HISTART 194-003

Art and Black Power in Detroit: a public history project


M W 1-2:30 PM
3 Credit Seminar

During the 1960s, Detroit emerged as a center of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements. The urban Uprisings of July 1967 compelled, but also inspired these movements to adjust to new social circumstances in a city recently shaken by violence. Soon, in neighborhoods that were hit hardest during the unrest, there arose some of the first Black Power murals created in the United States. None of the murals survive today, but their story should be better known.

This seminar aims to examine the murals' design and content, and to determine how they communicated, which organizations funded them, and what their relative impact was as forms of urban visual culture. To document these lost works of public art, our class will create a public history resource—a website devoted to the study of these murals—that will present original research and make this story available to a wide audience. How can art serve "the people" in their neighborhoods and on the street? Our class will investigate this question in the context of one of the Motor City's most consequential historical moments.

Over the course of the semester we'll investigate the histories of

  • urban migration and labor in Detroit
  • Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals that helped inspire a later generation of "people's art"
  • Issues of public art and its publics: who is art for?
  • The racial geography of Detroit neighborhoods and other factors leading into the 1967 uprising
  • Debates within the Black Arts movement
  • The subjects of Detroit's Black Power murals: from ancient history to the Bible to contemporary "he-roes and she-roes" including Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Aretha Franklin, and Muhammad Ali

In workshops and brief assignments, students will develop skills in

  • Structuring a website
  • Archival and historical research
  • Visual analysis of art
  • Conducting oral history interviews
  • Writing and revising text for a general audience

Requirements: Informed participation in class discussion including readings in advance of class (25%). Brief assignments that contribute to the website will be scaffolded over the course of the semester (40%); a research project prepared in stages throughout the semester including draft and revision (35%). Students are required to attend two day-long field trips which will include a bus tour of the city as well as time to begin research in Detroit libraries.

Textbooks: all readings will be in Canvas. Cost of materials: $0

Category for Concentration Distributions: Modern and Contemporary; Europe and the U.S..

Intended audience: First year students.

Keywords: Art, Detroit, Race, Urban

Fulfills LSA Humanities Requirements

Questions? please email rzurier@umich.edu to learn more about the class.