Saturday, June 30, 2018

Book Reviews: Black Detroit

Black Detroit: A People's History of Self-Determination
by Herb Boyd
Herb Boyd is a journalist and historian. This book is a sober overview of African-American history in Detroit from its founding to current day, a personal narrative (thauthor is a Detroit native), and an impassioned love letter to all those various Black people, men, women, and children, famous and anonymous, who made Detroit ground zero for Black resistance to racism in all of its forms from slavery to segregation and beyond. 

Although the South was notorious and in some aspects unique in its racial segregation and state and individual terror utilized to enforce white supremacy, the North, including Michigan and Detroit, saw non-Blacks express just as much racial hostility towards Blacks. Blacks had to deal with housing segregation,  public and private establishments that excluded Blacks, sundown towns or neighborhoods where Black presence was only barely tolerated during the day as domestic labor, police contempt for and violence against Blacks, and of course ubiquitous employment discrimination in every single trade or career.

Despite all of that or perhaps because of all of that Black Detroiters, their backs against the wall, had no choice but to come out swinging. Because of its proximity to Canada, Detroit was one of the key hubs of the Underground Railroad. Boyd examines this theme of resistance from antebellum days through the present day. I learned that the author is related to one of my high school classmates. That classmates's family was active in the movement during the sixties and seventies. Boyd details their tragic encounter with the Detroit Police STRESS unit which was notorious for harassing, beating and murdering Black citizens. It is indeed a small world. 

Boyd is not just showing us a parade of horribles. He also dives deep into the musical history of Detroit, from John Lee Hooker to Berry Gordy to Yusef Lateef to Aretha Franklin to many more. Boyd pays a lot of attention to the labor movements in Detroit and their history of militancy. Boyd examines the phenomenon of white flight which reached almost epidemic levels in the sixties and seventies, leaving Detroit as perhaps the nation's blackest city. 

Unfortunately this demographic change also occurred simultaneously with the nation's transition to a post-industrial economy. By the seventies it was less and less possible for a man with only a high school education and a strong back to propel his family into the middle class by dint of working in the auto plants. It took a great deal of time for Detroiters and suburbanites, black and white, to recognize this and change accordingly. This book is just over 300 pages in hardcover. Detroit has been on something of a comeback. It is also starting to have more gentrification and whites moving in, something that is both upending and reinforcing some old alliances and viewpoints. 

This was a really good book to read if you are curious about the city which has been known at various times as the "Paris of the Midwest", "The Arsenal of Democracy",  and "The Murder Capital of America". If you are a Detroit native you will of course recognize and appreciate many of the names and stories here. This is a positive optimistic book.

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