Which Way to Paradise: being black in northern Michigan

Oct 20, 2015


Blake Elliott sings at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City.
Credit Tom Carr

The number of black people calling northern Michigan home is inching upward slowly. The nation’s second largest racial minority still accounts for just over 1 percent of the local population.

One reason they don’t move here is they don’t tend to vacation here in the first place.

Blake Elliott is an exception to both rules. She vacationed here, and now she lives here.


Joining the music scene

Blake hosts an open mic every Monday night at Left Foot Charley Winery in Traverse City. While you never know for sure what you’ll hear there, it’s mostly singer-songwriters with guitars like Blake herself.

When she started out writing songs, she styled herself after Ani DiFranco and other young folk artists. Lately, she’s been veering into a jazzier, bluesier sound. She dresses the part with her trademark red lipstick and retro-style dresses.

"I always watched old movies and thought those women were very classy. I always thought that was what it was to grow up and be an adult. So I think I probably get treated better than I did when I had a shaved head and piercings in my face and things like that," she says, laughing.


Blake Elliott plays for a crowd at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City.
Credit Tom Carr

Blake is one-half black. There’s also Irish, German and Caribbean in her background. Her musical sound is also a mixture, and she thinks it’s a good fit for the changing music scene.

"There was the jazz crowd and there was the folk crowd and some smatterings of other music in between," Blake says. "And I’m starting to see that change a bit. And the style of music that’s being played I think is starting to be a little bit more varied."

Finding home on vacation

Blake Elliott at her home in northern Michigan.
Credit Tom Carr

It wasn’t the music that brought her, though. Blake Elliott has wanted to live here since she was a little kid growing up in Ann Arbor and vacationing here.

"The pace of life was different," she says. "I appreciated it a lot more because being downstate for the majority of the year and then getting to spend a few weeks up here was always the most amazing time, and I always felt the most complete."

But black people don’t tend to vacation here, just like they don’t tend to live here. Black people make up only about 1 percent of the visitors here, a mirror of the local population.

The trends

Most black people outside of the South live in cities, and they originally came here from the South to work in factories, says John Cromartie, who follows population trends for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I also think there’s an orientation for blacks living in northern cities," Cromartie says. "When they think about vacations, they are usually more oriented toward the South because that’s where their family roots are," he says.

And the Deep South is still the only area of the U.S. with a rural black population of any size at all. That’s why some blacks feel out of place in an area like northern Michigan.

Not feeling at home

TJ Muhammad is a friend of Blake Elliott’s. He knew very little about the area before he came here for a job opening as a shift supervisor at Cherry Capital Airport.

Outside of work, he says there’s not a lot here to make a young black man feel at home.

"You know I have talked to other African-Americans here in town and they say, 'I can’t wait to get off for the weekend so I can go back home' and I’m like, 'True that. I hear you on that,'" TJ says.

He’s joined a rugby team and made some friends. But he still misses the socializing that goes on in barber shops in Chicago.

Worst of all though, he feels he has to keep his guard up more while living here.

He recalls this incident:

"I live up on the Peninsula, and I had a police officer pull me over, and he was like, 'Young man, do you live around here?' And I’m like, 'Yes, I live right up the street here.' He’s like, 'No, do you live around here?' I said, 'Yes, I live right up the street.' He’s like, 'What are you doing over here?'"

After a while, the officer let him go.

A different experience

Blake Elliott, on the other hand, says her experience here has been positive. She acknowledges that may have to do with her relatively light complexion.

And her time here as an adult has only reinforced the positive feelings she had as a child.

"I feel like the most authentic version of myself," she says. "I felt that at 15 years old, coming up here and thinking I want to be here now. I want to make this my life at some point. It took me about 10 years to do it, but I was able to do it."

She says she might be able to make more money as a musician downstate. But she says it’s too much of a "rat race" down there.