Some Motor City History

Detroit Industry (Diego Rivera, 1932-33)

Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob

I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face

When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound

Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me

But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”

Motown operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.

The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):

Documentary footage from Detroit’s five days of civic upheaval in July 1967:

While the rioting was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

You can view and read the report here.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

A brief history of the rise and fall of the auto industry in Detroit.

Large swathes of Detroit, abandoned for years, have been reclaimed by nature, which has led to an urban agriculture movement.

Stagolee Shot Billy

Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.

Stack Lee (drawing by Timothy Lane).

Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,

derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .

When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”

“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.

I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.

Seale (left) and Newton.

Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?

Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:

On Christmas Day, 1895, a local pimp named “Stack” Lee Shelton walked into a St. Louis bar wearing pointed shoes, a box-back coat, and his soon-to-be infamous milk-white John B. Stetson hat. Stack joined his friend Billy Lyons for a drink. Their conversation settled on politics, and soon it grew hostile: Lyons was a levee hand and, like his brother-in-law—one of the richest black men in St. Louis at the time—a supporter of the Republican party. Stack had aligned himself with the local black Democrats. The details of their argument aren’t known, but at some point Lyons snatched the Stetson off Stack’s head. Stack demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, shot him dead.

Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.

The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.

The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:

Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:

In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:

Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:

Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:

The Grateful Dead:

Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:

British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:

What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?

What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?

Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?

Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?

Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?

What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?

Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.

This is a beautifully-drawn graphic-novel treatment of the story. The pages are out of order because they’re meant to be printed and bound, but check it out.

From Revolution to Rap

Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party (left)
and Huey Newton, party defense minister.

In 1966, as young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the accommodationism of the Civil Rights movement and starting to embrace a more radical vision, two Oakland activists, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party. The BPP was founded on what Newton and Seale called the “Ten-Point Program”:

  1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine
    The Destiny Of Our Black Community.We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
  2. We Want Full Employment For Our People.We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We Want An End To The Robbery 
    By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
  5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
    The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
    We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History 
    And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We Want An Immediate End To 
    Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
  8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men 
    Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In 
    Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
    Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
  10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,
    Clothing, Justice And Peace.When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

You may know that Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni (above) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Panthers, and that she gave birth to her son in 1971, just one month after being acquitted, along with 20 other Panthers, of a conspiracy to plant bombs in various locations around New York. In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac has himself been studied and analyzed by scholars of popular music, black studies, and American history alike. Some commentators see him as the legitimate heir of the traditions of black nationalism, a “Homegrown Revolutionary.” Others view Tupac’s prioritizing of money, his calls for black-on-black violence, and his misuse of women (he did a prison sentence for rape in 1995 and was killed in a drive-by just a month after his release) as a squandering of the legacy of his mother’s generation.

What do you think?

Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), a Panther who escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She currently lives in Cuba, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now to Assata.

Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” seems to rationalize violence as an appropriate response to systematic oppression, and even suggests that black-on-black violence has the transformative ability to earn respect for those who engage in it.

Tupac is, in a sense, a pivotal figure between the Black Power generation and the hip hop generation. His life and his work raise the questions:

  • Is it possible to be a conscious rapper and a gangsta rapper at the same time?
  • Have the politics of black liberation fizzled out in the general political apathy of the generations that came after the 1970s?
  • Did the radical social discourse of black revolutionary politics morph into the radical individualism of gangsta rap — from the uplift of the community to the glorification of the individual through money, violence, and sexual conquest?

And what about the aesthetics of black revolution? Take a look at the image above of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in their black leather jackets and berets, outfitted with guns and bandoliers. As Angela Davis recalled about seeing an image of the Black Panthers in a German newspaper while a graduate student in Frankfurt:

The image of the leather-jacketed, black bereted warriors standing with guns . . . called me home. . . [to organize] in the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

In her halftime show in the 2016 Super Bowl, Beyoncé ignited a minor media firestorm for her use of Black Panther aesthetics: the leather jackets, black berets, bandoliers and afros.

What do you think Beyoncé was trying to convey with her use of this imagery?

Do you think she was successful at conveying it?

Do you think the criticism against her was justified?

Do you think that today’s black popular music across genres has taken the place of the activism of the 1960s and 1970s?