Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Music And The Post-Industrial City :: Rebecca Solnit on Detroit

Photo by Misty Keasler

From this month’s Harper’s comes a fine meditation on the prehistory, present, and near-future of Detroit by one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit. As you might always find in Rebecca’s writing, the piece is breathtakingly written, wrenchingly honest about race and history, and, in the end, cautiously, even defiantly optimistic. You can see why I love her work.

Here’s an excerpt where Rebbeca interviews one of my heroes, the inspirational Grace Lee Boggs. In this short passage, my fellow Detroit music fans not from Detroit or nearby, you might find some of the real context for J-Dilla, Invincible, Sa-Ra, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, PPP, Black Milk, Soundmurder, Dana Burton, and the list goes on…:

…inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green. Grace Lee Boggs, at ninety-one, has been political active in the city for more than half a century. Born in Providence to Chinese immigrant parents, she got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and was a classical Marxist when she married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, in 1953. That an Asian woman married to a black man could become a powerful force was just another wrinkle in the racial politics of Detroit. Indeed, her thinking evolved along with the radical politics of the city itself. During the 1960s, the Boggses were dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. and ardent about Black Power, but as Grace acknowledged when we sat down together in her big shady house in the central city, “The Black Power movement, which was very powerful here, concentrated only on power and had no concept of the challenges that would face a black-powered administration.” When Coleman Young took over city hall, she said, he could stgart fixing racism in the police department and the fire department, “but when it came time to do something about Henry Ford and General Motors, he was helpless. We thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”

When she and Jimmy crusaded against Young’s plans to rebuild the city around casinos, they realized they had to come up with real alternatives, and they began to think about what a local, sustainable economy would look like.

They had already begun to realize that Detroit’s lack of participation in the mainstream offered an opportunity to do everything differently–that instead of retreating back to a better relationship to captialism, to industry, to the mainstream, the city could move forward, turn its liabilities into assets, and create an economy entirely apart from the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum.

Jimmy Boggs described his alternative vision in a 1988 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. “We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market,” he said. “We have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city…In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the natural resources of our area and the existing and potential skills and talents of Detroiters.”

That was the vision, and it is only just starting to become a reality. “Now a lot of what you see is vacant lots,” Grace told me. “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.”

Shout out to the AMC fam and to the Detroit Summer crew, past present and future, wherever you may be.

posted by @ 9:50 am | 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Music And The Post-Industrial City :: Rebecca Solnit on Detroit”

  1. Democracy and Hip-Hop Project says:

    This is a piece I wrote recently breaking down some points of contention with her philosophy.

  2. Zentronix says:

    Thanks for posting your link. I don’t think I fully agree with your reading of Boggs. I do think you are going to a deeper debate about the nature of race and class that has gone on for decades in the radical left. If you haven’t already, you might want to check Cedric Robinson.

  3. Libby says:

    …Nice to see the mention and comment on Grace Lee Boggs…I heard her interviewed on WBAI in NY and was surprised and pleased by her perspective (glad that she exists)…

  4. Democracy and Hip-Hop Project says:


    Thanks for taking the time to read it. I’ll check out Cedric Robinson.

    A great deal of my blog’s politics have been influenced by C.L.R. James (which necessarily includes Boggs). Some of the other pieces you may find of interest, even should you disagree.

    I’d be very much interested in hearing some of your disagreements if you find the time.

    There is a larger discussion of Boggs politics happening at Lester Spence’s you should check out at I elaborate quite a bit more in the comments section.

    Thanks again.

    Krisna C. Best

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