During a financial crisis in 2014, then-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder cut costs by transferring the city of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron (treated with corrosion checks at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) to the Flint River. Contaminated with feces and other toxic waste, the river water was pumped through pipes that leached lead and sickened this predominantly black city of about 100,000 people, nearly half of whom live in poverty.
In 2016, Chicago-based photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier traveled to Flint to capture the crisis. Modeling Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison’s 1948 photo essay, “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Frazier interacted with Shea S. Cobb, a poet and school bus driver who was born and raised in the dwindling General Motors mecca.
With lyrics by Frazier, Cobb and others, FLINT IS FAMILY IN THREE ACTS (Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation, $85) follows Cobb’s reverse migration from the home she shared with her then 8-year-old daughter, Zion, and mother, Mrs. Reneé, in Flint (Act I) to her ancestral home of Newton, Miss., east of Jackson (Act II) .
“It’s never been dry the whole time I’ve been here,” Smiley told Frazier. “It doesn’t matter what drought we’ve had, the warhead is always running.”
Back in Michigan in June 2019, the state attorney general dropped all charges against the Flint officials accused of poisoning residents and then ignoring the consequences. In Act III, the only portion printed largely in color, we see the arrival of an atmospheric water generator in Flint, which supplies thousands of liters of clean water to residents every day through the condensation of water vapor from the air.
“I could no longer idly watch the government do its job,” writes Frazier, so she helped another poet and Flint resident, Amber N. Hasan, purchase the 13-ton machine from a military base in Texas. and transport it to North Saginaw Street between East Marengo and East Pulaski Avenues, just north of downtown. Along with a matching grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Frazier paid for the mission himself.
“In a victorious pose reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty,” Frazier writes of Ms. Williams, “holding in her hand the solution to get free, clean water for her people.”
Together, the words, portraits and actions in this book place an ongoing disaster in a broader context: American, humanitarian, human.
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.