[Marxism] In Praise of the Black Men and Women Who Built Detroit

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 10 09:44:32 MDT 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Sept. 10 2017
In Praise of the Black Men and Women Who Built Detroit

A People’s History of Self-Determination
By Herb Boyd
Illustrated. 416 pp. Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

Detroit has found its griot in Herb Boyd. Traditional West African 
storytellers, griots carry their people’s traditions from generation to 
generation, and are renowned for their encyclopedic knowledge, their wit 
and their ability to bridge the past and present. In the tradition of 
the griot, Boyd has written a song of praise to what he calls “the 
city’s glorious history.”

In 29 chapters, spanning more than three centuries, Boyd offers an 
unusual retelling of Detroit’s past, with black voices on nearly every 
page. The arc of his narrative is a familiar one in which he traces the 
transformation of Detroit from a French trading outpost to the world’s 
automobile production center to a national symbol of urban decline and 
rebirth. Along the way, Boyd introduces us to some of Detroit’s key 
social movements: abolitionism, union organizing, civil rights and black 
power. But this book is not a conventional urban history. Boyd’s purpose 
is to celebrate the black men and women, the city’s “fearless freedom 
fighters,” who would otherwise remain on history’s margins.

The characters who walk across Boyd’s pages are fascinating. We get 
tantalizing glimpses of the lives of the several hundred enslaved 
Africans who lived in colonial Detroit, including William Kenny, who ran 
away but found the time to taunt his former master with a sarcastic 
letter. We follow the career of the Pelham brothers, Robert Jr. and 
Benjamin, who, in 1883, founded The Detroit Plaindealer, Detroit’s first 
black newspaper.

Later, we meet 20th-century black “breakthrough” figures, like Charles 
Diggs Sr., Detroit’s first black congressman and proprietor of the 
wonderfully named House of Diggs funeral parlor; George Crockett Jr., a 
crusading labor and civil rights lawyer and his wife, Ethelene Crockett, 
who was Michigan’s first African-American obstetrician; and Ed Davis, 
the country’s first black auto dealer. Sometimes, as with the Crocketts, 
Boyd sacrifices detail in his efforts to be comprehensive. We learn, for 
example, that George Crockett was jailed for subversion during the 
McCarthy era, but with little context to help understand the radical 
political world in Detroit that Crockett inhabited.

The heart of Boyd’s book spans the 1930s to the 1970s, when Detroit 
became America’s largest majority black city. Boyd arrived in Detroit — 
as did so many of the city’s residents — as part of the Great Migration 
of African-Americans to the North. They remade the city. While Boyd 
tends to focus mostly on the city’s black elites, including the Motown 
impresario Berry Gordy and Mayor Coleman Young (this book is decidedly a 
“people’s history” from the top down), his most effective and poignant 
passages introduce ordinary Detroiters. One of the most interesting is 
the author’s mother, Katherine Brown, who arrived in Detroit from the 
South in 1941 and, as Boyd puts it, “grew up with the city, rolled with 
its punches, and cheered its victories.” During the war, Brown worked in 
an electronics factory, part of “a veritable army” of black women in 
well-paying manufacturing jobs. But the wartime gains were short-lived. 
Returning veterans, mostly white, took back factory jobs; out-of-work, 
Brown returned to cooking and cleaning for pay. Brown appears again as 
one of the first black residents of her West Side neighborhood, a true 
act of self-determination and great risk in a city where whites fiercely 
resisted the first black neighbors who moved in.

Boyd’s narrative culminates in his account of black power in 1960s-era 
Detroit, perhaps because it is where his story and the city’s converge. 
As a faculty member at Wayne State University, a hotbed of black student 
activism, Boyd joined the successful push for the creation of an 
influential African-American studies program.

Nearly every current of black power played out in Detroit, and Boyd 
touches on them all. The Nation of Islam, founded in Detroit in the 
1930s by the mysterious W.D. Fard, had a small but active presence in 
the city. Malcolm X spent a few formative years in the city and returned 
in 1963 to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “The Message From 
the Grassroots.” The Rev. Albert Cleage led the militant Shrine of the 
Black Madonna. Black autoworkers founded the Revolutionary Union 
Movement, beginning at Dodge Motor Company, demanding black power in the 
workplace. The Republic of New Afrika used its Detroit base to advocate 
for black self-determination. Detroit’s Broadside Press, led by the poet 
Dudley Randall, became a nationwide outlet for the black literati. And, 
by the early 1970s, for all of their differences, Detroit’s black 
activists found common cause in challenging police brutality and 
electing Coleman Young as the city’s first black mayor, controversial 
for his black-power-infused rhetoric but, in ways that Boyd doesn’t 
acknowledge, quite conventional in his embrace of mid-1970s downtown 
redevelopment and austerity politics.

Today Detroit, with vast sections of its 139 square miles lying in ruin, 
its black population moving in unprecedented numbers to inner-ring 
suburbs, its residents struggling with failing schools, joblessness and 
incarceration, is not a land of hope. Travel reporters highlight 
Detroit’s thriving art scene, trendy restaurants and influx of hipsters. 
But those changes have scarcely benefited the working-class and poor 
black Detroiters who make up more than 80 percent of the city’s 
residents. There are a lot of reasons to despair about the city’s 
future. But Boyd remains hopeful. “Throughout the history of Detroit, no 
matter the political strife, economic despair, and racial oppression,” 
he writes, black Detroiters “have been steadfast in their resolve and 
optimistic about the future.” That optimism is the Detroit tradition of 
which the griot sings.

Thomas J. Sugrue, a native of Detroit, is the director of the American 
studies program at New York University and the author of “Sweet Land of 
Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.”

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