Archive for September 15th, 2020

Black Bottom Saints

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

By Alice Randall

The Short Take:

This is one of the best books I have read in years. Fact and fiction combine to tell the stories of 52 “saints” associated with Detroit’s famed Black Bottom neighborhood, a wellspring for talent and creativity from the 1920s through the 1940s. The writing is brilliant and I learned so much–not just about these 52 individuals–but about being Black in America

Why?

The book is patterned after Catholic books of the saints, with the story of a different saint presented for 52 weeks. The narrator is Ziggy Johnson, who is writing the book from his deathbed. Ziggy Johnson is a genuine historic person who founded a school of theater and dance that not only nurtured talent but taught young Black girls to go out in the world and achieve. Other saints include such famous people as Joe Louis and Dinah Washington but you’ll also find a raft of people you’ve never heard of or barely recall. I finally quit looking up his saints right away and made a list–all that googling took me out of the reading moment.

I learned about Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old cowering under her table during the Detroit riots who was fatally shot by a National Guardsman. I learned about the drag balls of Alfred Finnie, the sculptures of Artis Lane, and the achievements of Bayard Rustin who played key roles in the Civil Rights movement but was sidelined because he was gay.

But the most important thing I learned was how Black entertainers, athletes, and others turned “trauma into transcendence,” overcoming the pain of slavery and Jim Crow to bring their beauty and magic to the world.

Alongside the stories of Ziggy’s saints is the story of Colored Girl, who is clearly a stand-in for author Alice Randall with only some details changed. Her complicated relationship with her mother, who stole her away from an adored father and Ziggy’s godfathering, is her trauma to transcend.

Through her creation of this book she brings the power and perseverance of Black lives to the forefront. Some told her others would steal what she possessed. She replied, “Black girl magic can’t stolen but can be given.”

Alice Randall has gifted the world with a sublime volume of exceptional inspiration and understanding. It is as close as you can get to divine.

A Little Plot:

There really isn’t a plot, though CG’s story is fairly linear and the stories of the saints have their connections, as you would expect in a tight neighborhood like Black Bottom. Each saint’s story also comes with a cocktail recipe that evokes that individuals unique spirit. And, no, I did not try them all.

For more about Alice Randall and her books click here. BTW her website is more interesting than those of most writers.

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