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Poet-scholar Melba Joyce Boyd is named 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist


Nichole Christian

Nichole Christian

Award-winning poet, essayist, biographer, editor, distinguished professor and filmmaker Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd has been chosen as the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist, an annual metro Detroit honor for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Boyd’s selection marks the 15th time that The Kresge Foundation has issued the award. Kresge launched the award in 2008 to spotlight the contributions of singular metro Detroit artists whose dedication to their craft and commitment to the community have elevated their chosen genre and significantly deepened Detroit’s cultural footprint.

With a career spanning more than 50 years, Boyd is no stranger to recognition. At 72 her resume overflows with local, state and national honors including multiple Library of Michigan Notable Book awards and a 2010 Independent Publishers Award;  in 2010 she was a finalist in for the NAACP Image Award for Poetry.

Yet being named the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artists feels different, she says.

Poet Melba Joyce Boyd seated on couch in her Detroit home.
“My story is absolutely a Detroit story,” says poet Melba Joyce Boyd. (Photo by Erin Kirkland for The Kresge Foundation)

“The one thing that’s great about this award,’’ she explains, “is that you don’t apply for it. You’re getting real appreciation for your work from people who understand what it means to make work in Detroit. That’s something special. It’s a reminder and celebration of the culture we have here and the way that it continues.’’

“In our Eminent Artist initiative, we lift up individuals who have for decades both reflected our times and fired up our imaginations,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation. “Melba Joyce Boyd is yet another of these fulcrums of creativity. As both a scholar of important African American artists and an artist in her own right, she grounds us in history and inspires us to think about the future.”

Along with a coveted title, the Kresge Eminent artist is celebrated with an unrestricted $50,000 cash prize and the creation of a short film and a limited-edition monograph to help chronicle each artist’s unique creative impact and cultural contributions. Each year, the film is released to the public online and the book is made available at no cost. Printed copies of the book can be preordered here.

“You don’t do the work for recognition or prizes or any of these things,’’ Boyd says. “But it’s sweet when you get; I ain’t giving it back.’’

Boyd has published 13 books, nine of which are collections of her own poetry, and has contributed more than 100 essays to anthologies, academic journals, cultural periodicals and newspapers in the United States and Europe. Her writing has been translated in French and German. Boyd wrote the dedication for The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The poem  “this museum was once a dream” is inscribed in bronze on the museum’s wall and reads in part:

this museum
was once a dream
inscribed inside
the walls of
slave quarters
the gates were guarded
by ghosts in colored bottles
of glass swinging from string
between bleeding trees
they held secrets
of millions severed
from their

Earlier this month, as Boyd delivered the museum’s keynote MLK Day address, Detroit City Councilman Coleman Young II, presented her with a surprise Spirit of Detroit Award for extraordinary service to the city. (Boyd presented her essay “Fred Was Feelin’ It”: Echoes of Frederick Douglass in the Voices of Gil Scott-Heron and Donald Glover/Childish Gambino,” which can also be found in the online journal Konch.)

Part of that record of achievement can be traced to her work with Dudley Randall, founder of Broadside Press, the pioneering Detroit-based Black owned publishing imprint that was the literary home of notable African American poets including Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Audre Lorde, Haki Madhubuti and Dr. Gloria House, the 2019 Kresge Eminent Artist.

As a young aspiring poet, Boyd worked under Randall as an assistant and as an editor. He later designated her as his official biographer in his will. “One of the reasons that Dudley Randall was the most successful of his time is that he knew all the poetry and any poetry that had ever been written in the English language, straight up, and not to mention, Russian or German,’’ Boyd recalls. “He was a genius and a generous literary parent to me.’’ Her other notable literary parent: Naomi Long Madgett, the poet and founder of Detroit’s likewise pioneering Lotus Press. Madgett was the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Boyd has written biographies and created films about both literary giants. “I think they’d be proud of this moment,’’ she says referring to her selection.

Her book, Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall (2009), won the 2010 Independent Publishers Award, the 2010 Library of Michigan Notable Books Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award and the Foreword Book Award for Poetry. Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press received a 2004 Honor Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

Since 2008, Kresge Arts in Detroit has administered the annual Kresge Eminent Artist award on behalf of The Kresge Foundation. Kresge Arts in Detroit also oversees the annual Kresge Artist Fellowships the Gilda Awards which distribute awards of $25,000 and $5,000 respectively to talented artists across genres and metro Detroit.

