Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination – Herb Boyd

Boyd1When I think back to my youth, I recall various automobiles that were own by my father, uncles and friends.  Their cars were American made and typically products of General Motors. Buick, Pontiac and Cadillac were the cars of choice and hardly anyone then owned a foreign car. If you owned a Cadillac, it meant status and success in the America.  Detroit  became Motor City and its dominance over the U.S. auto industry remained in place for several decades until automakers from Japan and Germany stormed into the American market.  The city has an extensive past, beginning with French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac (1658-1730) for whom the luxury automobile is named after.  In 1701, he established what is now Detroit before eventually returning to France where he lived out the rest of his days.  The evolution of Detroit is one of America’s greatest success stories and also one of its greatest tragedies.  Throughout all, its black citizens have always remained firm in their dedication to seeing Detroit become a city to be envied. Herb Boyd takes another look at his city and the role of black men and women in the development of a famed city.

Boyd starts at the beginning, when Detroit is under French rule and North America is an open plain upon which Native Americans, white settlers, slaves and the wild call home. A new nation known as the United States was established in 1776 and over the next few years, slavery was been abolished in the majority of norther states.  In 1701, Detroit entered the Union as part of Michican and although slavery was abolished, it was still practice in many parts of the country.  Detroit became a gateway to freedom as many slaves escaped into Canada before returning free men and women due to loopholes in U.S. laws at the time regarding slavery in particular fugitive slaves. The case of Peter Denison is revisited and I feel many readers will find this section regarding the methods of freedom for slaves to be quite interesting.   However, not every story has a happy ending and the racial tension discussed by the author highlights how far as a nation we have come.   In what could be called race wars, we witness episodes of violence that will send a chill down the spine of many readers.

The Civil War marked a turning point in United States History.  Thousands of African-American troops took part in the conflict but the battle for freedom was far from over.  Racism was still prevalent and slavery died a slow and agonizing death.   However, years prior to the emancipation proclamation, the abolitionist made it their goal to erase slavery from the entire United States. Boyd discusses the lives and actions of the legendary John Brown (1800-1859) and others who sought freedom through armed resistance.  Those of the more peaceful approach were responsible for the founding of the Second Baptist Church and Dunbar Hospital.  Yet they could not escape racism and Detroit would have its many ugly incidents between white and black citizens that nearly caused its destruction and will make readers wonder why humans treat each other in the ways that they do.

Similar to many American cities post-Civil War, Detroit continued to undergo significant change.  In 1914, the world went to war as Europe became ground zero.  Thirty years later a second world war began and Detroit sent some of its best which included many of its black citizens who returned home from war energized to defeat Jim Crow.  It is at this point in the book that the story picks up considerable pace and descent of Detroit into the ghost town it became takes center stage.  As Berry Gordy’s Motown Records were turning out hits, white flight was in full swing, changing the demographics of many neighborhoods which saw an increase in the number of black residents. The landscape of Detroit was being remade and the effects would reverberate for decades.

Throughout the book it seems as if Detroit is where who’s who of important figures can be found.  However, their presence is offset by the rise in violence that spared no one, including the late Rosa Parks (1913-2005) and Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984).  Detroit had earned a reputation as a dangerous city that threatened all who entered.  But within its borders there were those working to change it for the better and that has never changed.  The story of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (1918-1997) is highlighted as well as the rise and fall of future Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  Despite their best efforts, the image of a violent city stuck to Detroit and the gun violence increased.  And shootings by law enforcement officers of civilians had placed Detroit at the top of the list of police related shootings in America.  The police unit STRESS, an acronym for Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets, had become infamous and in May, 2010, the murder of  seven-year-old Aiyana Jones provided the ultimate proof of a police department in need of upheaval.

Currently, Mike Duggan serves as the Mayor of Detroit.  Time will tell if he will have ultimate success in rehabilitating a city that was once one of America’s brightest.  The bailout of the auto industry by the administration of President Barack Obama marked a low point in the history of Motor City.  It was sobering experience that taught American automakers many painful truths and showcased Detroit’s fall from the position of ruler of the U.S. auto industry.  There are many bright spots and if there is anything we can take from Boyd’s book, it is that the people of Detroit never give up and have always found ways to survive.  The future is bright for Detroit but only if all hands are on deck.  I have no doubt that they will be.   But what is imperative to remember through Boyd’s work, are the stories of the people of color who helped build the City of Detroit.  Good read.

Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.” – Marvin Gaye (1938-1984)

ASIN: B01I9B5466

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison- Shaka Senghor


Shaka Senghor spent 19 years of his life in prison after being convicted for murder.   At the time of his release, he was 38 years old and had spent nearly half his life behind bars.  The Detroit native became a writer in prison and turned his thoughts and memories into this incredible autobiography of his life  which could be a case study of the path a young man takes in a life of crime and the redemption that can be found inside the walls of a prison. The City of Detroit stands out as one of America’s greatest tragedies.  The one time mecca of the automobile industry, Detroit has steadily declined and become a haven for crime, poverty and lack of hope. And as new president takes office, some are filled with optimism that Detroit can rebound from its dismal state and regain the prominence it once had.

Stories about life in prison are never easy to listen to.   The recollections told by former inmates reveal the brutal life inside of a correctional facility.  Murder, assault, rape and extortion are daily realities that test the sanity of even the most balanced prisoner. But what happens when a young man who is barely old enough to drink, enters the American penal system?  Shaka Senghor’s story is gripping from beginning to end and helps the reader to understand the true nature of incarceration and its devastating effects on the prisoners and their loved ones.    Senghor could have easily become just another statistic inside the penal system.  Thousands of young African-American men enter prison at a young age and spend a majority of their lives behind bars.  And when they are released later in life, several decades has passed and they struggle with integration back into society.   No doubt, his story is one of success but his battle for freedom did not come easily and I assure you that once you begin this book, you will find it nearly impossible to put down.

To say that it is incredible that he is still alive today is an understatement. By all estimates, he should have died many years ago.  But I believe that his fate was not to die a senseless death but to survive and write this phenomenal book that just might change the lives of those who read it whether they are on the streets in a life of crime or currently incarcerated.  As he traces his beginnings to his childhood , we see the chain of events that are put into place beginning with the separation of his parents.   He is introduced to the streets and before 16 years of age, a known drug dealer in the neighborhood.  Fast money, status and power are in his hands but a chance encounter with a regular customer changes his life forever and for many years, he would struggle to come to terms with the events of that day.

Those who remember the HBO drama Oz will feel reminded of that show as they read this book.  His memories show the ugliest parts of prison life and the descriptions of what happened are frank and to the point.  Some may shy away but in order to feel the power behind his words, it was necessary on his part to tell the stories as they happened with their gritty details involved.  By telling the stories in this way,  his transformation into the man we see today becomes even more remarkable. I cannot imagine that it was easy for Senghor to write this book but as he explains, writing became one of the tools he used to maintain his sanity and express his emotions.  And he would use writing as a means to gain his freedom after a long 19 years behind bars.

The beauty in this book is not only that he earned and gained his freedom, but in the process he reinvented himself and dives into the many social issues that have plagued minority communities for decades.  As a product of a broken home, he maintains a distinction as a first hand witness to the tragic results of dysfunction in the home. His entry into a prison system with disproportionate demographics,  helps to reinforce the notion that young Black and Hispanic men and women far too often fall victim to the prison system and its draconian design that attempts to strip individuals of their human existence.  Senghor spent nearly five years in solitary confinement, a punishment which is purely designed for isolation and to break the mind and spirit of the inmate.  Miraculously, he does not break and strengthens his resolve to one day walk out of prison a free man. His discovery of literature is a shining moment in the book.  Authors and figures such as Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis flood his consciousness with words that help him understand his existence in prison and his life in America.  Their writings prove to be invaluable in his transformation and emotional development as they provide a source of pride and hope in an environment full of toxic elements and deadly characters. His discovery of he Muslim faith is a story similar to that of other men of color who have experienced life inside of a prison and in search of an eternal creator.

Having found this book by accident, I can say that it is one of my best mistakes. His life is an incredible journey so if you have time to spare, grab a seat and follow Shaka from his childhood in Detroit to his life on the street, fatherhood, incarceration, awakening and finally redemption with success mixed in.  In the end it is a feel good story that originates on the worst of circumstances. But he reminds us that we have control over our actions, words and destiny.  The key is that we have to be willing to open our eyes, expand our horizons and reevaluate the path that we have taken in life.

ISBN-10: 1101907312
ISBN-13: 978-1101907313