Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.46.45 PM

Feministing Reads: Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled

In the foreword to her debut novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison describes how she came to write her classic story of an isolated black girl’s disavowal of blackness. She points to the “reclamation of racial beauty” that was so central to the cultural activism of the 1960s as her motivating context, but she notes that this girl’s story is “a unique situation, not a representative one:” in order to explore more dramatically the consequences of internalized racism and sexism, Morrison deprives her protagonist of a supportive family from which she might draw strength. Morrison’s Pecola is vulnerable, bereft, utterly exposed, and suffers tragically for it.

Asali Solomon’s debut novel Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) answers Morrison’s in more ways than one. Her protagonist Kenya Curtis comes of age in the late 1980s, raised by radicalized parents who impress upon Kenya that reclaimed sense of racial beauty withheld from Pecola in The Bluest Eye. Over the course of Disgruntled we accompany Kenya through public elementary school, the implosion of her family, a rocky move, and out the other end; we follow Pecola nowhere near as far. Pecola’s parents cause her pain; Kenya’s want to help her, though they often fail. Sheila and Johnbrown Curtis are themselves readers of Morrison, and they imagine their daughter to be the beneficiary of Morrison’s generation of cultural activism. Their efforts are by no means irreproachable and they do not deliver Kenya into adulthood unscathed. But, unlike Pecola, she makes it through.

We first meet Kenya in the mid-1980s, living in West Philadelphia with both of her parents. Her mother is a librarian and her father works only intermittently painting houses, but both of their social lives are structured around a shared commitment to black nationalism and anti-racist organizing. Though her parents work hard to arm Kenya against self-hatred, and though she attends a largely black elementary school, she is teased mercilessly by her classmates for celebrating Kwanzaa and recoiling from the n-word.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.42.44 PMThe irony that Sheila and Johnbrown’s symbols of racial pride become the sources of their daughter’s shame is not lost on Solomon, and casting a child as the reader’s point of access into their activist world is a rewarding strategy. Through Kenya’s eyes, her parents’ politics are alternately taken for granted and denaturalized, made new. Kenya’s perspective is a perfect mix of precocious savvy and childish petulance; in the middle of a moody daydream, for example, Kenya wonders why her family can’t live in a nicer neighborhood, making a quick and begrudging concession to her parents’ insistent lectures: “Of course she knew—money and race—but still.”

Given her unpopularity at school, the highlight of Kenya’s pre-teen social life is accompanying her parents to weekly meetings of the Seven Days, an informal assembly named after a band of men in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon who retaliate for white murders of black people. The Seven Days adapt their namesakes’ eye-for-an-eye approach into a less controversial program: each day of the week one member does something positive in their community, and they all convene each Saturday night to report back. The rhetoric is millenarian, but the work itself is humble: Sheila organizes residents of the housing project where she grew up, and Johnbrown advocates for people at social services offices.

Perhaps inevitably, Seven Days meetings become forums for interpersonal strife coded as political dispute. Though Johnbrown at first seems to be more radical than Sheila, Solomon shrewdly complicates their respective motives and commitments. Her characters are not avatars, but real, complex people, and real people are rarely as coherent as they’d like to be, no matter how politically conscious.

Sheila grew up in poverty and worked tirelessly to put herself through college; Johnbrown, on the other hand, was raised in relative privilege by moderate, middle class parents. At her most cynical, Sheila suspects Johnbrown’s radicalism to be little more than an elaborate effort to reject his parents’ lifestyle and claim an idealized blackness about which he remains insecure. Sheila explains to Kenya that while Johnbrown engineers ways to feel like he is actively uplifting the race, growing up poor made her feel that doing well and getting ahead was “doing something for the community… I mean shit, I was the community.”

Sheila’s education and diligence empower her to support her family through her job at the library, while Johnbrown justifies his frequent periods of unemployment as time devoted to his real life’s work, a self-important tract of political philosophy that he calls the Key. For readers of Feministing these are likely to be familiar political fissures, and Solomon does not presume to mend them. She is admirably anti-romantic with her characters, but she is also unfailingly kind; neither parent is vilified and neither fully vindicated.

Conflict between Kenya’s parents is often filtered through these political differences, and one of our earliest intimations of unease follows in the wake of an off-stage appearance by Audre Lorde. After bringing Kenya with her to see Lorde read at the local library, Sheila tells Johnbrown, “I don’t go in for that gay stuff… but everything else that sister said is all right by me.” After Johnbrown trots out the tired accusation that Lorde might be an FBI informant—the implication being that lesbian feminists are divisive and not to be trusted—Sheila snaps back, “She certainly informed me about why I’m not ironing your shirts or pouring your cereal anymore.”

Truly novel reading experiences are rare, but these characters’ minor and un-self-conscious references to Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks felt like one to me. All three are much discussed by activists and academics; still, encountering them in a work of fiction was uniquely gratifying. In Disgruntled, black feminist texts are not objects of direct critical engagement, but simply, refreshingly, the flora of Solomon’s cultural landscape.

This is the vividly rendered terrain in which Kenya must stumble through her teens. Her life is abruptly upended when her father’s irresponsibility-cum-radicalism reaches its inexcusable climax: Cindalou, a member of the Seven Days and a close friend of Sheila’s, becomes pregnant with Johnbrown’s child. Johnbrown cites Yoruba polygamy as political cover for his suggestion that Cindalou move in with their family, but Sheila calls bullshit. When Johnbrown skips town and Sheila moves Kenya into the posh neighborhood of Johnbrown’s youth, Kenya is thrown into an all-girls private school while her mother is thrown into a new socioeconomic milieu. Without giving too much away, the transition is a rough one.

But Kenya, you will by now have guessed, is strong, and despite everything colluding to the contrary, she grows up. Strength and its limits are subjects of great fascination for Kenya: She starts sleepwalking early in the novel, and in one of her first unconscious wanderings she puts on a Funkadelic record on which George Clinton sings, “Here’s a chance to dance our way, out of our constrictions.” Her favorite TV show as a child is The Incredible Hulk—“how thrilling to lose control and demolish a person!”—and when a betrayed high school classmate loses her temper, Kenya is rapt by the beauty of her tantrum.

Years pass; friends are made and dropped; Parliament Funkadelic gives way to A Tribe Called Quest. These intimate encounters with familiar cultural touchstones are some of my favorite moments in the novel. (Marvel with me at how much meaning Solomon wrings out of Kenya’s reaction to ATCQ’s “Bonita Applebum,” “a song that made her dizzy with happiness but also made her heart ache. It had a melancholy blackness that sounded like the music her father used to listen to.”) Disgruntled is a book of beautiful and rigorous detail in which every Fred Hampton or Donny Hathaway reference is integral, especially in childhood, and especially when the default white supremacist backdrop—the one that usually goes unremarked in fiction—conspires to invalidate Kenya’s life and world.


New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

Read more about Sam

Join the Conversation