April Sinclair’s novel was on my to-read list for May, but I’m just getting around to reviewing it. I’ve let a few novels for review pile up while I think about them. I’m getting into some complicated reading territory, and I don’t want to write hastily.
I had never heard of Sinclair, but her title popped out at me when I was skimming the shelves of a used book store. My background is contemporary and African American fiction, so it fit my interests. Basically, Coffee Will Make You Black is a coming-of-age novel set during the civil rights movement on the South Side of Chicago. Jean Stevenson, nicknamed “Stevie” because there are two Jeans in her class, is the narrator. She’s logical in a way that confuses kids her age, and she thinks before she acts. That doesn’t mean that the chaos of puberty won’t try to catch her in its web.
I’m so glad I found Sinclair, because she writes unique, memorable characters. I have a tendency to forget what I’ve read quickly, but even if I can’t remember everyone’s names, I do recall people from Coffee Will Make You Black. For instance, Stevie’s mother may seem demanding, but she also avoids drama of the neighborhood. When someone insults Stevie’s mom and then claims Stevie has to fight to defend her mother, Stevie asks her mom what to do. Her mother responds:
“I don’t want you fighting anybody counta what they said about me. They don’t even know me. What do I care what somebody out there in the street says about me. They’re not First National Bank; they don’t sign my check.”
I could see how Stevie grew into a logical girl. Her male counterpart, Roland, is the kind of boy who wears ties and carries a briefcase, even though they’re twelve. When he finally chokes out a request to walk Stevie home because he likes her, Stevie agrees. Then she says, “You need to wipe your classes off, they’re all steamed up.” I almost died laughing! What a cute boy!
A scene when Stevie is in high school captures her best friend, Carla, well. Carla is not the kind of girl Stevie is supposed to hang out with — all her sisters had babies before graduating — and she finds value in sexual relationships. However, Stevie sees her friendship with Carla as worth keeping, and she doesn’t judge anyone based on reputation. But make no mistake; Carla is a bit wild. When she has a sex with a new partner, she describes the young man touching her “clawtaurus.” Though she acts grown up, Carla lacks education and adult maturity.
Coffee Will Make You Black is largely about color and changes that occurred in the 1960s. Early in the novel, when she is twelve, Stevie refers to people with lighter skin as “a safe color,” and at a party, the girls all put their arms together to see whose is the lightest. Later, the high school principle likes to remind students that “Whatever you do, bad or good, will always reflect on your entire race.” Even though the attitude of the young people changes, Stevie’s mother reflects that some men are still “color struck,” as she tries to convince Stevie to wear lightening cream. Sinclair effectively captures the different attitudes about race to give a larger picture of Stevie’s community.
The author also demonstrates the huge changes made in Stevie’s school. It starts with Stevie’s mother seeing BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL spray painted on a building and being surprised. Roland, the steamed-up little boy, turns activist in high school, joining the “Afro-American Club.” As they advance in high school, readers will see the influence of Malcolm X on the students’ thinking as Roland and his group demand certain rights for their all-black high school:
“. . . a black principle, a black vice principle, all black guidance counselors, a black school nurse, and that we not sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ in assemblies. . . . We’re demanding that we sing ‘Life Every Voice and Sing,’ instead.”
The neighborhood is influenced by black pride, too, seen when a hair salon changes its name from “No Naps” to “Watu Wazuri,” which means “beautiful people in Swahili.” April Sinclair captures a feeling, a hopefulness of the time, but also sprinkles in moments of regression, such as when Stevie’s dad’s boss, a white man, humiliates her father at work, and a club of “elite” African American students shun people wearing their hair naturally.
Things aren’t straightforward, though. Stevie befriends the school nurse, who is white, and defends the nurse at one of Roland’s meetings. The perplexing question is, can black people have white friends? No one agrees, for all sorts of reasons, leaving Stevie to figure it out on her own. I liked how Sinclair made things challenging — high school is nothing if not emotionally challenging — and had Stevie use logic and feelings to decide her place. In fact, Stevie may not have a place, because she isn’t a follower.
Sinclair’s novel, which was first published in 1994, asks questions we still puzzle over today. Over the course of two pages, the white nurse, who joined the March on Washington and believes in civil rights for everyone, is dismissed by a black teacher. Both arguments are valid. The teacher claims that when a black person breathes, he/she has paid dues to the movement. The nurse refutes that nothing will change unless races come together. When the teacher says, “White people have made it clear they don’t want to live next door do us,” the nurse responds, “Some white people. I don’t appreciate being lumped together with all white people . . .” Sound familiar? It’s the conversation we’re having about black vs white, male vs female, and different types of immigrant experiences. Sinclair doesn’t end the conversation with an answer, leaving Stevie — and me — thinking more about it.
Highly recommended! I also found that April Sinclair wrote a follow-up novel, Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, which I immediately bought.