Digital First Media

Herb Boyd surveys the rich history of the city in new book “Black Detroit”

Rachel Moulden for Digital First Media

Herb Boyd
Herb Boyd will sign copies of his book “Black Detroit” in Southfield and Oak Park on June 10 and 11. Photo Courtesy of Christopher Griffith

Herb Boyd lives a busy life as an activist, author and academic. He keeps one foot in the classroom by teaching history and culture at City College of New York, and spends the rest of his time writing, researching and demonstrating — which he’s done for the past 32 years.

Boyd has lived in Detroit for more than 40 years. He moved there from Alabama as a small child, months before the race riot of 1943. Reflecting on his childhood, he says Detroit was very different from living in Alabama.

“There was a lot of activity happening,” he says. “We had no television at that time, but once you got out on the street you saw how chaotic the situation was.”

“Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination” is a comprehensive history of the city starting from the year 1701 all the way up to Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy. It covers a number of historical events and mixes in elements of the people’s culture. “Detroit is an epicenter of politics, unions, music, sports, urban affairs, and so much more,” Boyd says.

He says his mother, Catherine Brown, is responsible for teaching him all he knows about Detroit and she is embedded in the book. The book also shares experiences he has had living in various places throughout Michigan.

“The gestation period for ‘Black Detroit’ was almost like that of an infant; it took me about nine months to get all of it down and several months of editorial help from my team of women to get it ready for the publisher,” the author says.

Boyd says the way his mother moved them from place to place gave him an opportunity to grow up all over Detroit, meeting tons of friends who provided the essential groundwork for the book.

When looking at Detroit from the past and the present Boyd thinks Detroit continues to be a tale of two cities — one gradually rebounding from a dismal economic period, the other spiraling deeper into the darkness of unemployment and homelessness. But looking toward the future of the city, “Since I’m an optimist I believe Detroit’s future is much brighter than the outlook proposed by many social and political pundits,” he says.

“The people of Detroit have faced much tougher times than the present, and through grit and determination we’ve managed to rebound and make a way out of no way.”

He reflects on his long history of activist work.

“One’s activism emerges from some very strange and unpredictable places. It’s hard to say when a feeling will possess you in such a way that you are moved to action,” he says. He didn’t initially plan on becoming an activist, but became a student leader in college and the next thing he knew he was out marching.

In times where people are becoming more active and vocal about demonstrating beliefs, he offers advice to those who want to get involved with a certain cause: Look toward your family, teachers and friends who get involved in something they believe, and it will make a believer out of you.

Boyd is working on a new book for Third World Press, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance. He’s also in the process of editing several books and submitting essays to a couple of anthologies.

• If you go: Herb Boyd will speak about his book “Black Detroit” at two events next weekend. The first will be at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 10, at the Southfield Public Library, 26300 Evergreen Road. The second will be 2-4 p.m. Sunday, June 11, at the Oak Park Public Library, 14300 Oak Park Blvd.

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