pass the salt.
Detroit goes by a lot of names: Motor City… Rock City... Or, for those in a hurry, The D.
But internationally renowned poet, playwright, performance artist and producer, jessica Care moore has one of her own.
“‘Salt City’ is a nickname I gave Detroit because those of us who come from the west side of Detroit or Dearborn grew up with those salt mines under our feet.”
Those mines she’s talking about are part of a 400-million-year-old salt bed buried 1,200 feet beneath the streets of Detroit and its suburbs.
In 1910, The Detroit Salt Company completed a commercial mine that today spans more than 1,500 acres, complete with 100 miles of subterranean roads used to harvest nearly 1.7 million tons of salt annually. And even after more than 100 years in operation, 71 trillion tons of unmined salt still remain.
Aside from economic prosperity, the storied mines have also produced an abundance of inspiration for moore.
“All over the globe, different cultures used salt for healing, to preserve their food, as a way of commerce… And the mines were very connected to the indigenous cultures in this city… There are all kinds of urban legends about the Detroit mines during slavery and prohibition… So I’ve spent the last four years developing a large-scale techno choreopoem — which is a form of writing that uses poetry with movement — called Salt City. It’s a ballet about Detroit in the future, set to the music of the city’s techno legends, and we’re premiering it at the Charles H. Wright Museum.”
Long before her career took shape, moore was finding her voice in the classrooms of Detroit Public Schools.
“I graduated from Cody High School and it completely shaped the person that I am. Before Cody, I was at predominately white, Polish Catholic schools in Dearborn. It was a good academic foundation, but socially I just couldn’t really be myself and thrive. I was always different, but when I got to Cody I realized how different I was, even from the other black girls. I dressed like Pippy Longstocking — mismatched socks and legwarmers, weird stirrups and Betty Boop t-shirts… I was such a weirdo.”
At Cody, things took a fateful turn thanks to some supportive teachers and an exceptional theater program.
“I found my whole life in my theater troupe, Les Troupe Des Arts. My drama teacher, Susan Story, was a whip — like I thought she was so mean, she just completely dug into me. But we did For Colored Girls and all kinds of other theater. We had the best troop in the city and a lot of successful people came out of Cody during that time. We all went on to Michigan State, Wayne State, we were honor students… It was a different school then, it really was.”
Those Cody days instilled confidence that set the foundation for moore’s rise to prominence in the world of poetry, which began when she won the “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” competition a record-breaking five consecutive times.
Soon after, she started seeking publishers for her work but, in true Detroit form, decided to hold the reins of her career.
“I thought, ‘This is not how I roll. I don't care what some big ol’ publishing house who doesn't know anything about me thinks. I know how to market and brand myself. I'm gonna teach myself how to run a publishing house. I'm going to publish myself and my friends. We deserve to be on book shelves because we’re tearing houses down with poems.’ The Detroiter in me was always looking for the institution in things, so it wasn't enough to just write poems — I wanted to build something.”
With that, Moore Black Press was born, becoming the first of many mediums through which she would share her wit, wisdom and vision with the world.
She’s since published five of her own books, as well as the work of Saul Williams and other contemporaries; performed stages on every continent (save for Antarctica and Australia); produced multi-media, theater and television shows; and even produced an album, which features Talib Kweli among others… And that’s just the short list.
But it’s away from her own work that moore makes perhaps her most significant impact. She is not only raising a talented son of her own, but also remains dedicated to giving back to the schools and community that shaped her.
“Detroit Public Schools were good places when I was coming up, but the people in charge have systematically destroyed them — that's why I became a Dream Director through The Future Project.”
The Future Project is a New York City-based non-profit that aims to unlock the potential of high school students across the country.
“I came on board four years ago and built three Dream Teams in three DPS schools: Cody, Detroit School of the Arts and Western International High School. I’m nurturing future leaders — and we definitely need them. Children in Detroit — and everywhere, really — are full of possibility, and I help make their dreams tangible through this program. I lead by example and try to be the person I wish could have come into Cody when I was there. Students need to see that they can travel the world and thrive. When I leave them, they will know, if nothing else, the world belongs to them too.”
moore is living lesson in what it means to be true to yourself — a powerful message for those young leaders. It’s an attitude reflected in her poem, A Warrior Walks Alone, which was an homage to her dear friend, Erykah Badu.
“No matter what, you can't please everyone, and that’s what the poem was about. It's so easy to look at someone's life and throw stones. I've been in that space where people make judgments about what I'm supposed to look like as a poet, so I was just pushing past that and saying, “I'm walking this path and I'm walking this path confidently.”
She takes working with youth so seriously, in part, because of the gratitude she feels for her own upbringing.
“I didn't realize how spoiled I was — I grew up with a mother and a father and a house. My father had eight children and the last four were my brothers and sisters. We were working-class people. We weren’t rich… My Dad is still one of the closest people in my life and shaped who I am as an independent person. He owned a construction company and I never saw him work for anybody — and that's who I am.”
moore’s contributions to the literary world embody the truest essence of Detroit’s creative spirit — that special kind of magic that happens when fearless individuality and creative prowess collide with a commitment to help light the way for others.
Today, moore’s light shines from some of the world’s biggest stages to the bright young minds she mentors in the city that has defined so much of her life. Young minds she inspires to carve their own path by standing on her shoulders and the shoulders of the giants before her… Young minds who, one day, will show the world why Detroit is a city forever worth its salt.