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

By Herb Boyd

Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs

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Recently, Herb Boyd was the guest of C-SPAN Book TV’s “In-Depth,” a three-hour, live and call-in, examination of a single author’s body of work.  He graciously called out as many names during that time as possible because Boyd felt that it’s their spotlight too—their, of course, meaning the Black people who have been forgotten by history. He also used his new book’s photo leaf, containing many photos taken by Boyd himself, to call out the names of the living and the dead, honoring all who deserve to be listed and acknowledged.

Boyd’s tendency to roll-call serves him well here in this new book, using the subtitle and from-the-bottom-up historical approach made popular by white radical historian Howard Zinn. In this work of Black geographical genealogy as historical narrative, Boyd presents the names behind the often-invisible and unheralded work in creating and guiding a Black community. The book arrives on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the city’s July 1967 rebellion, one that ripped out its political and social core.

Detroit’s facts are as amazing as its legends. The city was “an important terminus” of the Underground Railroad, but also a place where, in 1934, a Black World War I veteran named James Victory was accused of white-woman rape. Because Detroit is legendary for its strong Black resistance, Victory won. It’s one of a hundred stories Boyd tells—of Mayor Coleman Young’s childhood working for a man named Ossian Sweet—who, gun in hand, successfully defended his home against white racists. Of Rev. Albert Cleage creating a Black Christian nationalism that weaved well into the religious fabric of a city that helped shape Detroit Red (Malcolm X) and kept Elijah Muhammad’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Of factory worker Louise Thomas, who Boyd describes as a Black "Rosie The Riveter" who fought for respect in 1942.

Boyd—who opens his journalism notebook, photo collection, music collection, and Black history library in the city’s honor—has written so many books in his nearly 80 years on Earth that he knows where to find and make the proper connections. For example, instead of having Black nationalism and integration-ism oppose each other, he takes great care, chapter after chapter, in showing how both operated in a town that was equally labor, civil rights and Black Power.

He uses the existing secondary-source literature, especially biographies, in ways that feel new here: Aretha Franklin, for example, talks about urban renewal, while the Communist autoworker and theoretician James Boggs shares almost equal space with the capitalist songwriter and producer Berry Gordy. Boyd performs a work of not just touring, but historical quilting, connecting the generations so more than 200 years of friction, sweat and steel can flow as well as possible.

There just seems to be something about this particular mixture of land and people that created Detroit’s Black resistance. (Is it that just over the river is Canada—the fact that freedom is constantly in sight, and there for all those who can fight their way across?) This eye-to-eye confrontation between Blacks and whites permeates Black Detroit.

Here’s one example: A Black man, Thomas Faulkner, was convicted in.....Read More

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This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression

By Daphne Merkin

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

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Nearly thirty years ago, toward the end of the 1980s, acclaimed American novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and other books) wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times that he revised as an expanded article for Vanity Fair.  Then it was published as a slim volume titled Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and Styron’s smallest book became his biggest bestseller.

Even now, three decades later, Styron’s trailblazing account of his grim battle with clinical depression remains a milestone.  When Darkness Visible first appeared, the confessional epoch of tell-all memoirs and the Age of Oprah’s “public sharing” were getting underway.  However, there was something startling regarding Styron.

He was a high profile, bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author at the peak of his international fame and fortune (the film version of Sophie’s Choice sent his latter-day career into the stratosphere).  And then there was this: William Styron, by all accounts, seemed to enjoy wealth, status, celebrity, critical respect, and much luck.

And yet, he boldly made clear in Darkness Visible how a crippling clinical depression (combined with his late-in-life decision to abandon roughly forty years of hefty, nightly, vigorous drinking) destabilized him for significant periods of time.  Styron was hospitalized more than once for depression, and suffered the agonies of varied pill prescriptions that rarely produced anything other than side-effects so ruinous that he lost his ability to write, and even his capacity to read.  Yet, he recovered  -- that is, until other such episodes in his twilight years finally rendered him an invalid.

Daphne Merkin tells a somewhat similar yet distinctly different story.  She, too, may give the appearance of good fortune and a privileged life.  She’s the daughter of a wealthy Park Avenue couple whose philanthropy in New York City is well known. Educated at prestigious schools and for many years a staff writer at The New Yorker, Merkin also published a distinguished first novel (Enchantment).  Her essays and features in The New York Times Magazine (and elsewhere) always evoke interest.

Nonetheless, the bulk of Daphne Merkin’s life has been not just burdened but downright plagued by a relentless species of depression that is constant and omnipresent in ways that remind us that Styron’s troubles were, indeed, episodic.

In This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, all of Daphne Merkin’s power as a writer is on display.  This is that rare and wondrous type of book that lends itself to being read in varied ways.  A straight-through linear reading is always an option. But you can also let this memoir open to whatever page it happens to reveal, and chances are Merkin’s insights, memories, and anecdotes will instantly engage you.

For example, the Prologue begins with this arresting paragraph: “Lately I’ve been thinking about the allure of suicide again – the way it says basta! to life, like an Italian grandmother sweeping out all the accumulated debris of daily existence, leaving a clean and unmarked surface.  No more rage at the circumstances that have brought you down.  No more dread.  No more going from day to day in a state of suspended animation, feeling tired around the eyes—behind them, too—and making conversation, hoping no one can tell what’s going on inside.  No more anguish, that roaring pain inside your head that feels physical but has no somatic correlation that can be addressed and treated with a Band-Aid or ointment or cast. Most of all, no more disguise, no more need to wear a mask . . .”

