Through a series of fictional episodes set against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent years in modern history, Asim brings into pin-sharp focus how the tumultuous events of '68 affected real people's lives and shaped the country we live in today.
The sixteen connected stories in this exciting debut are set in the fictional Midwestern town of Gateway City, where second generation off-spring of the Great Migrators have pieced together a thriving, if fragile existence. With police brutality on the rise, the civil rights movement gaining momentum, and wars raging at home and abroad, Asim has conjured a community that stands on edge. But it is the individual struggles with love, childrearing, adolescence, etc, lyrically chronicled here, that create a piercing portrait of humanity.
In I'd Rather Go Blind and Zombies, young Crispus Jones, who while sensitive to the tremors of upheaval around him is still much more concerned with his crush on neighbor Polly and if he's ever going to be as cool as his brother. When Ray Mortimer, a white cop, kills the owner of his favorite candy store, Crispus becomes aware of malice even more scary than zombies and the ghost that he thinks may be haunting his house.
In The Wheat from the Tares and A Virtuous Woman, Rose Whittier deals with her abusive husband with a desperate resignation until his past catches up with him and she's given a second chance at love. And Gabriel, her suitor, realizes that his whole-hearted commitment to The Struggle may have to give way for his own shot at romance.
And in Ashes to Ashes we see how a single act of despicable violence in their childhoods cements a lasting connection between two unlikely friends.
From Crispus' tender innocence to Ray Mortimer's near pure evil, to Rose's quiet determination, the characters in this book and their journeys showcase a world that is brimming with grace and meaning and showcases the talents of a writer at the top of his game.
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About the Author
Jabari Asim is the author of What Obama Means . . . For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future, The N Word, and several books for children. He is also a scholar-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Essence, Ebony, and other publications. He recently was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Read an Excerpt
I'd Rather Go Blind
the summer of '67 was hot and foreboding. Folks in our neighborhood milled in the steamy streets, sweat-soaked and frowning. It was even hotter elsewhere: While other cities boiled over, Gateway mostly simmered. There was no question, though, that the temperature was steadily rising. Young men no longer hailed each other with an innocuous wave; instead they thrust black fists skyward. "Brothers and sisters are getting fed up," my brother Ed grew fond of saying. "Sooner or later some shit's gonna explode." And it did.
Everybody had nicknames where we lived. People had two, three, sometimes four or five of them. If you didn't go to school or church with a kid, you could go your whole life without ever knowing what his real name was. A family on Greer Ave. had children known forever as Pumpkin, Pie, Buggy, and Cricket. Down the street from them was a kid called Boy, who was plenty nice as kids go. His real name was Dante, but not even his grandmother called him that. The kid on the corner of my block usually went by Man. Only occasionally was he called Roebuck Roundtree III. On the rest of our block we had two Peteys, a Tootie, a Decky, Big Wen and Big Hen, Throttles, and Choo-Choo. The tall, lean kid across the alley was named Lee but also answered to Bosco or Skillet.
The girls on our street had it just as bad. We had Twin, Boo, Sissy, Yogi, Baa-Baa, and another Tootie, this one a big-legged girl from Clarksdale. Her real name was Parthinias.
Ed, seventeen and universally recognized as the Coolest Dude on Earth, was the sole exception to the multiple nickname game. The other kids simply called him Ed, each of them pronouncing his name with an audible note of awe, as if they were saying Supreme Commander or Your Royal Highness.
During the summer of '67, Ed was going through changes, my mother would say with a hint of impatience. He tended to mumble on the phone or talk in this deep grunt punctuated by the occasional "Right on" or mysterious reference to "the people." His friends joined him in an elaborate ritual of respect each time they saw each other, a semi-embrace full of handshakes, finger locks, and elbow bumps. Just as dramatically, these same old friends, known in the recent past by such affectionate names as Knucklehead and Punk Ass, became Brothers, as in
"If Brother Charles calls, tell him I'm on my way."
"If that's Brother Vaughn, tell him he knows where to find me."
My other brother, Schomburg, was twelve years old and impossible to live with. His nicknames were all flattering, owing to his easygoing grace and charming good looks—qualities that I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge, despite my best efforts. Girls called him Dimples. Boys called him Slick or Cool Breeze. Pop, who called me Hamburger, called him Superstar. Shom got that one from his coach and Little League teammates the night he hit three homers and gunned down the tying run at the plate from deep in right field. None of his admirers had any idea how obnoxious he could be in the privacy of his own room, which happened to be my room too.
