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Wed Jul 12 2006

Introduction: Coffee Will Make You Black

There’s just something about a really good coming-of-age story. The good ones have the ability to talk for all others who have found themselves in a similar space in time or state of being, and April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black is a classic coming-of-age story through and through. The novel belongs to Stevie, born Jean Stevenson, who makes her way through junior high and high school in the city, finding new friends and succumbing to their influences both good and bad, experimenting with boys and her feelings toward both genders, and coming to terms with the changes in her body. What sets this apart from other stories is that, growing up in the late ‘60s, Stevie has one more demographic to factor into her journey into impending adulthood: race.

Race, much more than sexuality, is the driving force of Stevie’s growth. From childish insults – saying someone’s mother is so black that when she sweats she sweats chocolate – to memories of a grandmother who lost time with her own family to serve in a white family’s home to the riots that ran through Chicago’s streets when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Sinclair shows just how difficult finding one’s identity can be when saddled with more than the typical teenage miseries. This isn’t to say that sexuality doesn’t play a large part in Stevie’s adolescence, as it does for everyone, but all that Stevie experiences with men, money and education is foreshadowed by the color of her family’s skin.

In many ways, however, Stevie’s upbringing is not unlike thousands of others. She doesn’t know much about sex, even asking her mother if she’s a virgin and not receiving a clear answer. Most of what she picks up is from her friends and the boys she experiments with; it’s impressive that she doesn’t end up pregnant at her age like the two sisters of her close friend. But Sinclair is very careful to make Stevie not one of those who always follow the crowd, although she does possess a natural desire to be friends with the popular girls. Instead, Stevie is intelligent and questioning. The decisions she makes – who she becomes friends with, how far she goes with boys – are all her own and not at the goading of peers who may not have her best interests in mind. Stevie even fights her mother when she’s punished for giving her spot in the school chorus to another girl, and she wins because her impassioned plea incorporates everything she knows about freedom and fairness and reveals exactly the kind of person she’ll always be.

Coffee Will Make You Black is a quick read, taking not much time or effort to pass through the five years of Stevie’s life. This is perhaps the book’s one flaw, that there is not enough writing dedicated to chronicling Stevie’s growth. Sinclair touches on some very weighty topics that don’t get enough attention in the end. Subverting the straight-haired norm and choosing to wear one’s hair in a “natural” (an afro); fighting for the knowledgeable white school nurse who is in danger of being replaced simply because she’s white; watching one’s neighborhood being destroyed when a man who championed freedom is killed – these are all experiences that strongly shape one’s identity, yet we don’t get much more than simple exposition on these topics. One could write pages and pages on contemplating the subjects and never run out of things to say, so it’s unfortunate that Sinclair didn’t take the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into what these experiences mean to Stevie. Don’t let that stop your enjoyment of the story, though. Stevie’s story is one of strength and knowledge and, like any good coming-of-age story, makes you reflect on how these same elements came to make you who you are today.

More information:

April Sinclair grew up on the south side of Chicago, receiving her BA from Western Illinois University. The year of its publication, Coffee Will Make You Black was named Book of the Year in the Young Adult Fiction Category by the American Library Association. For more information on Sinclair and her work, visit her website at www.aprilsinclair.net.

 
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