Black Detroit A People’s History of Self-Determination is a new book (Spring 2017) by the award-winning journalist, activist, educator, and author Herb Boyd. It has been on the Amazon list of “Best Sellers in African American history.” Black people in Pittsburgh should read it very carefully and at least twice. It is also very readable and that’s always important.
Black Detroit celebrates the resilience of Black people in Detroit from the city’s birth three centuries ago until the present. Detroit’s first Black mayor Coleman Young, “the Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, the Black music powerhouse Motown, Inc., and the historic 1967 Black Rebellion are some of the people, organizations, and events we all know. Boyd tells us about many others we should know.
Boyd is a political and cultural creation of post-WWII Detroit. He writes with firsthand knowledge of this seminal era in African American history. His section on the Freedom Now Party, Malcolm X’s pilgrimages to Detroit and other independent Black political projects in the early 60s helps to sit the record straight on the Black Power Movement. The mainstream media reduces the Black Power Movement to little more than images of the Black Panther Party.
In the wake of the July 1967 Black Rebellion, Boyd writes, “there were 43 dead citizens…473 injured… (m)ore than 7,200 arrested…2,500 stores vandalized or torched… overall damages between $40 and $80 billion.” This included an “irreplaceable” Black cultural institution Vaughn’s Bookstore which was “destroyed by the police during the Black rebellion.”
Equally important, his account of the numerous literary, visual, and performing artists and arts organizations in the 60s and 70s draws attention to the wide scope of the vibrant Black arts Movement in Detroit and nationwide. “Broadside Press,” for example, “between 1966 and 1975” published “eighty-one books…including single collections by forty poets”
Black Detroit is an indispensable study of the Motor City’s Black church, media, labor struggles, politics, and culture both yesterday and today.
Some months ago, I met Youngstown Ohio-based historian Vince Ajamu Shivers shortly after a public education forum in Pittsburgh’s east end. He made the important point that Black people in Youngstown and Pittsburgh live very close to each other and are confronted with the same issues against the status quo. But most unfortunate, they know hardly anything about their respective struggles.
This is true nationwide. Black Atlanta does not know the struggle—that is personalities, history, strategies—of Black Chicago. To drive home this point, Black Pittsburgh does not know Black Wilkinsburg, its next door neighbor.
In this light, Black people in Pittsburgh should read Black Detroit to compare and contrast, debate and critique the black experience in both cities. This could help significantly to raise the level of the strategies and tactics to advance the day-to-day black struggles forward.
Black people in Detroit and Pittsburgh are struggling at the bottom of the social pyramid in major metropolitan economies devastated by the decline of the US blue collar manufacturing industry.
Boyd writes, “Detroit with its black majority can be a test case for many aspects of social, political and economic control of municipalities.”
The Reverend Dr. John Welch is the most recent African American candidate to run for the Pittsburgh mayor’s seat. What impact has Detroit’s five African American mayors had on African American life?
Directly related to this is the long time nexus between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Boyd notes the late Albert Dunmore, a “highly respected columnist of the Michigan Chronicle,” who, “had spent twenty years at the Pittsburgh Courier” before “returning to “the Chronicle in 1961.” More recent, Dr. Mulugette Birru is not cited in Black Detroit. Birru has served as director of the Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation and director of the major economic development agencies in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and later held a similar position in Wayne County, Michigan. He must have some informed opinions on Black economic issues in Detroit and Pittsburgh
The late world-acclaimed pianist and educator Geri Allen, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Jazz Studies Program, was a product of Detroit’s stellar jazz tradition. Over the years, she had active been in The Afro-American Music Institute, The Jazz Workshop, and other community-based organizations in Pittsburgh. Boyd acknowledges Geri Allen in “an affectionate circle of griots…indispensable to all of my books.”
And Herb Boyd led two very informed and lively discussions in Pittsburgh on Malcolm X and Nat Turner films for the Sembene Film Festival’s 2017 Black History Month program. The nexus continues. Black Detroit facilitates the nexus.