There was no clearly marked border dividing our respective halves, but the contrast between the sides was so stark that a line may as well have been painted right down the middle. Shom liked to pretend that there was in fact a boundary, one made of dirt. There was no dust or debris on his side, little evidence that anyone even inhabited it. Everything reflected its owner's clearly neurotic obsession with neatness. All of his clothes were crisply folded and tucked tidily out of sight, save a red plaid robe hanging from a hook on the back of the door. Next to the door and leaning against the wall was a tall mirror, Shom's best friend.
He could stand in front of that thing for hours, it seemed to me. I suspected that he kept checking his reflection to reassure himself and smile away his worst fear: that his creamy brown complexion, dimples, and curls had just been part of a tantalizing dream. Like Ed, Shom was born handsome and appreciated the blessing. Still, he regarded the upkeep of his appearance as a sacred responsibility. Hence a good chunk of each day was spent maintaining his appearance, the better to solicit the compliments that he had come to expect as his birthright. He kept his comb and brush next to his bed, sometimes sleeping with them as if they were stuffed animals. I was never allowed to even handle his brush, and using it was out of the question. After all, science had yet to prove that nappy hair wasn't contagious.
I had no use for the mirror myself, certain that Shom's reflection would linger there to remind me tauntingly of all the things I lacked. I could let whole seasons go by without once glancing in that infernal glass.
It was my misfortune to be somewhat melanin-deprived just on the eve of the Black Is Beautiful revolution. I was yellow, beige on my best days, with orange lips that were big and swollen as Tweety Bird's beak. My hair was coppery with edges burned orange by the sun and locks coiled tight as bedsprings. My naps were stubborn yet soft as dust, although this latter quality didn't discourage the neighborhood kids from calling me Beanshots. No one really knew what beanshots were, but it was common playground parlance for extremely kinky hair. As a bonus, it was fun to pronounce and conveyed the unmistakable sting of insult.
My mother, Pristine, would never do such a dastardly thing as call me Beanshots, but she was clearly disappointed with my hair. She'd look at it with her lips pursed and her head turned slightly sideways, as if trying to figure out how things had gone wrong. My brother Ed had wavy hair that he cultivated by sleeping in a stocking cap and regularly applying generous doses of Murray's pomade. For all Shom's fussing with a comb and brush, all he really had to do was shake his head a little bit and every lock fell into place.
Mornings my mother met me with a sigh. She'd grip my chin firmly with one hand, then slap my face twice with the other to remind me to keep still. This was just before the hair-care market expanded to include Afro picks, and fine-tooth combs were absolute impossibilities, so she'd brush until her wrist got tired, then send me off to school. My scalp tingled and throbbed until lunchtime, when I would head home to eat and undergo the torture all over again. One of the reasons I liked summer so much was that Mom eased up on my hair, and the summer of '67 was no different. She'd let me go nappy for days at a time, and I'd be happy and headache-free.
Shom called me Beanshots only when other kids were around. In the privacy of our room, he preferred Pickle-Headed Pisspot (I tended to wet the bed) or his favorite, Bigheaded Redheaded Monkey. He denies it now, says I'm prone to remembering things that never happened. I know what I heard, despite what he says. Some stuff just sticks with you.
Of all my nicknames, my favorite was Sir Crispus, a noble-sounding designation better suited to a valiant knight than to an ugly duckling. The only person who called me that was Curly, the short, scary-looking blind man who ran the candy store on Vandeventer, between the dry cleaners and the shoeshine parlor. I have no idea how he got his nickname, for his hair was anything but. In fact, his wild salt-and-pepper mane even gave me a run for my money--and he had a beard to match. He wore big, red-tinted sunglasses over eyes that I imagined were blank and wildly unfocused, rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Rumor had it that Curly had traded his eyes to our neighborhood undertaker in exchange for the money to open his business.
He looked like he slept in his clothes and probably often did, on the cot in the little room behind the store that he called home. Sometimes we woke him when we ran to his store at lunchtime, eager to stuff ourselves with Lemonheads, Sugar Babies, Slo Pokes, and Chick-O-Sticks before the second bell. He'd rise, groaning and scratching yet moving effortlessly from the back room to the counter, where we clamored frantically for our daily dose of sugar. We wondered how his fingers knew just where to find the brand of candy we demanded, how he made correct change without hesitation. More than a few kids agreed with Bumpy Decatur when he insisted that Curly wasn't blind at all but merely engaged in some complicated scam. Curly dubbed me Sir Crispus the Pure-Hearted when, against the advice of the two Peteys and Choo-Choo, I'd returned the extra Now and Laters he'd accidentally placed in my bag.
