Thoughts: Coffee Will Make You Black

coffee will make you black

April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black is the coming-of-age story of young Jean “Stevie” Stevenson who grows up in the Chicago Southside of the 1960s, in the midst of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. As a bildungsroman, the novel follows Stevie from age eleven until seventeen and her journey of self-discovery  as well as her and her community’s place in the US. If, like me, you’re not from the US, the title may have you confused. Coffe will make you Black is explained by Stevie’s grandmother as:

“The old folks in the South used to tell that to children so they wouldn’t want to drink coffee. The last thing anybody wanted to be was black.”

Horrible isn’t it? As you can see, and important part of the novel revolves about racism and racial identity. Sinclair also critiques the colorism inside and outside of the Black community. For Stevie is very dark-skinned and among her group of friends they like to compare their skin color to see who is the lightest. Alongside these notions of colorism is the rise of the Black Power movement through which Stevie comes to reject anti-blackness. Instead, she decides to wear her hair in a ‘fro and refuses the skin-bleaching cremes her mother offers her. Sinclair further demonstrates the generational conflict at work as Stevie’s mother strives to emulate white people in that she straightens her hair, bleaches her skin and insists on ‘proper’ English. Stevie, however, fights her mother and embraces Black vernacular and insists on staying friends with a girl who is ‘nothing but trouble.’

But square Stevie also longs to be part of the cool group, which leads to boyfriends with misogynistic attitudes and nearly having sex before she is ready. Growing closer to white school nurse Horn, Stevie comes to re-evaluate her sexual identity and also her community’s attitudes towards interracial friendship and homosexuality that she had previously accepted without question.

In the end, the novel proudly declares that ‘Black is beautiful’ and Stevie’s grandmother offers an other saying, ‘The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice’ as counterpoints to the titular racist idiom. Sinclair for the most part wonderfully connects and interrelates the coming of age story and the Civil Rights narrative, even if some moments could’ve done with a lighter touch. But this is a debut novel and it spoke to me on so many levels. I can only imagine what this book might mean to all the Stevies out there. And apart from its obvious importance in telling the story of growing up a Black girl in the 60s, a lot of the book is uproriously funny! I can only draw from other readings and movies about the time and community for comparison, but I think Sinclair’s use of vernacular is fantastic and lends the book much of its charm.

Luckily there is a sequel, Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, which follows Stevie’s exploration of her sexual identity in her college years in San Francisco. I can’t wait to read it!

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

What’s your favorite coming of age story? Tell me in the comments!

16 thoughts on “Thoughts: Coffee Will Make You Black

  1. Wonderful review, Bina! I love the title, the theme and everything about the book! This is really cool! It is hard to believe that the attitude of colourism exists in the black community and it is also hard to believe that people thought that having coffee would make one blacker. By that logic my mom should have been pitch black (she used to guzzle coffee), but she was the fairest in our home 🙂 I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list and will look forward to reading about Stevie’s experiences and adventures. Thanks for introducing a new-to-me author. So wonderful that this book also has a sequel. April Sinclair is an exciting new author to watch out for.

    1. Yay so glad you like everything about the book, Vishy! 🙂
      Yes sadly colorism is an effect of antiblackness and when groups are discriminated you can always see that some people find some groups even lower in this hierarchy. It’s very sad.
      Haha did you inherit the love for coffee from your mother?
      Hope you’ll enjoy this book, it was definitely a wonderful debut by the author!

  2. I think I read this in the late ’90s but that’s been so long ago that I can’t say for sure! Great review. I don’t know that I have a favorite coming of age novel, but a couple of very good ones are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

    1. Heh yes I’m always behind 😀 But it is so good, I’d recommend it for rereading. Ooh yes I enjoyed what I read of Alexie and the Ferrante is on my tbr, but I’m scared of Ferrante fever 😉 Might have to get the next books in case that happens.

  3. It is horrible that people used to say coffee turned you black to put children off drinking coffee, as the last thing anybody wanted to be was black. Although that reminds me of a touching/funny recollection one of the black maids has, that I saw, in the film adaptation of The Help.

  4. The books I’ve read that explore colorism in the black community and other POC communities have been some of my favorite books. They’re generally very serious, poignant, and sometimes dark, so I’m glad this one is also “uproariously funny.”!

  5. Oh damn, my favorite coming of age book. Tough call! Speaking totally truthfully, it’s probably Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins — just because I read it when I was a little kid and absorbed a lot of things from it, and now I feel all sentimental. But I don’t think it’s among the world’s great coming of age books. Oh, have you read The Chosen? (Yes probably you are v. well read.) That one’s awfully good. OH and Tell the Wolves I’m Home made me cry tears all down my face, so maybe that one also?

    1. Nooo I think I haven’t even heard of The Chosen! Shame on me and off to google it 🙂 Also, will have to check out Tell the Wolves, thanks for the rec!

  6. I think my favorite coming of age book would be The Outsiders, by SE hinton, if that counts. I don’t know that I read very many coming of age novels.
    As for the coffee thing, it’s very prominent in my family. When my mother was pregnant with my younger brother back in 2005, an elderly aunt told her not to drink coca-cola during her pregnancy, or else her child would end up black. Scientifically, no one thinks that’s true, but people say it anyway. It sucks, and it definitely bothered my mother who is a lighter toned woman married to a dark skinned man (the result of which has been 3 dark skinned children), but she handles it nicely. Her usual response was “If I didn’t want dark skinned children, I wouldn’t have married a dark skinned man.”

    1. Thanks so much for sharing! I only know US racism from my news feed and books etc so I know much about it but then still manage to be horrified by such brazenly racist sayings. I should know better I guess. Good on your mother! It must be terrible to be confronted with this racism and colorism!
      I will have to check out The Outsiders 🙂

  7. I am already in love with this, Bina. Some of my friends told me that they were asked not to drink coffee whey they were in their teenage, because it would make them black. Such a notion exists in India too. Sigh!

    1. Yikes! Is it something that started with colonization by the British I wonder…
      I hope you’ll enjoy this one anyways, pretty sure you’ll like Stevie 🙂

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