By Maty Drame
Famed author, journalist and City College professor Herb Boyd was on campus in late March to discuss his book, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, a volume about the historical influence of the African American culture on the city of Detroit, Michigan, from a black perspective.
The Birmingham, Alabama, native, who moved to the Motor City in 1943 with his then 20-year old mother, wrote Black Detroit as an homage to the city where he spent 45 to 50 years of his life.
“The book is part autobiography, part memoir, part love letter… to Detroit,” he says. In addition to his own recollections and extensive research the author also interviewed a number of people including his mother.
Aside from Black Detroit the reputed journalist, activist and teacher has written for various publications such as The Amsterdam News, Cineaste and The Black Scholar over the years. His books, notably Baldwin’s Harlem, We Shall Overcome, and The Harlem Reader have all been critically acclaimed. He also has written or edited books on Malcolm X, including two with X’s daughter, Ilyasah Al-Shabbazz, By Any Means Necessary, Malcolm X: Real, Not Reinvented and The Diary of Malcolm X. Boyd also makes references to the Civil Rights leader -known as “Detroit Red” in his younger days- and his impact in Black Detroit.
In addition to other prominent Detroit figures like Berry Gordy, Aretha Franklin and Fannie Richards the author also expanded on the book’s focus on Detroit’s significance to the American culture, society and economy, in general, and to African American history, in particular. From the economic growth the automobile manufacturing industry offered black workers, the cultural revolution ushering in by Motown (led by Gordy) to the city’s race riots that reverberated across the country Boyd explored every aspect of black life in Detroit.
“I think it’s important to show the connection because Detroit becomes symbolic of the black experience in America,” Boyd argues to the crowded room of Shepard Hall.
Many of the attendees held copies of the book in hand as they listened, though for some it was their first time hearing about Boyd.
Janelle Poe, a creative writing graduate student, owns a copy of the book but admits she didn’t know anything about the author until the evening’s talk.
“I’m interested in the history of America in general, but particularly the centers of black culture… and he really wove a lot of interesting threads with the music… and the manufacturing industry,” Poe said.
Juliet Jacob, an undergrad student, echoes similar sentiments. “I thought it was really informative for people without a context of Detroit, and that part of American history.” Jacob also wants to read more of Boyd’s work.
Black Detroit is the 25th book that Boyd has either written or collaborated on. Two more are in the works, he says, including one about the history of black people in New York.
Since writing takes up most of his time these days the African American history professor, who has been teaching at City College for twelve years, is currently on leave. However, as he confirmed during his WHCR interview with President Vince Boudreau, the 79-year old plans on returning to classrooms for his courses on the history of Harlem; the Civil Rights Movement; and Malcolm X next spring before retiring from academia.