Poet Melba Joyce Boyd and Detroit City Councilman Coleman Young II hold between them Boyd's new framed proclamation (Spirit of Detroit Award).
Boyd receiving Spirit of Detroit Award from City Councilman Coleman Young II. (Photo by Nichole Christian for The Kresge Foundation)

Members of the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist Selection Panel — convened by Kresge Arts in Detroit — say Boyd was the right choice to help illuminate the undeniable link between art and culture in Detroit.

“It wasn’t easy. We looked at lots of amazing artists. But when it came down to it, we all felt that she was the most deserving this year,’’ explains Grace Serra, Art Collection Curator for Wayne State University. “This is not just art for art’s sake. The quality of the work she’s done and the continued relevance is important. It’s about social justice and honesty. And she’s fierce. She hasn’t mellowed with age. You can tell there’s still more to be said.’’

Panelist Scheherazade Washington Parrish added, “She’s exactly an eminent artist. Her words have touched people in Detroit and abroad, and she maintains a love for the craft. One of the ways that that love is seen is by her continuing to teach so that the craft and art lives on to inspire others.’’

“A critically acclaimed author, poet and filmmaker, native Detroiter Melba Joyce Boyd has made a lasting impact in the world of African American literature and higher education,” said College for Creative Studies President Donald L. Tuski. “It is an honor to administer Kresge Arts in Detroit on behalf of The Kresge Foundation, and to celebrate Melba Joyce Boyd as the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist.”

You can get a sense of her poetry by watching her read at the Ferndale Public Library here and by listening to her read one of her poems here.

Boyd’s scholarly credentials are also notable. She was a visiting professor at the Fudan University in  China, and a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bremen in Germany. In addition to Wayne State University (WSU) where she continues to teach, Boyd was a professor at the University of Iowa and  Ohio State University and a past director of African American Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. For 16 years, she was Chair of WSU’s Department of African American Studies. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Michigan and her master’s and bacherlor’s degrees from Western Michigan University.

Boyd has been so focused on honoring the mandatory secrecy surrounding news of her selection — telling only her husband, writer and former Detroit News journalist James Kenyon — that she has yet to envision how she’ll spend the money. “I haven’t really thought about it yet. I’m sure my children and grandkids will probably benefit,’’ Boyd said laughing during an interview in her northwest Detroit home.

She has two adult children from a previous marriage, John Percy Boyd III and Maya Wynn Boyd, and five grandchildren.

Up From Detroit

You don’t have to talk with Melba Joyce Boyd long before the pride of her hometown pops into the conversation. Though her family was deeply rooted in Alabama dating back to the early 1900s, Boyd, born April 2, 1950, is through-and-through a daughter first of Detroit.

Few roots are richer to her. “I was educated here, I went to public schools, I went to public universities, came back to the city, was nurtured in the literature, in the culture and the art of cultural production. My story is absolutely a Detroit story.’’

Portrait photo of Melba Joyce Boyd in brimmed hat.
Boyd called the Eminent Artist award “a reminder and celebration of the culture we have here and the way that it continues.’’ (Photo by Erin Kirkland for The Kresge Foundation)

Boyd’s father, John Percy Boyd Sr., was from Selma, Alabama. Her mother, Dorothy Wynn Clore, was from nearby Bessemer, Alabama. They met on the Alabama campus of Tuskegee University — then the Tuskegee Institute — in the mid-1940s. Tuskegee is one of the nation’s early historically Black college and universities, founded on the Fourth of July in 1881.

Like much of Boyd’s personal story, Detroit is somewhat poetically central to her parents’ connection too. Shortly after her father migrated to Detroit, he was drafted into World War II. When the war ended, he opted to return to Alabama to complete classes at Tuskegee, where he eventually met his future wife. “If he had stayed in Detroit and not decided to go back to college at Tuskegee, they probably would’ve missed each other and me.’’

But John and Dorothy did meet and marry, and eventually they returned to Detroit together, as Tuskegee graduates, in 1948. Two years later, they welcomed Melba, the third of six children. The couple also bought their first home at 2433 Deacon Street, in a section of Detroit that Boyd jokingly describes as “south, southwest Detroit, almost out of the city.’’

The Boyd family lived in the house until she was 15. When her parents divorced, Dorothy Boyd, a physical education teacher and school administrator, moved the family to Conant Gardens, a storied northeast Detroit neighborhood named for Shubael Conant, an abolitionist and founder of the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. In the early 1950s, it reportedly had the highest median income of Detroit’s Black neighborhood and was still well regarded in the mid-1960s when the Boyds arrived.

