originally published Friday, December 16, 2005

With Rebecca’s portrait now complete, I can reflect upon what has brought it to fruition. Her personal stories from the interview indicated a series of successes and bitter disappointments as she grew up and aimed for what she described as her American Dream “a new house, new job, new baby, new car…” But it wasn’t in the cards for Rebecca… a controlling spouse, a series of job losses, failed training programs and a stalwart focus on a job description that may now be obsolete…

Whatever her personal stumbling blocks, Rebecca also possesses a fierce maternal instinct to protect her youngest sons and try to guide them towards personal and academic success. She expresses a fear, one bred of personal experience, that her sons and daughter will face the same pains of racial discrimination that she did. Expressing a passionate, almost pleading wish, Rebecca challenges the city of Detroit, parents, and the city schools to care… about their children, the African American youth in general, and the future of a city in ruins. The dream business she hopes to create reflects this as well – “01-Zeke, Zeigler’s PC Training and Software Suites” complete with the impassioned refrain “Who Cares, We Care, The Parents Care, The Youth Care (Most Important)”.

Her portrait consists of a personal tour through her life, based mostly upon the photographs and captions from her scrapbook and some from our interview. Most of the scrapbook photos were taken by another member of the WSU Telling My Story team as he followed Rebecca around Detroit with other members of the team. From Doorstep Shelter to her old home where she raised her first set of children in her “American Dream” life, to the building ruins where her cousin lived homeless as “security” for the landlord, to the decaying abomination of an abandoned Detroit cathedral with the peeling mural of Jesus – arms reaching outward – visible inside through the open archway left by the missing stained glass windows. Though Rebecca is Muslim, she is a modern woman who exhibits a respect for all faiths, with homages to different beliefs and leaders on display in her sunny apartment. But it is a melancholy view from her renovated cloister that looks across a decaying city dominated by the ultra modern Renaissance Center with the Westin Hotels, her former nemesis, and the General Motors Headquarters, a sign of an industry out of touch. Overlaying the image of an ultra modern facility is a picture of Rebecca holding on to a chainlink fence, locked out of what lies on the other side, through circumstance and twists of fate.

As I allowed the material to assemble itself, the portrait became dominated by a railroad tram called the “People Mover”. In Detroit, this extremely limited nod to mass transit that sees little use by the masses is almost iconic as it moves between a few local highrises. Like a haunting graffiti, I placed the images of Rebecca’s early family along with some of her newer family – a young son at Christmas, one of the two younger sons as a teenager sleeping on the couch, 01-Zeke’s business card, and her own words that describe her fears and hopes.

On either side of the People Mover, Rebecca provides a tour of her life. Doorstep Shelter, a place that nearly all of the women refer to as “hell on earth”, plays a major role here. Her silhouette frames a poetic journey… “I have no eyes, nor ears, nor mouth, nor nose, nor tongue…. I am blind, deaf, and dumb…” And through the doors we see the “mothers and children, sitting on the dock, just wasting time…” Above the doorframe is a dark juxtaposition of a Christian Nativity that Rebecca had on display in her living room.

Scattered across the overall portrait, are photos, as if dropped upon the floor haphazardly, of her journey, stretching the very limits of her personal strength, causing cracks and fissures that have yet to heal, like the crumbling bricks around the archway in the small center photo. Her own caption begs the question “What happened Rebecca?” Two photos from the same timeframe were overlayed. The one that Rebecca had placed in her scrapbook exhibited a more contemplative pose, leaning against the side of the arched window frame. The second photo had her standing in a more forthright, almost challenging pose. I chose to ghost this one into the first picture, in a way reflecting upon the very question she asks of herself.

When I first arrived to interview Rebecca, she was under the impression that my portrait would be more formal. A beautiful and sometimes stern woman, Rebecca was dressed in a very attractive suit jacket and skirt and, though quite nervous, her face would light up when she smiled. Upon learning that the portrait was not so much a painting as it would be a conceptual portrait, she seemed to accept this and we began our conversation. A more “formal” portrait does appears within this conceptual one, but it is hidden in the shades and other women visible through the window of her old Doorstep room and overlayed with a blurred image of the Koran that she keeps open within reach, all towards the right side of the People Mover. Juxtaposed with her silhouetted figure against the window, Rebecca’s contemplative gaze reflects upon a dream that she cannot quite reach, as she is weighted down by the all-too-heavy emotional strains of her past.

So as I began as interpreter for this project, I find myself more of a facilitator. For Rebecca is the one responsible for the content here. It is her story, as she tell it. My role here was as a conceptual conduit, bringing together the elements so that they would pour forth an even stronger emotional response than might occur otherwise. In this way, I find the finished portrait almost haunting in nature. As a working mother, who has faced the groundbreaking challenges of building a career and family, I found personal connections to Rebecca’s story that I hadn’t thought would be possible at first. Yet there they were….


Rebecca’s finished portrait

Friday, December 16, 2005
Mara Jevera Fulmer