Redbone, yellow, taffy, peanut butter, caramel, walnut, chocolate, coffee, black -- too black -- such are the colors of the rainbow in Stevie's universe. For Stevie's peers, it's color, boys and being cool that keep the Earth rotating on its axis.
But in a telling scene in this first novel, Jean "Stevie" Stevenson and a group of girlfriends hold their adolescent arms out in a brown spectrum, quibbling over who is lighter or darker than the next. Stevie asks, "Why do we do this?"
She's about 12 when she furrows her brow, sucks her teeth and pulls her very toasted arm away from the crowd. Other than her shade of brown, what sets Stevie apart from the giggling, boy-crazy brood is that she dares ask the question.
As African-Americans -- and most other Americans -- are well aware, color-consciousness is not something made up in the schoolyard of April Sinclair's novel, which is set in Chicago's South Side in the combustible mid-1960s.
Just as idioms such as "dark days" and "black mark" represent the undesired, Stevie and her contemporaries are indoctrinated that to be black (as in dark-skinned) is a cross to bear. (From that mind-set comes the book's title: "The old folks in the South used to tell that to children so they wouldn't want to drink coffee. The last thing anyone would want to be is black," Stevie's mother explains.)
While blackness is a big deal, somehow it's no big deal. In 1965, no one gets shushed for admiring light skin, small features, "good hair" or, failing that, the hot comb sizzling away tight curls at No Naps Beauty Salon. In the course of casual exposition, Stevie rambles in this telling description of herself:
Mama says she wishes I'd gotten more of Daddy's lighter color and especially his curly hair. She says she prayed that if I was a girl I'd have good hair that didn't need to be straightened. Mama says one reason she married Daddy was cause she was looking out for her children. She says it was almost unheard of for a colored man to marry a woman darker than himself. Mama says she was lucky.
Anyway, Mama says she doesn't know where I was when they were handing out color and hair. She says I let my . . . brother Kevin get ahead of me in the color line. But at least I've got nice features, she's thankful for that, Mama always says. In other words, she's glad I don't have a wide nose and big lips like Grandma and some other colored people."
But it is Grandma who anachronistically says, "Chile, good black don't crack."
By this definition, Stevie must be among the good.
Wanting desperately to be popular, she weathers catty girls who set her up to be flattened over a boy. After a few blows, she uses her mind
more than muscle to diffuse the fight with ultra-popular Carla.
Later, in a calculated move, she trades a coveted spot in the chorus for a friendship with Carla, catapulting her into the in-crowd. She and Carla eventually become hangin' buddies, celebrating their first period and the glory of gossip about boys, sexuality and sex in a teen-ish blend of lies, speculation and anticipation.
Boys and friends come and go in Stevie's rapidly changing world. Afros become a political statement, No Naps is Swahili-ized into Watu Wazuri, 1965 becomes 1970, and black takes a few steps toward beautiful. Stevie, whose "secret wish was to be popular," now longs to be loved unequivocally for whoever she is. In the turmoil, she finds herself drawn to the school nurse, a young white woman.
So what actually happens to sweet Stevie?
Not a terrible lot, it's a bit sad to say. But there are no static moments among the pages. Ms. Sinclair lets Stevie tell the story from start to finish in an easy style with observances that splash a warm smile across the reader's face. The first smile comes on the first line of the first page when Stevie says, "Mama, are you a virgin?"
April Sinclair paints with a fine brush Stevie's growth into young womanhood in a color-struck, urban world. The prose bubbles with the syllables of typical teen-age chatter, growing in complexity as Stevie matures. Where this coming-of-age story differs from the zillions of others on the bookshelves is that it is in tune with a time when sensibilities of what's wrong and right are changing, racing along as fast as young Stevie's hormones.
Title: "Coffee Will Make You Black"
Author: April Sinclair
Length, price: 239 pages, $19.95