We live in a time of frustrating revelations about how our society responds to race and racial politics. The police-involved deaths of young black men and women across the country have divided officials and widened a rift between police officers and their communities as the refrain "Black Lives Matter" has become the mantra for a national movement. It is a mantra that underscores the nature of human response to oppression and turmoil and one that Asali Solomon explores in her debut novel, Disgruntled.
A Philadelphia native and assistant professor of English at Haverford College, Solomon has written a biting coming-of-age novel that she describes as "about the spectacular breakup of a Philadelphia family, resulting in two sentences: one in an actual prison, the other in the very suburbs where Haverford is located. It is also about the truly disgruntled Barbadian butler who burned down Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin."
Solomon made the Philadelphia area the setting for Disgruntled because she was inspired by how The Known World author Edward P. Jones has written about the Washington, D.C. area. "I loved the idea that you could just make your city some place cool," Solomon says. She was trying to capture the eccentric, committed, artistic, kooky blackness in Philadelphia, but, "mainly, I really like the idea of making where you're from a literary landscape and putting it in fiction."
At the center of the breakup is Kenya Curtis, whom readers meet when she is eight years old. Kenya is growing up in the 80s and 90s, both benefiting from her Black Nationalist parents and being subjected to them. Kenya and Johnbrown have a father-daughter bond that is illuminated by the same charming Afrocentricity displayed by the cast of characters throughout Disgruntled. Johnbrown insists on making Kenya participate in Kwanzaa, not unlike Solomon's own parents, though the holiday is symbolic of a marked difference between Kenya and her classmates at a new school. Johnbrown even proposes polygamy to Sheila, Kenya's mother, but eventually finds a version of the life he's looking for with a white woman.
Solomon cleverly navigates interracial and intraracial dynamics while remaining lighthearted and searing. It is part of her experience "thinking about different phases of what it has meant to be black in this country," she says. The thread of the book, Solomon says, is about oppression, which is why it includes the angry butler's story. After learning his story, Solomon went to the site and poked around. She says she came away surprised that "over the course of these hundreds of years that black people haven't committed more violence against their oppressors than they have."
Even when the characters, like Johnbrown, seem utterly ridiculous or confusing, they brim with expression in Solomon's deft hands. When a snowstorm threatens to destroy Kenya's birthday party, for example, she wakes up to a heavy snowstorm. "But the snow wasn't just falling; it was blowing in the gray darkness with mute violence," Solomon writes.
Humor comes to her with ease, Solomon says, even if she doesn't always mean to be funny. "It also provides as much information as anything else," she says. "I hope it's meaningful, but a lot of it is unintentional. In my first creative writing class, I wrote a story that was so tragic and melancholy and the class started laughing. I could have been devastated and never done it again. But humor is often the register. You can make people laugh, you can make people cry. But the main thing is to make people more human."
It's a humanity close to Solomon's experience. She says that while her parents were not as interesting as Johnbrown and Sheila, she does share Kenya's challenges navigating difference. "There was no polygamy. There was lots of forced watching of Eyes on the Prize," Solomon says. "The good thing was that I had a good understanding of how things work in the world. A lot of it was a bummer, like seeing children being beaten in the street and learning about unfairness at an early age and the bitter part of history. It puts you in opposition to what you're learning at an early age. And you're different. Like Kenya, I started out in public school where no one celebrated Kwanzaa or knew who Malcolm X was. It's tough to negotiate in places where one feels so different."
But the negotiation doesn't keep Solomon from appreciating the benefits of difference. "As you get older, you may begin to appreciate what it means that your father wrote songs for you, and that your kitchen table was a place where people spoke seriously about history and politics," she wrote for Oprah Magazine in 2008. In words she could just have easily written for this time or even for Kenya, she wrote: "You may realize that your parents wanted their traditions to make you feel that you were not alone in a world that often doubted your humanity."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer living in Washington, D.C.