With Michigan preparing to hold it’s 2012 Republican primary, one daughter of a family closely tied to that state’s auto industry tells the story of how building cars also helped build her grandfather’s legacy.
I spent the summer between my junior and senior year in high school at Cornell University as a part of the Telluride Association Summer Program (TASP). I was thrilled to have been selected and was filled with anticipation at the prospect of spending my summer surrounded by other highly motivated, intellectually focused teenagers, taking intensive seminars and writing papers.
The application process to become part of the program was quite rigorous. One thousand of the top test takers of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Tests (PSATs) were invited to apply. That number was eventually whittled to just 66 students who were judged on essays and interviews with TASP alumni.
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About 30 of those students were housed at Telluride House of Cornell University. At the beginning of our six week experience, we came together to introduce ourselves. Each participant spoke about their background, accomplishments and goals for the future.
Looking back, I remember I was a little intimidated by the others. Each person had a story that consisted of impressive individual academic achievements. That was to be expected. I began to notice another thing about all of their backgrounds that was completely unlike mine: every other student had a parent who was a professional. It seemed that these were all the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and educators.
When my turn came, I was at a loss for words, momentarily measuring myself and my family against the others. I looked at this group, which included an African-American girl who became my best friend at the camp and later my Harvard classmate; and said “my name is Tameka Duncan. I’m from Flint, Michigan and we make cars.” I left it at that.
I didn’t share that my mother worked in the “shop” — which was local lingo for working in one of the factories that at one point sheltered 85,000 workers.
I didn’t say that my grandfather, J.C. Duncan, had been the breadwinner for a family of six children; or that he had been an autoworker for 30 years and at that time was supporting me, his granddaughter, too.
I didn’t say any of that at the time because I couldn’t fully appreciate my grandfather’s journey, his life, and the convergence of events that brought him to Flint, Michigan; known as Vehicle City, even before GM became its foremost employer.
I am now fully aware that my grandfather was once a young man with dreams of escaping the grueling poverty of the 1950s in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He and my grandmother made their living as sharecroppers.
My grandmother had three children from a previous marriage. She met and married my grandfather, who decided he wanted to make a better life for his new family. He decided that they would make it “up north.” He followed the path of previous generations of African Americans who, during the first half of the 20th century, longed to shake the dust of slavery and the virtual economic enslavement of sharecropping from their feet. Many were drawn like magnets to the bustling automobile industry, hoping to earn a decent living.
Those, like my grandfather, who chose that life, settled into long careers at companies like General Motors.
Like many African-Americans who sought factory jobs, he was offered work in the foundry, where the engines were made. Work in the foundry required special fortitude because it was hard, grimy, and especially laborious. He put in his time, year after year without complaint, until he retired. As a child, I heard stories of how he would wear overalls to work and shower and change in the basement when he got home after having been covered with soot from plant silt.
He became a member of the United Auto Workers union, which provided protection for workers through collective bargaining. It enabled him to retire with a pension, which he used to support his family.
His wife, my grandmother, never had to work outside of the home out of necessity. In their later years, she and my grandfather supported me in all of my academic pursuits, with my grandmother making sure I got all the additional preparation for college that was within her reach.
Without question, their love, support, and financial support got me through high school and eventually made it possible for me to earn a degree from an elite university. My grandmother would always insist that it was my accomplishment, but I always knew I was part of the realization of a greater dream for a family, a race and a class of people, and the universal dream of self-empowerment through personal financial and economic stability offered by a job that pays a living wage. A job like my grandfather’s.
The seal of the UAW is imprinted on my grandfather’s tombstone. It forever marks him as a working man, a union man and a laborer. He gave as much to the automobile industry as it gave to him.
While many loudly debate the merits of the 2008 auto industry bailout and salute the resurgence of General Motors as the top automaker in the world, I ponder its personal effects on my life.
Life will never be the same in Flint, though I am hopeful for more economic development in the manufacturing sector. Jobs that can pay enough to sustain a family, provide a respectable living, retirement, and maybe a little left over to send a child to college, can change not just one life, but the lives of generations. The story of J.C. Duncan and my family is a testimony.
Tameka Duncan is a writer who works for a health services agency in Flint, Michigan. She is also active as an actor in her local community theater.