Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination
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.”