And that’s just for openers!  This entire book is replete with such superb writing. Any respected writers’ workshop could invest an hour in assessing that opening paragraph: the allusion to suicide that hits like a hammer; the vivid image of that raging Italian granny; the deft repetition of “No more” again and again; and so on.

Well, the following 285 pages are no less impressive – and no less telling.

The 37 chapters of Daphne Merkin’s memoir offer a literary texture that rivals the best prose fiction of Saul Bellow or Joan Didion.  In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that in This Close to Happy, the dramatis personae of the author’s life easily equals the....Read More

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Jewish Mothers Never Die

By Natalie David-Weill

Reviewed by Janet Garber

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How Do You Spell “Kvell?

Heaven: seven Jewish women, all mothers of famous men, drift languidly with our recently-departed narrator through the celestial rooms up above, here noshing a bit or indulging in a feast, there playing music or games or just lounging. Their main occupation in the afterlife is dissecting the lives and works of their illustrious sons: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Albert Cohen, Romain Gary, the Marx brothers, and Woody Allen. And dealing with their Jewish mother guilt. Did they do a good job raising their kids? Must they take responsibility for their sons’ failures as well as successes, glaring faults, even suicides?

Our guide, Rebecca, a mere 38 years old, has perished in a car accident, leaving behind a teenage son. She’s eager to learn the secrets of success from these older women. Ought she to feel guilty about her maternal lapses? Must she worry, as they do, about her son for all eternity? She pokes and prods them into divulging secrets, pulling the curtain back on the inner lives of these men. To be certain, the women are a bit touchy at times; she must take care to flatter them and praise their sons’ achievements while tamping down their rampant competitiveness, as she tries to fit into their inner circle.

Most of the women freely admit to being overbearing, overindulgent, overly involved in their sons’ affairs. Fortunately for Rebecca and the reader, she is a professor of French literature and well versed on each of the men, familiar both with their biographies and their literary careers. The mothers fill her in on love affairs, personality quirks, family secrets. They never stop talking about how they funneled all their desires, ambitions, love into their boys. They derived meaning and channeled their own ambitions vicariously, many constrained by the mores of the day. A woman could be a mother and be acclaimed; not so easy to stand on her own and accomplish great works.

The author David-Weill is in real life a PhD in French literature residing in Belgium, and it shows. In conversation with the mothers, Rebecca, a stand-in for the author, reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the sons and their literary or cinematic works, providing a biographical gloss for the readers. The end result depends on the reader. For American audiences who have probably never heard of the writers Albert Cohen or Romain Gary, learning more biographical details about them is probably not an urgent matter on the agenda.

Why did the author choose these men over others? For one thing, they wrote about their mothers (see Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen) or commented on their power as Freud did here: “A man who has been his mother’s indisputable favorite never loses that feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.” Freud explains his mother’s doting on him to the exclusion of his siblings: “A mother finds true satisfaction only in her relationship with her son, on whom she can transfer her own suppressed ambitions.”

What the David-Weill excels at is reanimating these Jewish mothers with all their touchiness and quirkiness, and imagining them interacting with each other, examining and justifying their rationales for raising their sons as they did. Each mother without exception never wavers in the conviction that her son is a genius and destined for greatness. More to the point: none of them regrets creating a chokehold on their child and ruining him for normal interactions with a life partner. Not one of them entertained the notion of creating a life of her own with something other than her son as a focus. Over and over we learn of dysfunction, of hypochondria, of depression. Yet, look at the results!

So that is the premise of this slim volume—dead Jewish mothers obsessively reviewing the lives of their sons and questioning if they should have done something differently. David-Weill does an....Read More

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Vacation Guide to the Solar System

By Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

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The writers of this sometimes-interesting book sets the stage exactly right in the very first paragraph: “Some may question the wisdom of creating a vacation guide to the planets,” Koski and Grcevich write, “when human feet haven’t touched the ground of another world (the moon) since 1972. If you’re thinking that a space vacation is a distant fantasy, however, remember that one hundred years ago, airplanes were a cutting-edge technology. The fast ones could travel at the “great speed” of 120 miles an hour, bringing a prospective space traveler to Neptune in 2,571 years. In 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft reached Neptune in less than twelve years traveling at 42,000 miles per hour. One hundred years from now, who knows how long a trip to Neptune might take?

“Assuming we don’t destroy ourselves first, humans will go to places we describe in this book someday, almost without question.”

The authors then take us on a journey to all the planets in the solar system and point out in the three rocky planets, Mercury, Venus and Mars, where we have already sent probes to map the terrain—all of the natural features for the vacationer. To be frank, I found little on these planets of interest. Just a lot of bad weather. My great interest in Mars, besides perhaps viewing Mount Olympus, the tallest extinct volcano in the solar system, is, did life on Earth begin on Mars? We now know with certainty that Mars once had an atmosphere and vast oceans of water, but did it also have life? And did chunks of Mars, break of and find its way to our oceans? It certainly did in my novella, A History of the 21st Century.

It is when we get to the gas giants, with the granddaddy of....Read More

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