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School Board Puts Coffee on Ice

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To the handlers at the central office, the school board's fast-and-easy disposal of the so-called "April affair" was textbook damage control.

On Monday, February 17, the papers ran the story of ministers and priests outraged that such "trash" and "garbage" as Coffee Will Make You Black, a coming-of-age novel set on the south side, was required reading for ninth graders at Julian, a public high school on the south side.

By Tuesday board chief Paul Vallas had ordered the book, which has one sexually explicit scene, removed from the required reading list. By Thursday the story had faded, as its main players walked away triumphant over their decisive actions and righteous cause.

And April Sinclair, who wrote the book, was left wondering why a hard-working African-American author of a much-acclaimed novel would be so unfairly maligned in her own hometown. "The people that called my book 'trash' and 'garbage' owe me an apology," says Sinclair. "It's not trash, it's not garbage. It's a heart-warming book that could help parents and their kids deal with difficult subjects. But how would they know if they haven't read it?"

What's surprising is that so many Chicagoans took so long to discover Sinclair, a local girl made good. Though she lives in California, Sinclair was born and raised on the south side (Calumet High, class of '71), and often returns to visit her family.

She graduated from Western Illinois University, moved to the San Francisco area, worked at a food bank, and began the torturous process of writing Coffee, the story of Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, a bright and inquisitive teenager grappling with the turmoil of adolescence. Can she be friends with white people without betraying her race? Will she have to leave the south side to discover herself? And should she say yes to her boyfriend, Sean, even though she's afraid?

The backdrop is Chicago in the 60s, a time of reawakening black pride. At one point Stevie and her family are shocked and ecstatic to see "Black is Beautiful" spray-painted on the side of a building. Sinclair writes:

"'"Black" is supposed to be a fighting word. I've heard, "Black get back," "I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac," and "Coffee will make you black."'

"'I never told my children any mess like that,' Grandma cut in. 'I told y'all, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."...I never thought I would live to see the day when "black" would be called beautiful! It makes me damn proud!'"

In a few years Stevie and her friends are growing Afros, reading Malcolm X, and openly defying the authority of white teachers. On a personal level Stevie and Sean have their climactic moment:

"I lay still, holding my breath, while Sean rubbed his hands up and down my body. I let him undress me. I helped Sean with the hooks on my bra. He began sucking my breasts, which I liked. Sean unzipped his pants and took his thing out and started rubbing it against the inside of my thigh. I could've enjoyed it if I hadn't known what it was leading up to. But I reminded myself that I didn't have to enjoy it, I just had to get through it.

"'Baby, you starting to get wet.'

"I felt embarrassed by the comment, but I couldn't deny the juicy noises my pussy was making as Sean's dick rubbed against it."

But Stevie pushes Sean away, and then he gives her an ultimatum: put out or he won't take her to the prom. For Stevie, the choice is almost easy: "I knew that I was losing my boyfriend, but I was relieved. I realized that I had never been in love with Sean, just impressed with him. And that was a different feeling. It hadn't made me want to run outside and taste a snowflake."

At the book's end, Stevie emerges with pride for her heritage, love for her family, heightened self-respect, and hopes for the future. In short, she's a role model for countless teenage girls (black and white) struggling with similar fears, doubts, and pressures. (She's also uncertain about her sexual preference, an aspect of the book Sinclair delicately handles. One can only conclude that her critics never got beyond the image of Sean fumbling with Stevie's brassiere, or they'd be steaming about this too.)

The book, published by Hyperion, hit the stores in 1994, became a word-of-mouth sensation with over 150,000 copies sold, and in Chicago won a Carl Sandburg Award for best local novel. (Sinclair has since written a second novel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, also a big seller.)

"April Sinclair came here in January 1994 and there were only about 50 people," says Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women & Children First bookstore. "But the word spread like wildfire. For her last reading we had over 100 people. She's very popular--the people love her."

