A Detroit Reading List on Racism, Resistance & Rebellion

In light of the uprisings that have swept the country since the horrific killing of George Floyd, it’s more important than ever that Americans – and particularly white people – educate ourselves on the history and present reality of American racism, and the history of resistance to it.

I’ve seen lots of people sharing various anti-racism resources and reading lists, like this one, on social media. This is great, especially seeing as many of us are still at home and looking for stuff to read.

As a white person who grew up with little understanding of the dynamics of racism in my own state and region, I’ve also found it important to educate myself on the history of racism and resistance in this particular place on the planet.

Fortunately, there are plenty of books to help, seeing as Detroit – currently the nation’s largest majority-black city – has a storied place in the ongoing African American freedom struggle.

Here, then, are ten twelve books that form the beginnings of a reading list on racism, resistance, and rebellion in Detroit.

Obviously, this is just a start, not a definitive list. The potential literature is vast. Please don’t hesitate to add your picks in the comments! (Fiction and poetry would be welcome too.)

  1. Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Coleman Young (with Lonnie Wheeler)

The extraordinary story of Detroit’s first black mayor, including his upbringing in the Black Bottom neighborhood, his education as a labor activist, and his battle to reform the Detroit Police Department, all told in his inimitable style. From Chapter 1: “If you don’t want to read about racism, close the book right now and let’s agree to stay out of each other’s lives.” Inexplicably out of print but easily available for order online.

2. The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue

Destroys the myth, still popular in the suburbs, that everything was just fine in Detroit prior to the 1967 rebellion. On the contrary, in the wake of World War Two, black Detroiters were hit with a triple whammy of deindustrialization and discrimination; racist city policy; and violent, organized resistance to desegregation from white Detroiters (including some of the author’s own relatives, as Sugrue discovered in the archives).

3. Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader

James Boggs, a self-educated Detroit factory worker, became one of the most thoughtful theorists of black power with such essays as ‘The American Revolution” and “The City is the Black Man’s Land.” Along with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs, whose autobiography Living for Change is also well worth a read, he set an example for revolutionary thinking and practice that continues to resonate.

4. Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle

In 1925, a black doctor named Ossian Sweet and his family tried to move into an all-white neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side. They brought guns, with good reason. Boyle tells what happened next in a work of history that reads like a novel.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

It just seems wrong not to include the story of “Detroit Red” in this list, even if he grew up in the Lansing area and left after the eighth grade. (“If I had stayed on in Michigan,” he reflects, “I might have become one of those state capitol building shoeshine boys” – quite a thought.) Ultimately, he did return for a time as minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 1 in Detroit, and delivered some of his most famous speeches here, including his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots.”

6. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin

The rise of black power in 1960s Detroit was felt not just in the streets but also in the factories, as black autoworkers organized a revolutionary union movement that took on both the managers and the white union leadership. This convergence of labor emancipation and black liberation seems especially important today.

7. Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit by Angela Dillard

Any account of protest and politics in Detroit would be incomplete without accounting for the role of the African American church, from labor-oriented ministers like Rev. Charles Hill to nationalists like Rev. Albert Cleage (later Jaramogi Agyeman).

8. Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Anne Thompson

A history of organizing on the factory floor and in the streets in the decade after 1967, including the fight against the Detroit Police Department’s paramilitary STRESS unit.

9. The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey

In the wake of the 1967 rebellion, the author of “Hiroshima” conducted a “personal investigation” into the police killings of four young black men at Detroit’s Algiers Motel. The basis for the 2017 film “Detroit.”

10. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit by June Manning Thomas

An exploration of the history of “urban renewal” efforts in Detroit that is particularly worth reading in our current era of gentrification.

11. Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination by Herb Boyd

A sweeping history by a distinguished Detroit native.

12. The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles

This list has focused on the 20th century (okay, it’s been exclusively 20th century!) but it’s worth remembering that the history of Detroit – and of racial oppression and resistance –  goes back far beyond that, and includes the indigenous peoples who lived on “the strait” long before Cadillac showed up.

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