Amid a financial crisis in 2014, Michigan’s then-governor Rick Snyder cut costs by switching the city of Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron (treated with corrosion controls at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) to the Flint River. Contaminated with fecal matter and other toxic waste, the river water was pumped through pipes that were leaching lead and sickened this predominantly Black city of about 100,000, nearly half of whom live in poverty.
In 2016, the Chicago-based photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier traveled to Flint to document the crisis. Taking as a model Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison’s 1948 photo essay, “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Frazier connected with Shea S. Cobb, a poet and school-bus driver who was born and raised in the dwindling mecca of General Motors.
With text 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, Ms. 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 down here,” Smiley told Frazier. “No matter what droughts we’ve had, the springhead is always running.”
Back in Michigan in June 2019, the state attorney general dropped all charges against the Flint officials who were accused of poisoning residents and then ignoring the consequences. In Act III, the only section printed mostly in color, we see the arrival of an atmospheric water generator in Flint, providing thousands of gallons of clean water to residents every day via the condensation of water vapor from the air.
“I could no longer idly stand by and wait for the government to do its job,” Frazier writes, so she helped another poet and Flint native, Amber N. Hasan, procure 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. Together with a matching grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Frazier paid for the mission herself.
“In a victory stance recalling the Statue of Liberty,” Frazier writes of Ms. Williams, “holding in her hand the solution to free, clean water for her people.”
Together, the words, portraits and actions in this book place an ongoing disaster in broader context: American, humanitarian, human.
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.