Fabiola’s idealized understanding of the United States shatters when she encounters the stark reality of life in Detroit. Fabiola soon learns that Detroit isn’t the vibrant, dignified, free place she thought it was—for her family and others in her neighborhood, life is difficult, violent, and desperate. To some degree, the novel suggests this is the case for immigrants as a whole, but it also implies that the specific brand of violence and desperation that Fabiola encounters is something unique to Detroit. This seems to be born out of Detroit’s historical reputation of a place of opportunity—a reputation it possibly no longer deserves thanks to a combination of racism and decreasing economic opportunities.
To understand the way the novel links trauma and desperation to the city of Detroit, it’s essential to understand the history of the city’s racial makeup, as well as its status as the birthplace of auto manufacturing. Throughout the novel, Zoboi references the Great Migration, the mass exodus of Black people from the South to Northern cities like Detroit beginning around 1910. Many found work in Detroit’s burgeoning auto industry—the same industry that eventually drew Phillip, Fabiola’s late uncle, to Detroit in the 1990s. In the 1950s, many of Detroit’s wealthier white residents fled to the suburbs, increasing already high racial tensions and ultimately resulting in race riots in the 1960s. In the decades that followed (due in part to the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic), Detroit’s total population declined, resulting in as many as a quarter of Detroit’s houses sitting empty by the time Fabiola arrives in the mid-2010s. The boarded-up houses and empty lots that Fabiola refers to are the visible proof of the economic hardship that Detroit’s residents—the Black community in particular—experienced during and after the Great Recession in the mid-2000s. All of this paints a picture of Detroit as a place where there are few opportunities. Instead, residents have a long history of racial and economic trauma to contend with as they attempt to carve out and sustain their lives in the city.
Nevertheless, the novel suggests, Detroit remains an appealing city for many people hoping to make it in the U.S.—even as the city itself seems cursed to fail its Black residents in particular. The novel shows this through Matant Jo’s house on 8800 American Street. When Phillip bought this house, which is located on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he wasn’t the first one to see the address and believe that it would give him access to a bit of “American joy.” Rather, he was simply the latest resident to move into the house full of hope but leave it worse off than when he arrived. The house’s first residents were a Polish couple, and the husband found more success illegally selling gin during Prohibition than he did working for Henry Ford. The house’s first Black resident, meanwhile, was shot on the porch not long after moving in—and Phillip, the home’s first Haitian owner, was also murdered. This, the narrator explains, is due to a curse on the house. And while the curse’s roots in Vodou may be unique to the logic of American Street, it’s significant that generations of residents have come to 8800 American Street hoping for exactly what Phillip did—and left the house in much the same way he did. The fact that all the house’s residents were immigrants and minorities suggests that the violence and trauma that immigrants and minorities suffer are cyclical and unavoidable.
To this end, American Street makes it clear that the desire to better oneself and one’s family isn’t enough to overcome systems of racism and decreasing opportunities—the violence will continue unless something major changes socially or politically in the city of Detroit. Fabiola discovers that while her Uncle Phillip came to Detroit with big dreams of working in the auto industry, he ultimately couldn’t make enough money. Dealing drugs was the only way he could support his growing family, and, in the aftermath of his death, Matant Jo became a loan shark in order to care for their three children. Fabiola’s boyfriend, Kasim, explains that drugs and sharking are some of the only opportunities that many young people in Detroit have—it’s far harder to make an honest living, like he does, than it is to turn to drugs, as his best friend Dray does. While Dray has a fearsome reputation and drives a BMW, Kasim spends his days working in a café and trying to fix up his constantly broken-down car. Fabiola may not agree with Dray’s lifestyle, but she begins to see that those who turn to selling drugs or other illicit means of getting by do so because in a post-Recession Detroit, people make choices out of desperation. To many, when faced with the choice of making thousands of dollars in one night selling drugs or making minimum wage at a café, the choice is obvious.