North-siders weren't the only ones who loved Coffee. The crowd was so large on the south side that 57th Street Books had to move its signing to a lecture hall at the University of Chicago. "South side, north side, it didn't matter--the book was always well received in Chicago," says Sinclair.

But last month the controversy erupted. According to Vallas, a substitute teacher at Julian initiated the protest when she saw that the book had been assigned to a ninth-grade English class. By the weekend of February 17 Stevie's steamy scene with Sean had been faxed about town, and the protests had been joined by a black nationalist professor, a Catholic priest, and a group of fundamentalist ministers. Among other things, they demanded that the principal and English teacher be reprimanded and, according to the Chicago Defender, forced to "bring in experts in the Afrocentric curriculum movement 'to dissect this book, consult with whomever approved the book...so it can be used to illustrate its negativeness to Blacks.'"

"What's the sense of going to school if you're going to get in the classroom what you get out in the streets?" Father Michael Pfleger told the Defender. "It's not just important to get our kids to read but it's the quality of what we're putting in their minds. Kids are sponges that we fill up and you can't expect to be putting that kind of garbage in and not expect a negative response coming out."

Vallas read that article, heard similar comments on call-in talk shows, and moved into action. "I called [Julian's] principal and said, 'Let's get this resolved,'" says Vallas. "It's a good book, and I'm not a censorship guy, but there's an immediate issue of whether this sort of sexually explicit language is appropriate for ninth graders."

There was also no need for a distracting crusade over what most school officials considered a minor matter. "I thought the best way to resolve it was to take the book off the required reading list," says Vallas. "Any student who wants to read it can read it. It's just not required."

The resolution satisfied everyone but Sinclair. For starters, it was an abrupt and authoritarian decision made without discussion or debate, as though a handful of protesters had spoken for an entire school (certainly, no one asked the parents of Julian's students what they thought about the book). Could the protesters be so naive as to think that high school students aren't exposed to far more graphic scenes in TV shows and movies every day? And why shouldn't such subjects be discussed in a classroom? Isn't that where they could be framed in a rational way? Why not compare the tortured love scene in Coffee to others, like the one in Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? Why not relate the book to issues like teenage pregnancy? In other words, why treat Julian's students like mindless slugs incapable of handling complex issues? All in all, it was the educational equivalent of a penitentiary lockdown--throw 'em back in their cells, lock the door, and deny them any access to independent thoughts.

"When reporters first started calling me I wanted to be sensitive to the people who were against it," says Sinclair. "But once I found out they were calling it garbage and calling for the teacher and principal to resign, I realized they were attacking for the sake of attacking. They attack me and my book and they don't know me, they haven't read my book. I grew up in Chicago, I was raised in the church, I taught Sunday school. But these people want to vilify me.

"This is about power and control--telling people what they can read and what they should write. It's as if they [the protesters] want everything to be sanitized or everyone to think the way they think. If they think my book's the problem with the world, they have their heads buried in the sand."

Sinclair says Coffee would make a useful tool for teaching: "It was written for adults, specifically boomers looking back, but I didn't write it to exclude teenagers. Should it be taught to high school freshmen? That's a judgment call. Teaching it in Utah would be different than teaching it in San Francisco or Chicago. I can understand parents who would be uncomfortable and embarrassed, though many parents have said 'Thanks, your book helped me deal with a difficult issue.' I certainly don't think it's damaging to teenagers."

And what about the graphic language in the love scene?

"It's not as though I'm describing something bizarre. This is a teenager describing conflicting feelings. It's her voice. What am I supposed to have her say--'oh, my vagina's moist'? This is an honest depiction of a first sexual experience, but it's being sensationalized as if it's Deep Throat.

"If anything, the book advocates abstinence--it tries to give support for not rushing into sex. Do it when you're ready, do it when you want to. I don't understand it. This might be the hook that gets teenagers started on reading and they take it away. I guess imagination's a dangerous thing to people who want to control your mind."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alain McLaughlin.

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