In Conversation: Craig Wilder and Herb Boyd

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Historian Dr. Craig Steven Wilder having a conversation with author Herb Boyd about his new book, Black Detroit. Photo: David Greaves

The Skylight Gallery at Restoration Plaza held a gathering of authors, editors, agents and regular literary-minded folks for a conversation between Bed-Stuy native, author and MIT Professor Craig Wilder and author Herb Boyd about Boyd’s 25th book, “Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination”, now on the New York Times’ Recommended Reading list.

Wilder began by looking for the inspiration for the book, because when reading the introduction, which he confessed he usually does not do, it seemed to be the telling of “a very personal story” wherein Boyd recounts his journey as a 4-year-old holding his mother’s hand as they left the peanut farm of Alabama and rode the train to the factory life of the city.

His mother had left the South in 1941 at the beginning of WWII and before the 1943 riots. They arrived in Detroit “making the voyage from peanut farm and cotton patch, away from the boll weevil and the Ku Klux Klan, moving away from the menace and demons in the South” to a place where Henry Ford was offering $5.00 a day and that proved to have a “magnetism” that drew on Black folks who had heard the stories, bringing them North to join others who had made the journey.

His mother had done two reconnaissance trips to get the lay of the land before she brought the family and then they “bounced around the city” while his mother worked in the factories of WWII, and when the war ended the factories closed and the men came marching home, she worked as a domestic worker for families in the suburbs. Boyd says it was “the kind of common struggle of self-preservation that was similar across the country”.

Wilder noted that the movement of the Boyd’s around Detroit “was about more than just changing apartments”. It reflected “a changing economy and an unstable economy for African-Americans after the war”.

He said, “You’re telling a very personal story about family”, that is as much Boyd’s mother’s story as his. “I think there is something important when Black scholars think about their own families in transformative ways” and he asked how those connections motivated this project. “My personal odyssey is inseparable from this book,” Boyd agreed. “Recounting, recalling and remembering all of the things I learned in Detroit.”

Among the things he learned was how his life in Detroit was reflected in neighborhoods in other urban areas. “I feel the African-American experience [in Detroit] is emblematic of the African-American experience in the whole country”, and that includes slavery and the Underground Railroad. “A lot of people don’t know that slavery was in Detroit and the city had a strong abolitionist movement as part of the web of pathways and byways away from captivity and passage to Canada.”

A lot of history was covered in the conversation, the slave revolts of Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, remembering the names of Shields Green and Dangerfield Newby, two of the Black freedom fighters who were tried and hanged because the rode with John Brown in the 1859 raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Wilder said that “as a historian” he was glad to see that the period Boyd covered began in the 1700’s with the Black interactions with native peoples and French traders.

For his deeply-researched book, Boyd had found Black people in those earliest years and Wilder said that telling of them made that history, “an extraordinarily international story with Black people playing a central role” that they are often denied. “We like to start Black history when it’s convenient for other people,” he said. And speaking of other people, Wilder asked about the “choice you make without saying it. It follows Black people–not much about white people in the book. What does that tell us about the story you tell?”

“Our history has to be told,” Boyd said, and the perspectives of Black people are needed. “Our history has to be protected, preserved and then passed on to the next generation. We have that responsibility.”

 

Boyd has created a lot of history himself with over 30 years at Harlem’s venerable Amsterdam News, but he finds that it conflicts with the time and concentration required as a journalist the time he needs as an author “to reflect and write the books”. he thanked his editorial team, including his wife and his longtime agent Marie Brown For their support, for allowing him into their lives and for giving him the time and guidance he needed for writing this “Part-memoir, part-autobiography, part-biography. My love letter to Detroit: “Some say you can’t go home again, but that ain’t true.”

Herb Boyd went back home and returned with a 300-year history of Detroit as told through the eyes and the lives of Black people. All in attendance for the conversation were glad he made the journey.

(The event was hosted by the Honorable Annette Robinson and Bainbridge Harrison Partners)