Distinguished author Tiya Miles, professor of American Culture and Afroamerican & African Studies spoke at the Rackham auditorium Friday to discuss her new book on racial history in the city of Detroit. 

In “The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits,” Miles offers an alternative origin story of Detroit. The book, according to her, “allows us to see Detroit’s beginning and industrial age ‘progress’ and recognize Detroit’s invisible ancestors.”

Miles argued that Detroit, which has a population that is over 80 percent Black, still “feels the aftershocks of systematic racism and white supremacy” prevalent in the 18th century. For context, she presented African-American and Native American stories of enslavement as two adjacent entities that worked together to shape the dogma of the time. She discussed the stereotypical notion of an enslaved Black man working on a cotton plantation and instead offered a picture of society in which the main focus was the slavery of Native American women during the fur trade.

“Slavery and enslaved people both Native and African American were essential to the development of the city of Detroit,” she said. “They demonstrate the reach, depth and adaptability of the American slave trade, such as in the case of making Native women most vulnerable to enslavement. The ideas about inferior people were prepositioned by the ideas of slaves being used as a ‘resource.’”

In researching for the story Miles analyzed records from slaveholders such as John Askin and personalized stories of enslaved women such as Elizabeth “Lisette” Denison Forth, who was enslaved in Detroit in the early 1800s and later became a successful businesswoman.

According to Miles, personal accounts from these women are essentially untraceable, which made her work more difficult.

“Sources do not describe indigenous women with any specificity, their name is only sometimes included, their nation of origin occasionally, but they lack the narrative, let alone the accounts of their inner life,” she said.

Rackham student Nina Jackson Levin said she believes this story is essential to understanding the beginnings of the racial atmosphere of Detroit.

“By bringing Black and Native histories together in a historical context and applying that lens very proactively to Detroit, I think does something new, at the same time to something that is not at all a new story,” she said. “She bridges so many narratives in order to make them one cohesive story.”

Miles stressed these racial inequalities introduced above are still prevalent today –– his is especially true within the city of Detroit today. 

“Native people and Black people did not give in or back down,” Miles said. “People have done and will still do terrible things in the name of progress. However, we are the beneficiaries of the abuses and also the inheritors of sets of ideas and modes of action that help us to reveal and rewrite those wrongs.”

Rackham student Jallicia Jolly said she found the talk relevant to the current political climate.

“This subject is critical for not just knowledge production but to showcase how we are humanizing people in our everyday lives beyond academia,” Jolly said. “Conversations like these have to absolutely center around the lives of marginalized voices in this way. It is not just relevant in history and contemporary history, but also in our national and political landscape. It really shows how power is not just embodied, but how it is told in history, and how it shapes policy.”

Rackham student Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz expressed a similar sentiment.

“Conversations like this really throws the wrench in the discussion of power when we ask the question of who is winning at the expense of others, and this book really challenges this idea through its use of narratives, and through its focus on history,” Tucker-Shabazz said. “The question of ‘at whose expense’ and ‘at whose pocket’ allows a much more nuanced and robust critique of things that we categorically define as inequality and poverty.”


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