Chronicle of Black Detroit

Against the Current, No. 190, September/October 2017

Dan Georgakas

Black Detroit:
A People’s History of Self-Determination
By Herb Boyd
NY: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publications, 2017, 418 pages, illustrated, $27.99 hardcover.

HERB BOYD HAS written a masterful account of the experience of African Americans in the city of Detroit. He begins in 1701 with the slaves who arrived when Cadillac founded the city as a French colony, and ends with the shakers and movers of a distressed contemporary Detroit.

A columnist for Harlem’s Amsterdam News, Boyd has developed a highly readable prose style that allows him to engagingly combine forgotten history with famed events such as the Ossian Sweet armed resistance case of 1925 and the Great Rebellion of 1967. The resulting saga establishes that the history of Black Detroit is one of resistance, not resignation.

Black Detroit is primarily aimed at what Boyd has labeled a “grass roots” audience. It is meant to be a catalyst for the Black community to embrace and advance its history of self-determination.

Boyd, who has long been associated with the Black Studies movement in universities, believes there is considerable untold history that needs to be addressed in far greater detail than his general “people’s” history allows. To that end, his footnotes are often lengthy and indicate sources and subjects for future study.

The one on the Algiers Motel atrocity and the one dealing with the FBI investigations of W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammed are three and two pages each. More common are footnotes that fill a third of a page.

Boyd proceeds chronologically through various eras in separate chapters. Each provides a broad overview of the social dynamics of that time. These generalities are enlivened by biographical sketches of activists and examination of key events. Just enough detail is given in his telling to give readers a sense of that period’s distinctive set of characters and issues.

The chapter on the Underground Railroad reminds us that Detroit was the final terminal where tens of thousands of escaped slaves were brought, hidden, and then transported across the river to Canada by Detroiters. If names like Harriet Tubman are justly revered as the visible tip of the abolitionist iceberg, the people Boyd writes about constitute the huge underwater iceberg of support that was the movement’s essence.

Realities of History

Michigan politicians like to brag that because of the Northwest Ordinance, the state never sanctioned slavery. Boyd shows that is a half-truth by examining the loop-holes and informal practices that allowed slavery to exist to some degree right through to the Civil War. Black Detroit is filled with corrections of this kind.

All elements of Black culture are addressed. A rich source of data are Black-owned newspapers and pamphlets that often cover what dominant media ignores. The Inner-City Voice, South End, and Michigan Chronicle, for example, are newspapers highlighted for their role in the battles of the 1960s.

Politically active religious leaders are ever-present. Boyd chronicles their influence from the early abolitionist period to the conflicting perceptions of Black nationalist clergy, Black Muslims, and different Christian perspectives at the peak of the civil rights movement.

While these are often accounts of male figures, Boyd also celebrates previously unheralded female religious activists. He notes, for example, that Mrs. Fannie Peck, the wife of Rev. William Peck, pastor of Mt. Bethel AME Church, founded The Housewives League of Detroit in 1925 to support the economic and social needs of women. The Pecks were keen on self-determination and were active in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys.

How Black Detroit’s music expresses the sentiments of its time and interacts with national Black and mainstream culture is handled particularly well. Commentary is not confined to citing jazz greats and Motown celebrities. Other art forms are treated just as seriously.

Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press is appreciated for the artistic and political impact of the poems it published. These included works by Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight and Margaret Walker. Among many other artists cited are architect Harold Verner, playwright Ron Milner, sculptor Edward Dwight, and theater producer/director Woodie King, Jr.

Black Labor and Radicalism

Paramount in Boyd’s approach is that he believes “Black labor is indispensable to Detroit’s greatness.” Each chapter gives numbers and occupations of Black workers and their general working conditions.

Although Boyd has identified himself on national television as a “Born Again Marxist,” he readily acknowledges that certain Black entrepreneurs were community leaders, and Black-owned businesses often were the major places of Black employment. A large number of successful Black businessmen went into politics and became stalwarts of the Democratic Party even as they vied within it for greater influence.

Considerable attention, of course, is given to how the car industry created a large Black working class. Boyd only skims through the UAW’s general history in order to focus on the efforts of Black trade unionists to achieve equal treatment for African Americans. Buddy Battle, James Boggs, Harry Haywood, Horace Sheffield, and other militant unionists are profiled.

Boyd identifies radicals as a matter of fact rather than with alarm or an editorial hurrah. Thus, Harry Haywood is noted to be a militant Communist and James Boggs a radical leader. Detailing the conflicting political positions of such persons is not attempted.

This choice of factual reportage rather than evaluation of ideological differences may disappoint some activist readers, but Boyd’s purpose is to accustom readers unfamiliar with radical history with the positive role of radicals in mass movements. He has addressed ideological differences in other books, such as his Race and Resistance (editor), Diary of Malcolm X: El-Haji Malik El-Shabazz (coedited with Ilyasah Shabazz), and Baldwin’s Harlem.

Given my own writing, I was interested in Boyd’s assessment of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Rather than chronicling that movement and its ideas in detail, Boyd examines how the League reflected a radical upsurge in a civic history replete with vigorous class struggles.

Boyd, whose family moved to Detroit when he was four years old, had worked at Dodge Main and knew many of the League leaders personally. Although he writes succinctly, his “feel” for the movement and what it meant is on target. He also places individuals such as John Watson, General Baker, Ken Cockrel, Luke Tripp and other League leaders in pre- and post-League contexts.

An entire chapter compares Cockrel’s electoral ambitions with those of Coleman Young, the city’s first Black mayor. Boyd ends his book with a poem by League activist Michelle Gibbs. This structuring of the text and long footnotes embed the League in the historical continuum of Black Detroit.

A striking absence is any detailed analysis of the modes and whys of racial oppression. Boyd assumes his readership doesn’t have to be told one more time about the nature of formal and informal American racism — that’s a given. Boyd prefers to deal with specific opponents in the context of struggle such as the fierce battle against STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), a murderous anti-Black unit of the Detroit police department.

Numerous white allies of the Black liberation movement are also put into the context of how they interacted with specific actions without detailed attention to their wider ideological positions.

Coleman Young and Beyond

Given the progress through struggle theme of Black Detroit, some contradictions arise. The treatment of Coleman Young sketches in his Communist background and some of the accomplishments of his mayorship. How Young degraded into a Black Boss Tweed, and the effects on the city, get less scrutiny.

The corrupt Black mayors that succeeded Young are lambasted, but again, much more could be said. After centuries of struggle to achieve some measure of Black power, Black governance of a majority Black city worsened rather than bettered life. The possible negative impact of failed and corrupt Black leadership on Black consciousness and activism is not addressed.

Boyd has no illusions about the problems still confronting the city. He demonstrates that the mini-recovery in downtown Detroit is mainly about new whites moving in rather than Detroit Blacks moving up. He notes that much of the city is still in disaster mode.

Nonetheless, Boyd has hopes new relocated enterprises like Quicken Loans, Compuware and Shinola may open the door to better days. Whether that succeeds remains to be seen. Boyd’s purpose, however, is not to provide up-to-the minute analysis of the city. His goal is to remind a grassroots Black audience that it has inherited a history of valiant self-determination.

The effect of Boyd’s approach is like that of an enormous Breugel painting. Each individual story is interesting in and of itself while having a larger symbolic importance, but the total cultural reality is revealed only when the stand-alone events are combined.

The author’s vast offering of evidence presents a Black history distinct from the general history in which it is entwined, a story that has not previously been told in this epic manner. Vital for a renewed surge of militancy is that all activists recognize, honor, and draw on that history. Black Detroit is a subtle call to arms.

September-October 2017, ATC 190