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Authors: April Sinclair

Coffee Will Make You Black

BOOK: Coffee Will Make You Black
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF APRIL SINCLAIR

Coffee Will Make You Black

“A funny, fresh novel about growing up African-American in 1960s Chicago … Sinclair writes like Terry McMillan's kid sister.” —
Entertainment Weekly

“Whether she's dealing with a subject as monumental as the civil rights movement or as intimate as Stevie's first sexual encounters, Sinclair never fails to make you laugh and never sacrifices the narrative to make a point.… What is clear is that Stevie is a wonderful character whose bold curiosity and witty self-confidence—through Sinclair's straight-talking words—make her easy to love.” —
Los Angeles Times

“Heartwarming … Memorable … Told with earnestness and humor … A coming-of-age story with a twist.” —
Chicago Tribune

Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice

“Hard to resist … The freshness of Sinclair's voice makes both the familiar and the unfamiliar an adventure worth smiling about.” —
The Miami Herald

“This tale has verve and readability.” —
The New Yorker

“A hoot … High-spirited and entertaining … A disarmingly upbeat novel about race and sexual preference.” —
San Francisco Chronicle

I Left My Back Door Open

“A
Bridget Jones's Diary
for black women … Readers will respond to this novel's honesty, to its colloquial humor, and to its exacting exploration of Daphne's relationship woes.” —
The New York Times Book Review

“Any sister who has felt unlucky in love will identify with Sinclair's smoothly written tale.” —
Essence

“Snappy, entertaining.” —
The Washington Post Book World

“Sinclair's jazzy new novel is her best yet. Her syncopated rhythms and her cool, bluesy tones make her Ella Fitzgerald's literary rival.” —E. Lynn Harris

Coffee Will Make You Black

A Novel

April Sinclair

For my mother,

JULIANNA SINCLAIR

And in remembrance of my maternal grandmother,

JULIA BELL GUNTER


If I should live forever and all my dreams come true, my memories of love, will be of you.

PART ONE

spring 1965

summer 1967

chapter 1

“Mama, are you a virgin?”

I was practicing the question in my head as I set the plates with the faded roosters down on the shiny yellow table. When Mama came back into the kitchen to stir the rice or turn the fish sticks or check on the greens, I would ask her.

This afternoon at school a boy named Michael had passed a note with “Stevie” written on it; inside it had asked if I was a virgin.

My name is Jean Stevenson but the kids at school all call me Stevie counta there's been this other Jean in my class since the first grade. Now I am eleven and a half and in the sixth grade.

So, anyhow, I was really surprised to get this note from a boy like Michael Dunn, who's tall with muscles and has gray eyes, curly hair, skin the color of taffy apples, and wears Converse All-Stars even though they cost $10 a pair.

I'm not saying I look like homemade sin or anything. It's just that I'm taller than most of the other girls in my class and half of the boys. Mama says I'm at that awkward age, and that soon I won't just be arms and legs; I'll need a bra and a girdle. I can't picture myself needing a bra, as flat-chested as I am now. And to tell you the truth, I'm not too hot on having my behind all hitched up in a girdle. I have to help Mama into hers on Sunday mornings, and I feel sorry for her, all squeezed in so tight you wonder how she can even breathe.

I stirred a pitcher of cherry-flavored Kool-Aid. I loved Daylight Saving Time; it was after six o'clock and still light outside. The sunshine pouring in through the ruffled curtains made the flowers on the wallpaper look alive.

I studied my reflection in the pitcher of Kool-Aid. It wasn't like I wasn't cute. I had dimples and my features seemed right for my face. My straightened hair was long enough to make a ponytail. My skin was the color of Cracker Jacks. But most negroes didn't get excited over folks who were darker than a paper bag.

“Jean, turn off the oven!” Mama shouted from her bedroom.

“Okay.”

I stared out the kitchen window at the row of gray back porches and dirt backyards. We had been in the middle of Social Studies when I had gotten Michael's note. I had lifted the lid of my wooden desk and felt behind the bag of old, wet sucked-on sunflower-seed shells and pulled out my hardcover dictionary. I'd snuck a peek inside and looked up the word “virgin.” I'd seen the words “pure” and “spotless” and “like the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.” I thought I was a good person for the most part. I didn't steal and I tried my best not to lie. I went to Sunday school, and when I stayed for church, I always put my dime in the collection plate. But I wasn't about to put myself up there with Jesus' mother. It seemed like Michael was asking me if I was a goody-two-shoes or something.

