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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Conversation about Black Detroit in Black New York


Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination
Herb Boyd
Amistad/HarperCollins: 432 pages

A Conversation about Black Detroit in Black New York                            

By Charles Brooks

Herb Boyd recently appeared at the revered City College of New York (CCNY) in Harlem, NY to talk about his latest book, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.  Published in 2017, Mr. Boyd has entered yet another book into the annals of black history with Black Detroit that covers slightly over 300 years - spread over 340 pages and 29 chapters.  A prolific author and journalist, Mr. Boyd has an incredible body of work that includes 25 books in addition to countless news articles published over the years with many news outlets. 

Mr. Boyd was joined by CCNY Professor L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy in a format that deviated from the typical stand and deliver to one that was more conversational and informal. For a little over an hour, their conversation covered a wide range of topics that included the book’s sub-title along with Detroit’s history, black press, music, economy, and radical black politics.


Listening to Mr. Boyd and Professor Lewis-McCoy engage in conversation with each other, you got the sense that Black Detroit was more than just capturing critical moments in time. Clearly, Black Detroit was about the people behind those moments but more importantly, their stories of self-determination.  Mr. Boyd makes note of this during the book’s introduction where he wrote: “Black Detroiters survived enslavement, white mobs, housing and job discrimination, and municipal indifference, and with each endeavor they chipped away at that age-old misery index.”  

Mr. Boyd first spoke about the conversations he had with his mother, Katherine – “a veritable walking historian with an encyclopedia of knowledge about Detroit.”  Utilizing his mother as a tremendous source of information, Mr. Boyd talked about the time they spent reminiscing about important dates, events, places and of course – the people who made Black Detroit what it was and is.  “I found myself going back to the old neighborhood – that’s pretty much what I knew I had to do to write about Black Detroit. To go back to these black neighborhoods and talk to some those individuals,” explained Mr. Boyd. But he also mentioned a connection – a special connection he made with the people that enabled him to write Black Detroit.

In response to questions from Professor Lewis-McCoy, Mr. Boyd went on to drop nuggets and kernels of information throughout the evening.  For instance, the existence of slavery in Detroit as well as the Underground Railroad where Detroit served as the last stop. Mr. Boyd explains: “This was a path that was carved out by individuals who were escaping the atrocities of servitude in this country,” Or when he talked the racial tensions and hostilities that framed the racial riots of 1943 and 1967.

Or how automobile manufacturing was not only the “lifeblood” for Detroit’s economy but for the nation as well. Or when he unveiled that before Detroit was known for making automobiles, Detroit was at one time, the stove-making capital of the world! Or when he talked about not only how the music and Detroit was “inexplicably connected” – but how the music was more than Motown.  Here, Mr. Boyd pointed to the world class musicians who studied and played a wide range of music - rhythm & blues, blues, be-bop and of course, jazz. He explained that folks came to Detroit because of the Renaissance taking place there – similar to the Harlem Renaissance. “It was more than just New York – there was a renaissance happening all over the country in varying degrees.” He pointed out that the Harlem Renaissance was also replicated in cities such as Pittsburgh and Toledo.

The evening of conversation ended with the topic of politics – specifically, black radical politics.  Professor Lewis-McCoy asked Mr. Boyd to talk about what he described as the “uniqueness” of Detroit in this regard.  Consider for a moment the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the Republic of New Afrika, the revolutionary formations taking place amongst the black workers in the automobile plants, and Wayne State University (WSU) as a cauldron of black radical politics. “It was such a promising moment where we thought revolution was just around the corner, such a moment of heightened political intensity,” said Mr. Boyd. Describing Wayne State University as a “hotbed of activism”, Mr. Boyd recounted his first class at WSU where he had 125 students.  There in the first row sat members of the Socialist Workers Party, Black Panther Party, Shrine of the Black Madonna, League of Black Revolutionary Workers, and the Revolutionary Communist Party. He amused his audience when he said: “Every political stripe was represented in that classroom – so you can imagine the tricky line I had to walk from an ideological standpoint.”  


