Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair

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.

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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.

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35 comments

  1. I’m glad to hear that Sinclair makes the characters multi-dimensional. To me, that’s part of a solid novel. And the issues of race, both then and now, are complex; I’m glad Sinclair shows that, too. At the same time, it sounds as though this is, more than anything, one person’s story. I like that approach to depicting a time, place, or issue.

    • You’re right, Margot! This is very much Stevie’s story. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re spot on. The historical aspects enter Stevie’s world, but she has to make decisions for her life that are very personal.

  2. Oh, this sounds brilliant! I love the 90s covers, too – reminds me of a few gay lit books I’ve got. I think I need to find this book and the sequel. Onto the wishlist they go!

    • I’m so glad, Liz! And they are compulsively readable. I think the covers are funny because the book is set in the 60s, but even the first-edition cover is inspired by 80s/90s artists and clothes (it was first published in the 90s).

  3. Oh my goodness, I read both of these books shortly after they came out and I don’t remember a single thing about either one of them! It’s kinda sad but the again with all the books I read I don’t know how I could possibly remember every one. That’s one reason I continue with my blog, actually – writing about a book helps me remember it. I might have to reread these sometime!

  4. Same as Laila and you-I blog to remember books, because quite frankly I can’t remember what I read two books ago!

    This book sounds really good, and I like when authors don’t try to oversimplify things. Race is a complicated issue, and it deserves to be treated as such.

  5. What a wonderful sounding novel! You have the best finds in used bookstores. We must go shopping together some day. 😉

    I can completely relate to your comment, “I’m getting into some complicated reading territory, and I don’t want to write hastily.” Some of the best books I’ve read lately styme me when it comes to writing a review. I want to do the book justice. I feel like my words won’t convey the meaning I got from the text. Is that what you mean? Or is it something different?

    I’m curious to know what span of time passes during this novel. Is this YA or an adult-level novel featuring young characters? The cover confuses me too. I love it, but it screams “Adult novel” to me… plus both covers you shared reference the other book on them, making me uncertain which book comes first (don’t fret, I trust you that this is book one). So many questions!

    • Definitely adult novels, though the story begins when Stevie is 12 and ends when she is, I believe, 17. There is a lot of sex, bullying, adult situations. The sentences also don’t read at a young adult level. The second book follows Stevie beyond high school.

      I think what I meant is that when it comes to a book about race that says something about today in a way that isn’t definitive, I want to be careful and respectful as both a white woman talking about black communities, but also as a scholar of black literature and perhaps more insight than your average reader. I’ll send you more via text about why I’m extra cautious. But what I mean about definitive, is I would argue that The Hate U Give really comes down on specific sides, whereas in Coffee Will Make You Black, Stevie rides the wave of history as it happens and tries to make good decisions using logic and reasoning while her friends have an attitude of “you’re either with us or against us–that’s Black Power.”

      • Ahhh. Okay, I see where you’re going here. Stevie’s perspective is one I didn’t expect, honestly. I’m so used to the “you’re either with us or against us” ideas, particuarly when addressing race issues in the mid 50’s through the 60s. A unique voice for a unique time. But it sounds like Stevie’s voice is still realistic, despite going against what I’m used to reading…. Then again. I am not a scholar of black literature, so perhaps there are Stevie-like voices everywhere and I’ve just missed them.

        • It seems like the “with us or against us” mentality was more predominant during the Black Power movement more than civil rights era, when people had many ideas about how to heal a nation. Malcolm X was a separatist for a while, MLK wanted everyone to come together as brothers and sisters, Anne Moody followed nonviolence but felt MLK was a dreamer instead of a doer, etc.

            • I’d read autobiographies, like Malcolm X, Anne Moody, and MLK, actually! You get historical perspectives without someone saying it’s the final determination of how a time was. I also took a whole class on the Civil Rights, so don’t beat yourself up.

  6. It’s apparent to me I need to track this book down and read it. Sounds like Stevie is my kind of girl. What’s really appealing to me is the time period (Civil Rights) and the personalities of the characters. I’m adding this to my list now.

    • Cool! If you like it, I hope you also get the follow-up novel I mentioned at the end. I’ll be reading the second book myself this summer. The 3rd one doesn’t sound connected to Stevie, so I’m holding off. I’m also wondering why it was called a trilogy.

  7. This sounds good! And I’ve heard of it before or seen it somewhere… maybe my mother’s house. It’s funny – I haven’t read many books from the early or mid nineties – the years I was at University. I wouldn’t let myself read new books, because I knew I would get too hooked and neglect my homework.

    When we were young, we would compare arm colour to see who had the darkest tan! (I lost every time.)

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