Both neighborhoods influenced Melba Joyce Boyd’s style of storytelling and seeing herself in the world, she says. Much of her writing echoes the history she heard and witnessed growing up. She is a graduate of Pershing High School, another Detroit life detail that astute readers can find slyly tucked into her works.

To read Boyd is to travel alongside a keen-eyed observer of cultural traditions and legacies and historic laments. Boyd describes her career as a poet and scholar as a promise kept to her family, to her city and to the heroes who taught her to hear, to hold, and to share important stories.

Family is a reoccurring theme in Boyd’s writing, eclipsed only by a passion for Detroit, for music, for social movements and for rousing protest poems. Boyd’s critically acclaimed and widely reviewed Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911, (1994) is considered the first comprehensive study of this major literary figure of the abolitionist and woman’s rights movements.

Living through a nightmare

Boyd writes just as critically insightfully about an infamous and racially charged slice of Detroit history, “a tragedy  in my personal life that I could not have imagined in my worst nightmare.’’

The nightmare involved one of her brothers, a Vietnam veteran, John Percy Boyd Jr., 23 at the time; a cousin, 18-year-old Hayward Brown, and Mark Bethune, 22.

According to news reports, on Dec. 4, 1972, the three young Black men engaged in a shootout with four white Detroit policemen outside of a reputed drug house. The officers were part of the city’s controversial undercover Stop Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) unit. Boyd’s brother and the two others were reportedly members of an underground “vigilante” group determined to force drug dealers out of Black neighborhoods.

The four officers were all seriously wounded. A second shootout between cops and the trio later that month left one officer dead and another critically wounded.

The manhunt for Boyd, Brown and Bethune — as recounted in an online University of Michigan HistoryLab project — led to “extraordinary abuses of the civil and constitutional rights of hundreds of Black citizens and the killing of an innocent man during one of many warrantless home invasions.” Large-scale protests from across the Black community followed.

In January, Brown was arrested after the three men firebombed a Planned Parenthood Center near Wayne State University, according to the HistoryLab project. The following month, Boyd and Bethune, by then on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, died in separate shootouts with police in Atlanta where they had fled.

The reverberations of the incidents were an important influence in the 1973 Detroit election when the anti-STRESS State Sen. Coleman Young prevailed against the Detroit Police Commissioner John Nichols who had presided over the hunt for the men he labeled as “Mad Dog Killers.”

“I knew my brother John was intensely involved with a group of frustrated young men angered by the havoc, death and destruction that [the] heroin dope trade caused in Black communities throughout Detroit,’’ writes Boyd in “In Hot Pursuit: The Deadly Consequences of Detroit Police Oppression,’’ an essay published in The Journal of Law in Society.

“I thought the meetings he attended were like many gatherings, infused with youthful zeal and enthusiastic political rhetoric. What I did not know was that these meetings were strategic, and that he was part of an underground cadre that harassed and threatened dope dealers until they shut down their predatory businesses and moved out of neighborhoods.’’

In her writing and talks, Boyd is ceaseless in sharing the intersections she sees between the stubborn resilience of the city she loves and that of the America’s unresolved racial tensions and strife. “Our histories are not separate. They never have been. It’s important to see and to understand the connections.’’

Previous Kresge Eminent Artist awardees are visual artists Charles McGee, Ruth Adler Schnee, Marie Woo, Shirley Woodson and Olaymi Dabls; musicians Marcus Belgrave, Patricia Terry-Ross and Wendell Harrison; writers Bill Harris, Naomi Long Madgett and Dr. Gloria House; photographers Bill Rauhauser and Leni Sinclair; and composer-impresario David DiChiera.

Melba Joyce Boyd was chosen as the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist by a select peer group of Metro Detroit artists and arts professionals:

  • Gil Ashby: Artist; Associate Professor, Illustration Chair (2000-10), College for Creative Studies (CCS); 2011 NY Society of Illustration Distinguished Educator
  • Kahn Santori Davison: Writer/Photographer, Detroit Metro Times and Model D Media; 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow
  • Wendell Harrison: Jazz musician; Artistic Director, Rebirth Inc.; Member/Awardee, Chamber Music America; 2018 Kresge Eminent Artist
  • Scheherazade Washington Parrish: Interdisciplinary Artist; Co-Director, Detroit Lit
  • Grace Serra: Art Curator, Wayne State University and University of Michigan

Since 2008, Kresge Arts in Detroit has awarded more than $7.4 million through 15 Kresge Eminent Artist Awards ($50,000 each), 258 Kresge Artist fellowships ($25,000 each), and 42 Gilda Awards ($5,000 each).