   
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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: Democracy in Black: How Race still enslaves the American Soul

Democracy in Black
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Crown: 288 pages

American Democracy, White Supremacy and Racism

By Charles Brooks


Democracy in Black: How Race still enslaves the American Soul, written by Princeton University Professor Eddie S. Glaude has been on the bookshelves for about two years now.  The book was released January 2016 just as President Obama entered his last year in the White House.  In this book Glaude confronts the American democracy project and its contradiction – a contradiction seemingly rooted in the treatment of African Americans versus the American ideals of freedom, justice and equality. Glaude notes the contradiction and writes: “People could talk of freedom and liberty and hold black slaves.” As the subtitle suggests, this is a book unmistakenly about race and white supremacy in America.  

He challenges American democracy by linking this contradiction to white supremacy as the driving force behind what Glaude describes as the value gap, opportunity deserts and racial habits.  Glaude also writes about the concept of disremembering or active forgetting – a critical component to not just widening the value gap but advancing white supremacy. 

Democracy in Black is a clearly written polemic that’s easy to read without the dense academic prose. Glaude attempts to make a case about the far reaching implications of this American contradiction with anecdotes, historical and contemporary examples along with his personal observations and experiences. You will find featured prominently throughout the book, quotes from James Baldwin, Martin Luther King and W.E.B Dubois that Glaude uses to grapple with his thoughts on white supremacy, the value gap, opportunity deserts, and racial habits. 

Glaude takes on a wide range of topics that includes a brief history lesson on the origins of American contradiction. He digs into the implications and dangerousness of white fear, but more specifically white fear of the anticipation or rather, the expectation of black criminality.  He describes the narrowness of today’s black politics and black leadership that includes a searing critique of Reverend Al Sharpton and President Obama. While Glaude is not likely to get any love from Sharpton or Obama fans, he won't receive any from the clergy either when he talks about the death of the black church and their retreat as a progressive institution. He also takes on struggling HBCU’s, revealing his thoughts about President Obama’s apparent dismissive approach. His discussion about race also includes, the public resistance to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, radical activism, and the Great Recession, where he writes “…the very foundations of Black America have cracked under the weight of the economic fallout.” 

There are passages in the book that should trigger passionate debate such as his criticism of President
Obama where he writes, “Obama refuses to engage directly the crisis sweeping black America.” Or when he says Obama was supposed to be more – he was supposed to be different, “He was ideally our black progressive antidote to the conservative policies of the Bush years.” Such provocative statements are certain to draw condemnation from Obama’s supporters who fiercely defend him at all costs. There’s Glaude’s prescription for presidential politics where he advocates for essentially a protest vote where there’s no vote for the presidential candidates or simply left “blank” – hence the “Blankout” strategy. With a hint of naiveté, Glaude reveals his belief in America when he talks about remaking American democracy.  He says a revolution of value is needed to transform the value gap and racial habits, and there are three ways to accomplish this - with changes in how we view government, black people and to what truly matters as Americans.  Yet in this context, Glaude did not include his views around “respectability politics” or provide a more expansive analysis on structural racism.  Although Glaude outlines some meaningful remedies to remake American democracy – there’s this muted dismissal of the realities around those interests or issues that inherently generates opposition. Whether the issue is poverty, minimum wage, healthcare, crime, or even support for the Confederate flag – there will always be a clash of two sides.

Nevertheless, Democracy in Black is definitely worth the time to read as Glaude makes more than a few points throughout the book that argues for a new way of thinking.  The Ferguson protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Forward Together campaign - the politics of disruption are just a few examples that he uses as being informed by taking a more radical approach to transforming American democracy.  Just as important is Glaude’s inclusion of the need to transform the current state of black politics from its limited and narrow state to one that is more expansive in political expression. Like Glaude says – something has to change. 

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