By Nicole Walker
Jabari Asim, editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the NAACP’s national magazine, and author of The N Word and What Obama Means…For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future, beautifully weaves together stories of members of a community living through the civil rights era.
Too many times, the younger generation looks back on historical events without an eye to the reality that they were not only members of a period; they were real people who lived, loved, struggled and achieved. With that premise, Asim takes us to the hot summer of 1967 in the fictional town of Gateway City where the descendants of the Great Migrators enjoy some sense of autonomy but are reminded daily that there is an our side of town and a their side of town. Although racial strife is an overarching theme, Asim enchants us with tales of young people coming of age and of not-so-young people coming into their own.
Eighteen stories, although separate, should be read together. The same characters waltz in and out of the lives of the others, and we feel as though we know each a little better at every turn. It is the best kind of story collection: Although one could close the book after the end of one tale, the desire to press on to the next one remains. Refreshingly, there is no gimmick here: He does not use any cheap trick or cliffhanger to taunt the reader to read on.
The tales center around Reuben and Pristine Jones and their three children, Ed, Shomburg and Crispus. We are introduced to the fictitious Gateway City by young Crispus, who, while in the shadow of two handsome, popular older brothers, must find something great within himself. He has tightly-coiled naps, is called “Beanshots” and describes himself as yellow during a time when Black is finally deemed beautiful.
We are captivated by Crispus as he takes in the world around him. He notes that his eldest brother Ed, now 17, has become inspired by the revolution rising and no longer has time to share comic books with him anymore. He takes pity – in the way only a child can – on a broken and blind candy store owner whose days of love and light have come and gone. He attempts to become cool like his brothers by getting a girlfriend (who is the best he can get under the circumstances, he decides). He is on the cusp of becoming a young man, but his world is still full of bullies, zombies and a mysterious child ghost who sits on his living room couch.
The adults of Gateway City too try to make sense of their world and ask themselves whether they believe in second chances. One character must decide if she will continue an abusive relationship or if she will try to see herself the way a certain admiring man does. Another must decide if she will allow a traumatic event to take away her will to live despite the fact that she has a brilliant son who needs her. We follow them closely hoping for the best but remaining in suspense until the end.
Lest we get too comfortable, Asim reminds us that there is another side of Gateway City, which holds itself above and apart from the characters we have grown to know. Good resources, including grocery stores, are all on the white side of town. “Thirteen years after Brown…and Gateway City’s schools are still separate and still unequal,” a local newspaper notes. The only white citizens of the city who appear in our black world are the police represented by racist cop Ray Mortimer who taunts and harasses anyone with brown skin, regardless of guilt or innocence. White people, even when they are not present, are still in the back of the minds of the residents. Ed, while contemplating the common refrain that black people must be twice as good to be considered half as good, acknowledges that while this newfound blackness was empowering, it was also confusing since it made so many things he deemed good – like standard English and Ivy League schools – white, and thus bad. This debate is still a hot topic in our community’s discussions today.
Tying all of the stories together is the string of community. We can reminisce on the times when we played as children until the streetlight came on because we knew at least one of the neighbors, if not several of them, was keeping an eye on us. Sadly, with our new world of separate lives where no one trusts each other and usually for good reason, we often don’t know our neighbors enough to wave “good morning” as we pull out of our cul-de-sacs, let alone trust them with our children, our houses and our lives. In one scene, Pristine sends Crispus back home to run an errand after dark:
The door is closed but the latch is off. Just make sure you pull the door shut
when you leave…Mr. and Mrs. Collins are on their porch. They’ll look out for you.
A series of serious events, culminating in an event suited for the times, remind us of the importance of community and family. A Taste of Honey not only entertains; it inspires. Asim, in the character Reuben Jones, shows us how the heroes can inspire us to greatness and tells us in the names he gives his children to remember those who came before us. And so it goes: the lives of those in the present – whenever that particular present may be, whether it is the present for the characters in 1967 or our own current present – not only strive to aspire to their own dreams but also struggle with comparing them to the lives of others around them, of those before them, and of those who will come afterwards. Perhaps Mr. Asim will again revisit the realm of fiction. Let us all hope he does.
Nicole Walker has been a writer for 10 years and has had poetry published in the University of Georgia's Stillpoint literary magazine. She is currently working on a short story collection.