I saw more of Curly on days when I hung out with Father Time, whose grandparents ran the cleaners next door to the candy shop. Father Time, christened Brian by his unwitting parents, was so nicknamed because of the slow way he walked and talked. We'd take turns tossing a rubber ball against the wall of the cleaners while his grandfather Mr. Kirkwood kept an eye on us. I loved to watch the old man operate his big steam press, the way he ignored the massive cloud of mist that seemed to always encircle his head. When business was lagging Curly would sit on the stoop behind his store and listen to records. Usually it was the same one: "I'd Rather Go Blind." He'd nod his head behind his red shades, a cigarette turning to ash between his bony fingers. "Etta James," he'd say. "She ain't got no idea."
There was a calendar on Curly's wall with a naked woman on it. Father Time and I had made it our mission to tiptoe past the nodding Curly and make out her mysterious curves in the dim recesses of his room. But every time we tried, we would hear, "Shame on you, Sir Crispus," as if he was reading my mind. "Sneaking a peek at another man's woman."
"Sorry," I'd apologize. "You mean she's—?"
"That's right. Miss June. Used to be mine, for sure. And once you been Curly's, you cain't be nobody else's. Sir Crispus, you too young to even know what I'm talking about."
For a long time we kids used to wonder where Curly hid his dog during the day. Father Time and I never saw any evidence of the huge beast that we knew lurked somewhere in Curly's tiny lair, along with his cot, his calendar, and his record player. At night, however, the dog's loud, piercing wails could be heard as far away as Natural Bridge Boulevard, four blocks distant.
One night I asked my dad if he'd ever seen Curly's dog.
"The one that's howling right now. Don't you hear it?"
My mom's mom, who preferred to be called Big Mama but whom I secretly nicknamed the Grandmother, was visiting from her home down the block. She snorted.
"That's an animal all right," she said, "but it's not a dog."
"Be nice, Big Mama," Mom cautioned.
The Grandmother waved her hand. "Just telling it like it is."
"That's Curly you hear," Dad explained. "Sometimes he drinks too much rotgut and it forces all his anger out."
"His gut isn't the only thing that's rotting," the Grandmother said. "His soul can't be far behind."
I had no worries about Curly's soul. Only a good man could have the uncanny ability to emerge from his storefront just when Bumpy Decatur and his brothers were about to shake us down for our candy money. Only a good man would forbid the other kids to call me Beanshots in his presence. "That's Sir Crispus," he'd declare. "He's got history in his name. You little whippersnappers need to get some respect."
I sensed instinctively that he was not a corrupt man, merely a sad one. His tale, which Father Time and I caught in whiskey-soaked fragments muttered between verses of Etta James, was too involved for a boy of nine to get his imagination around. Even so, I knew it involved missed opportunities, a beautiful woman, and a broken heart. What more was there to know?
One night in early June, Curly's mysterious past was consigned to smoke and ashes forever.
Shom and I were already bathed and in our pajamas, watching Mr. Terrific, when the quiet of evening gave way to the sound of shattering glass. Shouts, curses, and sirens followed. My father leaned out of my parents' bedroom window on the second floor. "Someone's down," my father said. "A lot of people are gathering on the corner. Maybe I--"
"Maybe you should shut that window and sit down," my mother said. "Nothing but trouble out there."
There was a knock at the door. My father went down to answer it, my mother close at his heels. Shom and I peeked through the upstairs banister. "It's Collins," Pop said. He opened the door.
Mr. Collins, our next-door neighbor, skipped his usual greetings.
"Reuben, let's go down to the corner," he said.
Mr. Collins hesitated, then shot a quick glance at my mother before returning his gaze to Pop. "Is Ed here?"
Pristine gasped. My father looked at her, and then rushed past Mr. Collins. Our neighbor looked apologetically at my mom. "Don't worry," he said. He left and shut the door.
"Lord have mercy," my mother whispered. She called Shom and me and gathered us in her arms.
We huddled in silence while confusion swirled loudly outside. Mr. Terrific went off. I wanted to get up and change the channel to NBC because it was time for my favorite show, Captain Nice. I could almost hear its opening theme: "That's no ordinary nut, boy, that's Captain Nice!"
The door swung open. Ed stepped in, followed by my dad. Ed had a small cut on his forehead. My mother ran to him, her arms spread wide.
"Baby," she said.
