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

Herb BoydRecently, Herb Boyd was the guest of C-SPAN Book TV’s “In-Depth,” a three-hour, live and call-in, examination of a single author’s body of work.  He graciously called out as many names during that time as possible because Boyd felt that it’s their spotlight too—their, of course, meaning the Black people who have been forgotten by history. He also used his new book’s photo leaf, containing many photos taken by Boyd himself, to call out the names of the living and the dead, honoring all who deserve to be listed and acknowledged.
Boyd’s tendency to roll-call serves him well here in this new book, using the subtitle and from-the-bottom-up historical approach made popular by white radical historian Howard Zinn. In this work of Black geographical genealogy as historical narrative, Boyd presents the names behind the often-invisible and unheralded work in creating and guiding a Black community. The book arrives on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the city’s July 1967 rebellion, one that ripped out its political and social core.
Detroit’s facts are as amazing as its legends. The city was “an important terminus” of the Underground Railroad, but also a place where, in 1934, a Black World War I veteran named James Victory was accused of white-woman rape. Because Detroit is legendary for its strong Black resistance, Victory won. It’s one of a hundred stories Boyd tells—of Mayor Coleman Young’s childhood working for a man named Ossian Sweet—who, gun in hand, successfully defended his home against white racists. Of Rev. Albert Cleage creating a Black Christian nationalism that weaved well into the religious fabric of a city that helped shape Detroit Red (Malcolm X) and kept Elijah Muhammad’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Of factory worker Louise Thomas, who Boyd describes as a Black “Rosie The Riveter” who fought for respect in 1942.
Boyd—who opens his journalism notebook, photo collection, music collection, and Black history library in the city’s honor—has written so many books in his nearly 80 years on Earth that he knows where to find and make the proper connections. For example, instead of having Black nationalism and integration-ism oppose each other, he takes great care, chapter after chapter, in showing how both operated in a town that was equally labor, civil rights and Black Power.
He uses the existing secondary-source literature, especially biographies, in ways that feel new here: Aretha Franklin, for example, talks about urban renewal, while the Communist autoworker and theoretician James Boggs shares almost equal space with the capitalist songwriter and producer Berry Gordy. Boyd performs a work of not just touring, but historical quilting, connecting the generations so more than 200 years of friction, sweat and steel can flow as well as possible.
There just seems to be something about this particular mixture of land and people that created Detroit’s Black resistance. (Is it that just over the river is Canada—the fact that freedom is constantly in sight, and there for all those who can fight their way across?) This eye-to-eye confrontation between Blacks and whites permeates Black Detroit.
Here’s one example: A Black man, Thomas Faulkner, was convicted in 1863 of raping a white girl. The whites took to the streets to attack any Black man they came across. (Tragically, Boyd wrote, that after the carnage, it was discovered that Faulkner wasn’t even Black, and, as all too often was the case, was innocent of the charge.) But the damage to the Black community had begun, and this was Detroit, not a land of meek or nonviolent Blacks. So, in at least one house, there was a warning. Wrote Boyd: “The mob knew better than to attack [citizen] M. Dale, who stood in his doorway with a shotgun daring them to approach his house. One of his friends stood by, armed with an axe, and when the thugs saw their weapons, they quickly withdrew. Each time they neared his house, Dale lowered his gun and they retreated.”
Along with Sweet’s case, there are others Boyd chronicles throughout the decades. William Ferguson, a member of the city’s Black elite in the late 1800’s, punched out a white man who called him a nigger. In 1942, Blacks, defending their Sojourner Truth public housing project from an armed white mob, drove two cars into the crowd. In 1966, the rain was the only thing that saved police from Black youth who were tired of being harassed.
Boyd excels in telling these tales. Every decade there seems to be a new fight, and Black Detroiters didn’t dodge the constant fracas.
With 25 books published, Boyd exists on the outskirts, the red, black and green shadows of elite Black American letters. He has at least as many books, and more top-flight publishers, than many of the post-modern Black bourgeoisie who have taken center stage in Black American life during the last 30 years. Without trying to, he moves among the Black elite as its grassroots representative, if not its conscience.
