“Mama, are you a virgin?”
When readers first meet Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, she’s an innocent Black girl growing up in 1960s Southside Chicago. In the early 1960s, when Stevie is still young enough to do as she’s told without question, she soaks in a lot of different messages about her culture and the way she looks: her hair should be straightened and she mustn’t speak in her peers’ casual vernacular. She gets a little older, and now there are skin lightening creams to consider (there’s also that saying, “coffee will make you black,” to keep kids away from the beverage: the last thing anyone wants to be is dark-skinned). Her mother is strict and religious, intent on keeping her daughter as sheltered as possible so that she can have a shot at moving up in the world; there’s little room for Stevie to explore ideas on her own terms.
Stevie doesn’t have any friends, but when miscommunication occurs and she naively admits to something, she suddenly has the attention of two popular girls that her mother doesn’t approve of. This is the first step in Stevie’s coming-of-age story. The rest is set against a backdrop of rapid social change and political awareness; Stevie and her peers get to experience the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in middle and high school. It’s a nightmare Stevie’s straightlaced mother, who cannot wrap her head around all these radical ideas floating around in her daughter’s head, but it’s an important part of Stevie’s life. Suddenly, Black is beautiful.
But where her cultural identity is starting to feel a lot more settled, her relationships are a mess. Her friends might be open to exploring their sexuality — everyone expects them to get pregnant and drop out of school any day now — but Stevie still remains pretty naive and innocent when it comes to sexual matters. She has boyfriends who try to pressure her into going further than she feels ready for, and even though she’s attracted to them, all of a sudden, she’s kind of starting to think that she might be attracted to…a girl? To make matters worse, everyone seems to be ready for social change, but it’s highly unlikely anyone would be open to that.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s smartly done YA fiction that handled a lot of different things very well (the author herself grew up in the same area during that era). There were a lot of things you don’t see too much of in YA, and even though it’s set in the 1960s and was published in the mid-1990s, there’s still so much relevance to today. Sinclair explores things like colorism and institutionalized racism (at one point, politically aware students take note of how their almost entirely Black school is run almost entirely by white faculty and staff). Almost all of the characters in the book are Black, but even back in the day, you had white people saying, “not all white people.”
[Stop reading now if you don’t want to read something spoilery.]
What I liked most was the exploration of Stevie’s sexuality, even though it doesn’t really come up until the end of the book. There aren’t a lot of LGBTQ characters in books currently being published, but they do exist. What you don’t see a lot of are characters who are so solidly still questioning their sexuality. I actually didn’t mind that Sinclair waited until the end of the book to bring up Stevie’s confusion because it was handled realistically and not like some random plot twist. Stevie has boyfriends and she is attracted to them, so it’s all the more confusing to her when she starts to realize she might be more attracted to women. It’s not really clear at the end what she’ll end up identifying as — she could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could just as easily be straight. The important thing is that she’s given room to explore these feelings. That big question mark in the air is something that I think a lot of youth can identify with.
Coffee Will Make You Black was first published in 1995 and was reissued in 2007 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. It is unfortunately now out of print, but there are a lot of used copies floating around.
I read it as a(n): Paperback