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Coffee Will Make You Black, by April Sinclair.

March 1, 2013

Coffee Will Make You Black, by April Sinclair. New York: Hyperion, c1994.

An enjoyable novel about a young African-American woman growing up in Chicago in the 1960s; perhaps a book best appreciated by YA readers.

Stevie, the narrator created by April Sinclair, tells what was like to be an adolescent in Chicago’s black community in the years when attitudes about race were changing, but not disappearing. Major events of the civil rights struggle are a small part of Stevie’s life, however. The main issues in her story are more personal and less historical. As a middle school student she faces choices and the conflicting views of her parents, who have attained a bit of “respectablity,” and her peers who could care less about such things. Both sides are well drawn and help readers understand and perhaps accept how the other generation thinks. Especially poignant are the anger and pain that Stevie’s mother expresses over how her own mother worked as a domestic for a white family rather than staying home and nurturing her. As Stevie moves into high school, the issues get more complex. Can she trust a white person enough to become good friends? Should she give in to pressure for sex with an attractive boy friend? What if she is a lesbian? These issues are treated sensitively in an overall atmosphere full of both pain and good humor.

One of the ways in which Springer creates the atmosphere of her book is through use of the language spoken by Stevie and her friends, but not, of course, by her mother. I had the same trouble understanding what was being said as I have had when reading books in which characters speak global languages and dialects. Again, however, the slang contributed more to the texture and tone of the book than anything I missed in reading it. Perhaps those who have lived with and spoken this language will recognize and enjoy its use here. They may find the language dated, I don’t know, but the issues raised are perennial ones for adolescents.

I liked and enjoyed Coffee will Make You Black, and appreciate how books like this can contribute to people’s understanding of each other across generational and racial lines, but it is not in the same class as Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

I recommend this book for YA readers and all those who want a glimpse into the life of an urban African American teenager.

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