Boyd, a fulltime, freelance writer, is un-tenured, un-fellowshipped, un-research-budgeted, but is a fixture when those other-half-lives folks gather, making him the ultimate insider/outsider. He writes for The New York Amsterdam News and Cineaste, while his peers in the academy praise each other over their latest New Republic or Nation piece, or MSNBC appearance. He’s a fixture on New York City’s Black radio while others hug tight the local NPR affiliate. In but not of, as his constant Kofi, beard and persistent refusal to knot-up shows.
While looking through his books, I often wish he would take a more critical posture of the Black America he so loves writing about. For example, I wanted Black Detroit to show some controversial cross-sections—some examination of the failure, contradictions and problems of Black leadership there. Perhaps less dates and more here-where-the-bodies-are-buried painful wisdom. For instance, I can’t help but think of Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s former mayor and portrayed by Boyd as “snared by luxury and excess,” as a thuggish, wannabe Mafioso type who was emotionally unprepared for the role and who deeply deserved the jail term and the national ridicule he got.
Boyd would almost never put something that harsh into the atmosphere or in (now-digital) type, even if he thought it true. It’s not his nature. He has decided to come off as more Tom Joyner than Harold Cruse, and he’s okay with not carrying around the often-negative karma of the Black cultural critic.
Almost 30 years ago, a mentor of mine, a Harlem artist who is now an Ancestor , told me the two things essential for Black American success: live as far as possible from your people and publicly criticize them at every opportunity. Has the formula for Black success radically changed since then? The question might not be that relevant to Boyd. Living in Harlem decades before this current generation of yuppies and the Mormon Church, the author/journalist has been successful—albeit, yes, on his own decolonized-but-polite-about-it terms—without doing neither. As always, Boyd shows the possibility of positivity.
As a young person growing up in Newark, the other city that exploded in 1967, I always was subconsciously jealous of Detroit. (White) America seemed to really care about it—its history, its culture, its vibe. Even when it was at its lowest point, it was never the national joke, the film and television punch-line, that Newark was until recently.
Detroit seemed to always have the cool stuff. Motown. A huge automotive manufacturing industry that created a strong and independent working and middle-class. Newarkers, in contrast, had been poor for a century, and most of the city’s factories were gone by the 1960’s. And, although we always felt like an important part of Black history and had more than our share of jazz greats, we always knew, deep down, that there was a reason Malcolm X was never called Newark Red.
Boyd spends some text comparing Detroit to his other home, New York (and, interestingly enough, to Dhaka, Bangladesh!), but, I kept thinking of Newark when he described how low Detroit had reached (the 1994 assault on Rosa Parks in her home was symbolic of how low all of Black America had fallen) before it began plugging away into a gentrified future. The optimism that initially greeted Kilpatrick, for instance, continues in Newark, with Mayor Ras Baraka’s recent announcement that he will run for a second term. The list of new Ancestors in the Motor City (Young, U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs, and Parks) mirror the new Ancestors here in the Brick City (poet/playwright/activist Amiri Baraka, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Sr., the historian Clement Alexander Price). Detroit has this new book as a monument of Black memory detailing the city before and after 1967, while Newark has this website .
Detroit has greater problems than Newark: bankruptcy and a Black political setback (Mike Duggan’s election ended a 40-year mayoral Black run) just to name two. However, what Boyd and Detroit have had for several years is something that is just beginning to take hold in Newark: belief that we can solve our own problems, together.
Black Detroit is a highwater mark in a 40-year book writing career that has had many. It may not be as comprehensive as Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America—An Anthology, or as historically significant as Autobiography of a People, or The Diary of Malcolm X: El-Haji Malik El-Shabazz, my favorite of these favorites. But, it is a very personal document, a historian walking through and, piece by chronological piece, re-living his own story within the collective. It’s a powerful combo act of historical research, memory and, ultimately, gratitude.
This book lists what forged Boyd—the confidence in resistance, the be-bop playing in his head, the energy of his fast stride. Each interest—Black history, jazz, politics—taking its respective solo around and through him, informing and enriching each other in the cosmic combo of his intellectual-meets-jazzman aura. Black Detroit is like that, twinned up with its author.
If you’re ever in Harlem, and you’re lucky, you might see Boyd whirl in and out of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, searching, finding, suggesting and adding. Working on that next book or article. His speed, like the good humor and positivity, belie not just his age, but his knowledge. This time the journey was internal, and his abolitionist sentence-making has acquitted us all from the possible sentence of collective amnesia.

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