Skip to content

We need more than just the facts; we need the empathy of the arts to help create a just future


This commentary is adapted from the November edition of Momentum Detroit, the Kresge Detroit Program newsletter. Sign-up for Momentum Detroit and other Kresge newsletters here.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a gathering celebrating 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist Melba Joyce Boyd and the release of a Kresge-produced monograph documenting her life and art.

All of our Kresge Eminent Artists have been exemplars at their art forms and great contributors to the cultural lifeblood of Detroit. But I find Melba’s work particularly resonant today: She grounds us in the stories that she’s lived here … and through empathy, scholarship and imagination she is able to connect us to the lives of others.

She lets us commune with the ghosts of the J.L. Hudson store, imploded in 1998 and now the site of a rising skyscraper. She gives voice to the “brothers and sisters of Southwest Detroit” who “did and did not survive.” She connects readers to departed jazz greats such as Marcus Belgrave and such poetic predecessors as Dudley Randall, Naomi Long Madgett and Frances Harper.

In our Kresge Detroit Program, we’ve come to talk a great deal about the need for reparative justice, the need to not only acknowledge the transgressions of the past but to address them in policies going forward. Take our debate on the future I-375. Its creation marked the last stage of the destruction of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. If we rise to the moment, we can reimagine streets, open spaces and development that foster community reconnection and healing. But to guide us, we need more than just the facts. We need the empathy of the arts to bring us into history, to bring ourselves into the crucial stories of the past and imagine a just future.

I hope you’ll download the monograph or request a copy to be sent to your home or office at no cost; it includes the poems I wrote of above. And I’d be remiss not to mention that many of our Kresge Eminent Artists, Kresge Artist Fellows and Gilda Award winners speak explicitly to history and social justice.

One recent must-see project in this regard is dream hampton’s short video Freshwater. (It’s actually a collaboration involving three other talented Kresge Artist Fellows: ill Weaver as co-producer; Sterling Toles for the musical score, and flutist Rafael Leafar.)

In the course of our work, artists like these remind us to see beyond just the facts and to keep our hearts in our equations.