Melba Boyd didn’t set out to become a poet.
In fact, when she began writing the literary genre in college, it was something she did reluctantly.
“I’ve always thought of poetry as being the most difficult form of writing,” Boyd told BridgeDetroit. “It made me think that I really shouldn’t admit to trying to do it until I actually felt like I got kind of decent at it.”
These days, the 72-year-old Detroit artist’s work is earning her prestigious honors.
Boyd is the recipient of the 2023 Kresge Eminent Artist Award. The award was created in 2008 by The Kresge Foundation to recognize a record of high quality work and professional achievement in the arts, and a lifetime of contributions to the cultural community of metro Detroit. The honor also comes with a $50,000 prize and includes the creation of a video and monograph. Boyd intends to use the money to help finance an upcoming documentary on the late Detroit poet Al Young and to record some of her poems along with music.
The career of the award-winning poet, essayist, biographer, editor and filmmaker has spanned more than 50 years. She has published 13 books and contributed more than 100 essays to anthologies, academic journals, cultural periodicals and newspapers in the United States and Europe.
Boyd also has a long career in academia, serving as a professor in African American Studies at Wayne State University and as an adjunct professor of Afro American and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
For her contributions to the city, Detroit City Councilman Coleman Young II gave Boyd a Spirit of Detroit award last month at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where she delivered a keynote address for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Friend and 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist Bill Harris said Boyd is well deserving of the accolade.
“She’s the kind of combination that, although rare, seems to characterize Detroit writers – she’s part scholar with academic bonafides and part poet with street cred,” he said. “You know, as a researcher, as an academic, she can follow a quote and incident back to its original form through research. And as a creative writer, can, with equal ease, pull the covers off some piece of critical shenanigans and make it speak to the people.”
Detroit born and bred
A Detroiter since birth, Boyd grew up in southwest Detroit with her father, John Boyd Sr., a postal service worker, and her mother, Dorothy Boyd, a physical education teacher. Boyd also has five siblings.
When she was 15, her parents divorced and Dorothy Boyd moved the family to Conant Gardens on the city’s east side. Despite the abrupt change, Boyd said she enjoyed living in both neighborhoods, which would go on to influence her writing.
“We had a comfortable lifestyle and everything we needed and most of what we wanted,” Boyd said. “We traveled a lot and were exposed to all kinds of things. Our parents took us to concerts and the library, those kinds of things that help develop your aptitude and cultural awareness.”
Boyd graduated from Pershing High School in 1967 and attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
During this time, she began writing poetry. Boyd’s college professors encouraged her as did her mentor, Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside Press. The Detroit publishing company printed pieces from Black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde.
In the 70s, Boyd worked with Randall as an assistant and editor and he published her first series of poems.
For the next 20 years, Boyd continued to publish her poetry. One of her most known books is the 1994 biography, “Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911,” which chronicles the life of the Black poet, activist and abolitionist.
She also published a book about Randall in 2004 titled, “Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press.”
A lover and teacher of the arts
As Boyd was becoming an emerging artist, she continued her education to pursue her other passion – becoming a literature professor.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Western in English and literature in 1971, Boyd went to the University of Michigan for graduate school, receiving a doctor of arts degree in 1979.
Boyd has been a visiting professor at the Fudan University in China, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bremen in Germany, and she’s held positions at the University of Iowa, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan-Flint.
Boyd became a professor at Wayne State in 1993. Now, she primarily teaches classes on Black cinema.
Boyd’s love of film has translated to being behind the camera as well. She has produced documentaries on Randall (“The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press”) and poet Naomi Long Madgett (“Star by Star: The Poetry and Publishing of Naomi Long Madgett.”)
Boyd said she continues to enjoy teaching because it keeps her connected to other people’s perspectives and gives her a chance to see what the younger generation are thinking about.
“I get as much out of it from the students as I do giving to students,” she said. “And having to stay fresh, having to stay on top of stuff, that’s important and to know how things are changing or not.”
And Boyd is not slowing down with her writing and film projects, either.
She recently finished an essay on Josephine Baker, and plans to work with an artist on an installation in Idlewild, Michigan, she said.
Boyd was first nominated for the Kresge award in 2009, but the honor ultimately went to her friend, the late jazz artist Marcus Belgrave.
“I’m glad I didn’t get it that year because I felt like he really should get it,” she said. “Marcus isn’t with us anymore and I’m so glad that’s the way it went down.”
Fellow poet and Howard University professor Tony Medina has admired Boyd’s work for years and has appreciated her mentorship since the two met in Paris in the late 80s.
“I consider her to be a major literary figure and that honor (Kresge) really shines light on that and validates all her hard work,” he said. “This one is really important to her because it comes from Michigan. She is a true Detroiter.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Boyd graduated from Western Michigan and the time frame in which she worked with Randall Dudley.