Author Herb Boyd. Photo–Flickr
A People’s History of
“Who would be free themselves must strike a blow.”
Reviewed by Ebele Oseye.
Black Detroit, by Herb Boyd, a thoughtful and thoroughly researched history presents in good order knowledge regarding the power of art, the nature of mobility, and the immeasurable resilience of a people in the face of brutal oppression.
It is Detroit which received Rosa Parks and her husband following the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1957. Following 27 years of incarceration Nelson Mandela made a grand tour of the United States which included Detroit where he quoted and “sang” the opening lines of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
Herb Boyd, only four years old when traveling from Alabama to Detroit with his mother opens the narrative on a humorous and personal note; he was all but terrorized when the conductor shouted “All aboard!” The author’s ability to include this human dimension often enough throughout this monumental text is among the many strengths of this work.
Look at the name Motown. To recognize the motor city as the location for the production of so much magnificent music, the words motor and town are merged. But Boyd also demonstrates how the same collaborative efforts of the assembly line for motor cars were effectively applied to the production of a Motown song.
At the time of Michigan’s statehood, 1837, there were only 11 Blacks listed in Detroit–but it was an effective presence with so many inspiring stories of courage, ingenuity and determination. The Underground Railroad was operating there. When slavers came to town, attempting to recapture formerly-enslaved people, the Black people went into action, collecting enough to pay for the freedom on one occasion, and cleverly devising ways to free the detained persons several other occasions.
Two of Sojourner Truth’s sons fought in the Civil War. The first Michigan Colored Regiment included approximately 1,500 volunteers; they were paid $7 a month, $3 less than the white soldiers. The dates for Henry Bibb, 1815-1854, remind us that his life span covered 39 years, the same as Dr. Martin Luther King’s and Malcolm’s.
It comes as something of a mild surprise that in 1882 the Fisk Jubilee singers were denied hotel accommodations in Detroit, Michigan, a state just across the water from the Canadian border.
Black Detroit provides rich cultural context for many internally known artists and activists including Aretha Franklin’s father, C.L. Franklin, Diana Ross, Viola Liuzzo, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dr. Ossian Sweet, Woodie King, Jr., Naomi Long Madgett of Lotus Press, Dudley Randall, Poet Laureate of Detroit, and publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson.
Michigan has a continued presence in contemporary news, especially because of Flint’s contaminated water. The poverty of Detroit, institutionalized, “concentrated poverty” by race and residence, attracts journalists. But you will also read about what happened to the physical wall, 6′ high, separating Black and white neighborhoods; and, the Urban Agricultural Movement and their model for the community producing food.
The state of Michigan takes full form as a vital space with an astonishing history which includes Dr. King’s march in this city in 1963 and more recently a speech given at the Joe Louis Arena by President Barack Obama.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ endorsement graces the cover, and Herb Boyd thanks him, his agent Marie Brown, and so many others for their contribution to this monumental and vital work which provides the history of many lives given to the cause of freedom. This book builds knowledge. This book will enrich our classrooms and our personal libraries for years to come.
Through meticulously researched history, Black Detroit provides the inspiration needed to help our young navigate the complicated and sometimes brutal challenges of the contemporary moment.