I’ve been meaning to read The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah for years, but every time I tried to get it at the library, all the copies were gone, and all the e-books checked out. How could that be, I thought? This book came out in 1999. Some call it trash while others refer to it as a classic, but you can’t deny that people want to read The Coldest Winter Ever.
Winter Santiaga, at sixteen, is the oldest child of a drug lord with a small empire in Brooklyn. She has three younger sisters and a “bad bitch” mom, a term used for women who handle their business and always look expensive and behave with class. When her father decides to move up in the world, he relocates the family to a Long Island mansion where Winter complains how bored she is without her friends and regular sex. But when her father and his entire ring is busted and sent to prison, the family’s new house, all the possessions inside, and the new vehicle in the driveway are confiscated by the FBI because they were purchased with drug money. Winter’s mom and three younger sisters are all split up, essentially homeless, penniless, yet still looking for a way to climb the social ladder. Winter escapes child protective services and fights for status, all while trying to survive.
The Coldest Winter Ever is described in a number of ways: street lit, urban fiction. It’s setting: the ghetto, the projects, the hood. It’s characters: ghetto girls and thugs. I’m personally not comfortable with any of these terms; they all conjure negative images that makes you pay less attention to the novel . . . but also serve to give you an accurate depiction of the setting, character, and contents. It can be both ways. A heads up, the writing is incredibly graphic in places. Winter Santiaga is focused on buying brand-name clothes, sitting in the hottest ride, attending the best parties, flashing jewels (not jewelry?), getting her hair and nails done, and satisfying her sexual needs. All at sixteen, mind you. Her girlfriends are lesser versions of herself, the guys all connected to the hip hop or drug industries. So, when it’s so easy to say that this type of book glorifies guns, drugs, sex, and materialism, why would I prompt you to read it?
Firstly, it’s a classic. You can Google the title and author to see loads of articles about the impact The Coldest Winter Ever had on the hip hop generation, black teen girls, and publishing works like Souljah’s. Some folks condemn the novel as dangerous, while others feel “seen.” I think Souljah’s book is deeper than you might first think, which is why I recommend it. For instance, because Winter has grown up — from birth — in “Black royalty” as a drug lord’s daughter, she thinks she understands what it means to survive in that world, when really her father has worked hard to shelter her from the worst of it. After Winter leaves Long Island to party in Brooklyn, her father berates her. She claims, “I went home. I went to Brooklyn. I went to the only place I know. Where my peoples is at. Where everybody knows me. Those are my streets, Daddy!” In a cutting moment, the author reveals how naive Winter is with her father’s response: “Do you think those streets love you? Those streets don’t love you. They don’t even know you. . . . The street don’t love nobody.” By proxy, Winter thinks she has what it takes at sixteen to live the same dangerous life as a ring of drug dealers, but Sister Souljah puts this main character in so many situations that prove how ignorant Winter is, thus condemning drugs and drug dealers.
“What do you read?” Winter is asked by her father’s closest ally, Midnight. Unable to answer, Midnight further prompts her to think about who she will become, what she will do. Winter is unable to see beyond attaching herself to a man like her father, who will continue providing the materialistic life she’s used to. How can a young man in a drug ring lecture a teen girl about thinking bigger than street life? Because Midnight has been talking and listening to Sister Souljah. Yes, this book has metafiction. The author’s character functions as herself in real life: a highly intelligent political and social activist who was so afraid of drugs as a child that she slept on her arms so no one could inject her with heroin while she slept. Sister Souljah the character is a foil to Winter: for every selfish move Winter makes, Souljah works in the community. Both have an “in” in the hip hop world, but Souljah uses it to communicate social improvements through education while Winter wants to hook up and cling on. Readers can compare these two young characters (Souljah is twenty-five in the novel) and draw conclusions about what happens when a person uses their community instead of working to heal it. The author does not point-blank tell readers what to think, which is an attribute.
But the challenge is in seeing what a “good life” looks like. Winter knows that drug dealers take risks to get so much money. She argues that drug dealers help the economy by purchasing luxury goods and employing “half the men in the ghetto. Nobody else gave them jobs. So why be a player hater?” Why be that person who “worked all week for change to get to work plus a beer to forget about how hard he worked”? What Winter fails to see by not thinking about a community is what can happen after work, those meaningful connections at rec centers, schools, community gardens, and hospitals. Souljah convinces Winter to go with her when she speaks to a ward of AIDs patients, and while we see the epidemic for what it was, and the people who suffered as a result, Winter does not. Sister Souljah does not write an easy book in which her main character “gets it,” but lets the reader travel in the plot with our hands over our eyes, peeking through our fingers. Because we’re “getting it” and see what a disaster Winter is headed for.
I would argue that Sister Souljah does not glorify the drug life or the people who live it. Each moment in which Winter engages with street life feels laced with danger, even as we reside in her head and she celebrates and rationalizes moments during which she doesn’t even realize she’s being degraded. A recommended read.