it happened, Storycorps was in Flint in 2016, recording pairs of people in the community as the discussed the water crisis. These conversations are archived with the Library of Congress, and sometimes excerpted on public radio and shared online. But I couldn’t find any trace of the Flint interviews. An astonishing number of requests to Storycorps always left me with the same answer: they were too bogged down to share anything with me, or to give me an idea when at least some of the conversations would be publicly available. Fortunately, Jess Hasper, the wonderful person who worked with me for awhile, happened to be traveling to DC. She went to the Library of Congress herself and transcribed a number of the interviews. All of them were revealing and interesting; at least one is quoted at length in The Poisoned City.
I’m not sure what became of Rhonda Sanders. But if I could meet her, this is what I’d like to tell: Thank you for loving this city so much that you listened. And thank you for believing in the worth of what you heard enough to chronicle it, so that people like me could have a chance to listen too.
This is part of an occasional series about the books that have moved me, challenged me, and taught me over the last few years, as I was working on a book about Flint and its water crisis (out July 10!). It’s my way of expressing gratitude for the writers who made them. See also “Reading List: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” and “Reading List: Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.”