Heartbreakingly, American Street offers no remedies for the curse on 8800 American Street, the plight of Detroit as a whole, or even for Fabiola’s family—except to leave the house and, possibly, the city altogether. Following the deaths of Kasim (who’s murdered by police) and Dray (who’s murdered inside 8800 American Street), Matant Jo decides there’s nothing to do but leave the house to someone else. And while Dray’s death may have been cathartic for Fabiola and her family (he abused his girlfriend, Fabiola’s cousin Donna, for years), there’s no indication that this broke the curse on the house. Rather, the house and Detroit as a whole will remain locked in a cycle of violence and trauma until things fundamentally change in Detroit—until it’s easier for immigrants and racial minorities to find the dignity, respect, and comfort that Detroit promised them.
Trauma, Violence, and Desperation ThemeTracker
Trauma, Violence, and Desperation Quotes in American Street
And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where this good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
Ma named us Primadonna and Princess ‘cause she thought being born in America to a father with a good-paying job at a car factory and a house and a bright future meant that we would be royalty. But when our father got killed, that’s when shit fell apart.
I look all around the restaurant. “But this is your job,” I say.
She inhales and looks around, too. “Yes, it is. But our work is not without the help of good American citizens like yourself. You are an American citizen, right?”
“Matant Jo,” I say. “Bad Leg at the corner, he’s not just a crazy man. He is Papa Legba and he is opening doors and big, big gates. I will show you. I promise.”
She turns to me. “Child, this is Detroit. Ain’t no Papa Legba hanging out on corners. Only dealers and junkies. You don’t know shit. But don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
“Catholic school for all three of us out here was just pennies. But your ass over there in Haiti cost her like twenty Gs every year. Your school, money for your mom, your clothes. Hell, all this time, Ma thought y’all were building a mansion near the beach and she swore she’d go back down there to retire.
“But she’s getting sick. We don’t want her to do this loan-sharking shit anymore. Money was running out. We still gotta live, Fab. We still gotta breathe. Money’s just room to breathe, that’s all.”
I used to stare at that address whenever those white envelopes with the blue-and-red-striped edges would make their way to our little house in Port-au-Prince. I’d copy the address over and over again, 8800 American Street, because this house was my very first home. But for three short months only. This house is where I became American. This house is the one my mother and I prayed for every night, every morning, and during every ceremony: 8800 American Street.
So in 2000, Jean-Phillip François, the Haitian immigrant and the first occupant to actually land a job at a car factory—the Chrysler plant—paid the city three thousand dollars in cash for that little house on American Street.
And maybe because the little house had been revived with the sounds of babies and the scent of warm meals and love and hopes and dreams, Death woke from its long sleep to claim the life of Haitian immigrant and father of three Jean-Phillip François with a single bullet to the head outside the Chrysler plant.
Death parked itself on the corner of American and Joy, some days as still as stone, other days singing cautionary songs and delivering telltale riddles, waiting for the day when one girl would ask to open the gates to the other side.
How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or a neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points at the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.
I want to say sorry to Chantal. I want to ask her why, with all that money, they never bought a house here. I want to ask her why, with all her brains, is she selling drugs.
Even when I’m born again in Detroit, and I’m supposed to be free like the fucking wind, there’s still some shit trying to own my life—money and the bullshit jobs my moms had to work, these shitty streets, and this whole fucked-up system. When you remember all the ways you been killed, and how that shit hurt your fucking soul, ain’t no way in hell you can shake that off.
It’s war out here, son. If my pops and his pops before him been fighting all their lives to just fucking breathe, then what’s there for a little nigga to contemplate when somebody puts a gun in his hands?
We are all in white. Even Pri has shed her dark clothes and now wears a white turtleneck and pants. I had wrapped my cousins and aunt in white sheets after making a healing bath of herbs and Florida water for each one, and let them curl into themselves and cry and cry. This is what Manman had done for our neighbors who survived the big earthquake. The bath is like a baptism, and if black is the color of mourning, then white is the color of rebirth and new beginnings.