Ed held her. "I'm fine, Mom. I'm fine."
She stared at his wound. "Did the police do that?"
"No, Mom. The people were throwing all kinds of stuff out there. I think some glass caught me." To my eyes Ed looked changed, battle-scarred somehow. I wondered if a piece of glass could make so much difference.
"It was just a handful of folks making a whole lotta fuss," my dad said. "It's over, at least for now. The police are gone. They've done enough damage tonight."
"Jesus, Ed," Mom said. "Mr. Collins came by and told us you were out there. I was so afraid."
Dad put his hand on Ed's shoulder.
What People are Saying About This
"Jabari Asim has written a brilliant coming-of-age tale filled compelling characters navigating race relations in 1968, navigating familial and neighborhood demands, and triumphantly reaffirming what it means to be human. A lovely, lyrical collection of connected stories that will leave readers breathless and ecstatic with passion and joy."--(Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of Yellow Moon)
"A Taste of Honey has the power of memoir and the poetry of fiction. Suddenly, it is 1968 once more, with all of the hope and violence and seismic change that rocked the cities that summer. It's all here and it's all beautifully rendered. This book is a gem."--(Chris Bohjalian, author Secrets of Eden)
"Jabari Asim's rich short stories read like a novel...full of people we love getting to know, Rose, Gabriel, Pristine, Ed, Reuben and Guts. I particularly loved the male characters in these pages...men who live by their brains and their brawn, shelter their children, their community. They embrace their wives. They love hard, laugh deep and cry inside."--(Denise Nicholas, author of Freshwater Road)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Lariat List 2010, African-Americans, civil rights movement, family
Interconnected short stories set in 1967-1968 , based around one African-American family and their neighbors. At the center of these stories is the Jones family, Reuben, a painter, his homemaker wife Pristine and their three sons, Ed, Schomburg and Crispus. Subjects include police brutality, domestic violence, zombies, ghosts, racism and civil rights. The first story has young Crispus introducing us to his family while other stories spread out to include their neighbors and the city. The last story includes the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and the ensuing riots. Asim makes you care about these characters, esp Crispus, Reuben and Roderick (the boy genius of the neighborhood).This book was the best book of the month for me. It's a well written , fast read , that kept my interest throughout. Highly recommended.
Touted as a series of short stories, reading this novel as a whole has a much more powerful impact. "A Taste of Honey" is set in a racially divided, imaginary midwestern town, in an African American neighborhood. Some people are happy with what they've got, yet most yearn for a better life. It's the summer of 1967, and racial tensions are rising. A rash of violence starting with a white policemen beating to death a beloved, blind African-American candy store owner sets this normally quiet neighborhood on edge. Everyone has an opinion on what happened and how to stop it from happening again; whether it be the father of three trying to do right by his family by working two jobs, or the teenaged boy down the block getting straight-As in school, working a part-time job and trying to coordinate a group called 'The Warriors' to fight for their rights. Each chapter is about a particular neighborhood character, several chapters overlapping when family members and neighbors are discussed by, and interact with, the featured protagonist. The heart of the neighborhood lies in the home of Pristine and Ed Jones and their three sons, Crispus, Shom and Ed Jr. Ed Jr. is experiencing his first real romantic relationship, working part-time at the African-American grocery store, is a member of the local brotherhood alliance, and hopes to get into Harvard in the fall. Shom and Crispus, much younger then Ed. Jr., share a room where their personalities are as different as night and day. Shom, the much favored son, is rarely talked about except by Crispus, who knows he is seen as second best. Crispus has a crush on a chubby neighbor girl who sees a ghost in Crispus' house. Next door to the Jones' lives Rose and Paul Whittier. Rose has a singing voice that could invoke emotion from a stone, and Paul beats her on a daily basis to make her stop singing. But Rose will never stop singing, for it's the only joy she has in life. One day a gigantic stranger comes into their home and leaves with a battered Paul in the trunk of his car. It takes Rose a long time to believe she is finally free. The climax of the book comes when Martin Luther King is assassinated and riots break out and family members are separated. Ed Jr. is making his way back to his side of town after attending a Harvard interview when his bus is stopped by the police and everyone is forced to get off and leave on foot. Fearing rioting, people are boarding their windows, streets are being shut down and angry mobs are forming everywhere Ed looks. Will he make it home to his family? Will everyone in their respectful little neighborhood be safe? What will the world look like after this monumental event? Extremely sympathetic characters narrated in such an interesting manner make this story intriguing, leaving the reader wanting more.