"If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look Around You:"
Michigan's Motto Today

Jenni Renaud
July 25, 2015

Michigan's state motto is, "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you." While, on the surface, this seems a simplistic obvious statement about the physical features of Michigan, there are other layers to understand. In the simplicity of the sentence, the motto encourages seekers to settle in Michigan. People who are craving a certain landscape and serenity. Then it delivers a most convicting conclusion: look around you. It's certainly here. Can this motto be meaningful to Michiganders today? Are we seeking pleasant peace? Is it anywhere around us?

As I look around, I am confronted with a lack of anything peaceful. The June 17 racially motivated murders of black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. bring to mind Michigan's violent race history. In 1863, 1943, and 1967 the city of Detroit was swallowed in fires set by angry residents. Black and white citizens pitted themselves against each other over neighborhood territories and the impossibility of cohabitating. Three times city officials "looked around" and assessed the damaged in embarrassment and sadness and vowed it could never happen again. But Detroit remains a racially charged city. Small improvements in social services and tourism brought about by gentrification cannot compete with the pervasive poverty of Detroit neighborhoods and cannot heal still open wounds from decades of hate.

After the Charleston shootings, discussions cropped up on the state of civil rights. While many "look around" and see a pleasant discourse about the progress of race relations, others speak with renewed frustration and anger that looks poised to boil over as it did three times in Michigan's history. Dr. Anthea Butler, a University of Pennsylvania professor, was invited as a speaker on the topic of "Race and Violence in America" on a popular radio program. Her voice was raw with exasperation at the notion of "healing" race problems. She directed listeners to look beyond personal relationships as the starting of better relations and jump straight to action in the form of voting. It is not enough for white people to have black friends. Instead, laws about voting registration, social services etc., have to reflect a true commitment to engaging a black population that is not on a level playing field. The tone of Dr. Butler's insight turned the week's hopeful conversations from pleasant to dire. The discussion now had opposing black and white sides with no hope for a pleasant gray emulsification.

As I listened, I became defensive, restless and ultimately hopeless. To my mind, Dr. Butler was talking to me because I am white and I was bound to listen because she is black. Upon reflection, I find we are approaching this conversation wrong. Nick Sousanis' book Unflattening provides us with a multi-faceted way to "look around." When we identify with our own race and assume the stance of the opposite, we "restrict our vision." Sousanis notes, "A single line of thought can be a trap. Where we see only what we're looking for." As we approach the "pleasant" conversation, we bring only one facet of understanding. But if we "consider instead distinct vantage points, separate paths, joined in dialog…they intersect…their interplay facilitates the emergence of new perspectives." If I listen to Dr. Butler as Sousanis describes, a "collaborative partner" rather than a critic, I can keep my perspectives drawn by my identity, and view her arguments as "essential to [my] own." (p. 36-38)

Incorporating the other side's view into any argument creates a fresh way of viewing and discussing. It changes the way I question Michigan's motto. Sousanis cites the Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz who had to simply look around to see "you don't need to be given something you had in you all along." (p. 144)

In Michigan, we have a pleasant peninsula filled with Latino, Middle Eastern, Polish, and a rainbow of other neighbors. Our conversations can be emotional, hopeful, and angry and still be moving forward. Perhaps the boiling over point I perceived will not lead to the same kind of violence Michigan has experienced, but instead produce a source of energy to promote increased tolerance. At least, this is the Michigan I can keep seeking.

Works Cited

    Dunbar & May. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1995. Print

    "On Point." Race and Violence in America, NPR. 22 June 2015. Radio.

    Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2015. Print

Seal of the State of Michigan