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Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street

Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

Suzanne E. Smith

ISBN 9780674005464

Publication date: 05/02/2001

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Detroit in the 1960s was a city with a pulse: people were marching in step with Martin Luther King, Jr., dancing in the street with Martha and the Vandellas, and facing off with city police. Through it all, Motown provided the beat. This book tells the story of Motown--as both musical style and entrepreneurial phenomenon--and of its intrinsic relationship to the politics and culture of Motor Town, USA.

As Suzanne Smith traces the evolution of Motown from a small record company firmly rooted in Detroit's black community to an international music industry giant, she gives us a clear look at cultural politics at the grassroots level. Here we see Motown's music not as the mere soundtrack for its historical moment but as an active agent in the politics of the time. In this story, Motown Records had a distinct role to play in the city's black community as that community articulated and promoted its own social, cultural, and political agendas. Smith shows how these local agendas, which reflected the unique concerns of African Americans living in the urban North, both responded to and reconfigured the national civil rights campaign.

Against a background of events on the national scene--featuring Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Nat King Cole, and Malcolm X--Dancing in the Street presents a vivid picture of the civil rights movement in Detroit, with Motown at its heart. This is a lively and vital history. It's peopled with a host of major and minor figures in black politics, culture, and the arts, and full of the passions of a momentous era. It offers a critical new perspective on the role of popular culture in the process of political change.


  • The publication of Dancing in the Streets, is an interesting one for an academic press; there's no shortage of general-audience books on the famed soul label, and other books have plumbed the immediate political ramifications of Berry Gordy's family-loan-turned-empire. But Smith aims not to glorify Motown as a can-do parable of black business, but to define it wholly--as a flawed microcosm of Detroit as much as one of black America. At once symptom and synecdoche, Motown is in her eyes the inevitable sum of its influences that somehow reenacted Detroit's external struggles on its own Grand Street stage.

    —Peter Rubin, Boston Book Review


  • Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History at George Mason University.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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