At Detroit Jazz Fest this year, remember, I’m Duante Beddingfield — not that other guy

It started before I even moved here.

Years before, in fact.

I’ve always wanted to be in Detroit. After a difficult lifetime in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, I knew Detroit was the city for me — a place with a rich and thriving arts scene, a place where I wouldn’t be the only Black person in pretty much every room, a place where young professionals are an appreciated and vital part of shaping the future of the region. A city that, like me, had hit rock bottom and had to reinvent and claw its way back — Detroit has fight in it, has incredible pride and resilience, and I wanted to be a part of that.

So, when the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual conference took place in Detroit in 2018, I drove up and made it my business to meet everyone I could, and ask as many questions as possible about the city and its future.

Duante Beddingfield, Arts and Culture reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

But, from the moment I entered my first event at the convention, I knew something was wrong. Everywhere I went, people stared at me. Like, stopped dead in their tracks and stared, with expressions of what I can only describe as frozen masks of horror. Sometimes, literally, people’s mouths would drop open as I walked through the corridors of the Renaissance Center.

One morning, at a Ford-sponsored event at Hart Plaza, I was introduced to Detroit entertainment journalist and general man-about-town Greg Dunmore, and we got some time to speak alone during lunch.

Out of nowhere, mid-conversation, he asked, “Have people been looking at you funny?”

I said, “Oh my God, YES! Everywhere I go! They look at me like they’ve seen a ghost! Do you know what that’s about?”

Greg replied with a question. “Have you ever heard the name Charles Pugh?”

I learned that the former TV news anchor and ex-Detroit City Council president had been one of the most beloved figures in Detroit. That is, before he admitted in 2016 to having sex with a teenage boy under 16 and spent five years in prison.

Greg told me that when he saw me, it almost seemed as if the disgraced power player had been cloned.

He was hesitant to continue walking me through the matter, because he didn’t know how I would react. I assured him I needed to know what was happening and wanted to know everything.

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“Your smile,” Greg said, “the way you walk, your mannerisms, even the timbre of your voice — it’s SO similar, and people think you’re him. And they’re especially shocked to see you because he’s in prison right now, as we speak. They think he somehow got out early without telling anybody and decided to jump right back in.

“So here’s what you’re going to do,” he advised. “You need to make a point of meeting and introducing yourself to every single person you can this week. You have a magnetic personality and I have no doubt that you’d fit right in here in Detroit, but you need to let everybody know who you are, so that there is no more mistaking it.”

I went home from the convention certain I wanted to live in Detroit, and when I found an opportunity at the Free Press to cover arts and culture, the beat I’d spent most of my career working, I jumped at it.

But, there’s still been plenty of mistaking over the nearly three years I’ve been here. In fact, literally every single day I leave my house and go out into public, I’m mistaken for him or called out for the resemblance at least once. Actually, I don’t even have to leave the house — sometimes delivery drivers bring it up while they’re standing on my front porch.

Reactions run the entire gamut. Many people are happy to see “him,” pulling me in for hugs, reaching out for vigorous handshakes, saying it’s good to see me and it’s been so long. But I still get those stricken expressions, too, people who appear mortified, or subtly pull their children closer to them as I pass. Sometimes I get cursed at. At the 2022 Dirty Show, a group of furious people stormed up and tried to fight me; I had to pull out my driver’s license and show them my business card to get them to back down, because they refused to believe my denial.

Former Detroit Council President Charles Pugh. Picture received from his office Oct. 25, 2011.

It even haunted my wedding day. I married my wife in November 2021, and when we arrived at Joe Muer Seafood in the Renaissance Center for dinner with our family, the staff addressed me by his name.

People ask if they can take my picture to post on social media or show their friends, because they find it humorous. I don’t. A man followed me for half a block outside the Free Press office this summer, chattering about the resemblance and repeatedly trying to snap a photo of me with his cellphone.

There are many, many more stories like these. It happens especially often, for some reason, at grocery stores; I almost exclusively shop via delivery now because of it.

Despite that, I have not become a recluse. I try to become more and more involved in the community each year because that’s what I moved here to do, and I love being a part of the magic that is the Motor City. I even take part in public events, like last year, when I was one of the emcees at the great Detroit Jazz Festival.

Which also, coincidentally, happened to be where I was mistaken for him more times than anywhere else since I came to town. I tweeted my frustration about it, and a local news outlet turned it into an article without consulting me and it began circulating around the region, which made me feel like the butt of a sick joke. When I took the stage one evening at the festival, I took the opportunity to tell the crowd I am not him, which was met with a huge wave of laughter.

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I write this as I prepare once again to emcee during the festival this weekend, and I feel there’s no better time to say it: When you see me, know that I am not Charles Pugh. I am Duante Beddingfield, a nearly 20-year career journalist, a lifelong arts supporter with an eye for extraordinary art and an award-winning stage performance background. I’ve hosted a jazz radio show for an NPR affiliate station, served on numerous nonprofit boards and have a long history of community activism. I’m passionate about the arts and want to highlight the best in Detroit culture and help the world see what a singular gem Detroit is. 

And I plan to do that by being me. 

Contact Free Press arts and culture reporter Duante Beddingfield at dbeddingfield@freepress.com.

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