So I'd had no choice but to answer the note with the words “Not exactly” and pass it back to him. I wondered what Michael thought of my answer, I hadn't seen him after school. I hoped he would say something to me on Monday. I knew it wasn't my place as a girl to say anything to him. I would just have to wait and see what happened, I told myself.

Mama returned to the kitchen. She looked glad to be out of her girdle and work clothes. She was wearing her oldest print housedress, and the extra pounds showing around her waist didn't make her look fat, they just made her look like somebody's mother. Mama had tied a scarf around her hair so she wouldn't sweat it out, and she was wearing Daddy's old house slippers. It struck me how different Mama looked from June Cleaver or Donna Reed on TV, not just because of her pecan-colored skin but because they practically did their housework in pearls!

I turned facing Mama, and folded my arms across my chest. I watched her take the pan of fish sticks out of the oven and set them on a plate.

I cleared my throat. “Mama, are you a virgin?”

Mama lifted the top off the pot of collard greens and breathed in the steam. She glanced at me and turned off the gas. I could tell by the look on her face that she was trying to think up a good answer.

“Jean, where did you pick up that word, at church?” Mama asked, rearranging the pressing comb and the can of bacon grease on the stove.

I stared down at the yellowed gray linoleum.

“Well, no, not exactly … at school.”

“Mrs. Butler brought it up?”

I pulled on the tie of my sailor blouse and twisted it around my fingers.

“No, Mama, Mrs. Butler ain't brought it up, this boy asked me if I was a virgin.”

I had the nerve to glance up at Mama. Her large dark eyes were arched up like she had seen a ghost.

“Don't say ‘ain't'! Didn't I tell you to never say ‘ain't'? I can run from ‘ain't.'”

In my opinion, this was not time for an English lesson, so I just hunched my shoulders. “Mrs. Butler
didn't
bring it up, this boy asked me if I was a virgin.” I repeated, correcting my English.

“Well, Jean Eloise, you should have told him he'll never get the chance to find out.” Mama frowned as she stirred the rice. “Humph, you stay away from that boy; he's got his mind in the gutter.” Mama pointed her finger in my face. “All men are dogs! Some are just more doggish than others. Do you hear me?”

“Mama, the dictionary said something about the word ‘virgin' meaning pure and spotless, like the Virgin Mary. I don't understand why you say Michael's got his mind in the gutter then.”

“'Cause he's a dog, that's why! I just got through telling you that.”

I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my blue pedal pushers and looked Mama in the eye. “Mama, am I a virgin or not?”

“Lord, have mercy, I forgot about the cornbread!” Mama opened the oven door and took out the pan of cornbread. It looked fine.

Mama let out a big breath. Maybe it was hard having a daughter at an awkward age, I thought. “Jean, all unmarried girls should be virgins.”

“Mama, Michael knows I'm unmarried.”

“You haven't even started your period yet, of course you're a virgin.”

I stared down at my brown penny loafers. “Mama, what happens when you start your period?”

Mama patted her cornbread. “I don't think you're ready for this kind of discussion.”

“Mama, I'll be twelve in four months.”

“Jean Eloise, I'll tell you everything I want you to know when the time comes. Now, call your daddy and the boys for dinner, the fish sticks are gettin cold.”

I groaned as I left the kitchen. Boy, I could've gotten more out of Beaver Cleaver's mother.

It was Saturday morning and Grandma was visiting; my Aunt Sheila and my Uncle Craig had dropped her off in their shiny, new '65 Buick. They didn't have any kids yet, and they lived downstairs from Grandma in her two-flat building. Grandma owned a chicken stand down on 47th Street in the heart of the South Side. It was named after her: Mother Dickens' Fried Chicken. I was proud of her. My mother's youngest brother, Uncle Franklin, and his wife, Aunt Connie, helped her run it. My uncle Arthur worked on the railroad. He lived in Orlando, Florida, with his wife and twin boys. Grandma said she wasn't rich, but she'd come a long way from Gainesville, Florida.

I buried my face in Grandma's big chest. I could smell the peppermint candy that she kept in the pocket of her cotton housedress. Grandma held me close as she rocked me in the sunny kitchen. I traced her fudge-colored arm with my finger. Mama says Grandma spoils me. Grandma says I'm her heart. Mama can't stand to see me up in her mother's lap; it really gets her. But I can't help myself, Grandma's lap is my favorite place in the world. Unless maybe if I had a chance to go to Disneyland, but that's all the way in California and Grandma's lap is right here on the South Side of Chicago.

BOOK: Coffee Will Make You Black
2.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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