Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou

Last week's killings of black men by police made me go back to reread a juvenile novel I read many times in the 1970s. The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou was published in 1968, probably written in 1967, after the Watts and Detroit riots, after the assassination of Malcolm X but before the killing of Martin Luther King.

I don't know where it takes place and it doesn't really matter, but I'd guess Philadelphia, since that's where the author is from. Fourteen-year-old Louretta Hawkins has always been a good girl who struggles with how light her skin is, compared to the rest of her family and peers. She doesn't feel accepted, but she finds her way in a world where the police harass young black people for absolutely no reason, and one of her friends is killed as a result.

The book handles many topics in a deft way. For instance, Louretta's mother, raised in the South, wants her children to lower their goals and be safe:
That was the essence of Momma's philosophy, Louretta thought: Be safe, hold on to what you have, don't reach out for anything bigger or better, or the world, the white world, will punish you. Stay in your place, even if it's a miserable corner, and hang on to what you have. Something must have frightened Momma terribly when she was growing up down South to make her so scared, Louretta thought. (pp. 24-25)
The reference to something very frightening happening in her mother's past in the South never comes up again, and none of her mother's history is revealed. As a teenager I probably didn't think much of it, but now, having read more history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, I can imagine.

When the police have arrested one boy for no reason, a white teacher visits Louretta and her friends at their impromptu youth center and hears about it:
"Now, why did they take Calvin away? What happened?"

"Nothing," Louretta said. The others shrugged and were silent.

"Come on now," Mr. Lucitanno said with a perplexed look on his handsome, boyish face. "The police don't just walk into places and arrest people without a reason."

But that was exactly what they did all the time in Southside. Louretta despaired of ever being able to explain this to Mr. Lucitanno, though; he had not grown up in Southside. He would not believe her or understand.

"But they don't do that in America. This is a free country!" the teacher shouted. He must be close to thirty, yet he seemed, somehow, younger than any of the group around the piano. (pp. 98-99)
This scenario is very much in line with James Baldwin's words from 1966 in The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.”

Hunter repeatedly deals with the sexism of black activist men, particularly through the character Fess, who says things like "our women always side with the white man, and blame us for the conditions he causes" and "The women in this movement respect us. And they belong to us." (Reminiscent of Stokely Carmichael's famous statement, "The only position for women in SNCC is prone.") 

A bit later in the story, the boys at the youth center are anxious to raise money and they plan a robbery. The girls talk them out of it by suggesting they hold a dance instead:
"If we don't steal, how are we gonna get the money..., Lou?" David asked reasonably.

"I don't know. But if you have to steal, you're better off without them."

"Aaaah," Fess muttered in disgust, "law and order never did nothin' for them old Toms, and they won't do nothing for you either. The only way to get what you want is to take it."

The evil advocated by this boy was beginning to tempt Louretta, which made her more determined than ever to defeat it. She had an inspiration born of desperation. "We could have a dance," she said.

"A dance! Awww!" Jethro's loud expression of disgust seemed to speak for most of the boys. But the girls immediately showed interest in the dance as an alternative to Fess's plan. Perhaps it was because it would include them, while gang-fighting and robbery would not. (pp. 103-104)
This is particularly perceptive, I think, because it recognizes the fact that nonviolent methods involve more people than violent ones, and in social movements, that larger base leads to more frequent success. (This could have been true of the American Revolution, too, if it had gone a different direction.)

Even Lou's older brother William, who is described as a stereotypical straight-arrow, comes to see that the police have it in for black people. After the boy Jethro is shot by an inexperienced officer because he (Jethro) didn't move when ordered during a police raid of the youth club's dance, William helps Lou cover up a weapons cache the boys had hidden in the youth club. She isn't sure why he did it:
"...I was afraid you would tell the cops.... I was afraid because of the way you used to say the kids were hoodlums."

"What's that got to do with with tonight?" he asked.

"Well, the guns were really there. So that proves you were right, doesn't it? They are hoodlums."

"Lou," William said seriously, "I learned something tonight. Those cops can't tell the difference between a respectable Negro and an outlaw. They treated me just as rough as everybody else. So that makes us all outlaws, at least in their eyes.... And if they can't tell the difference," he concluded, ..."who am I to judge?" (pp. 139-140)
When the teacher, Mr. Lucitanno, tells Louretta that he plans to donate blood to Jethro after the shooting, she finds her heart hardened against him and his good intentions, telling him that the blood Jethro needs is "Any type but white":
The teacher blushed deeply under his olive skin, but he did not give up. "I'll go to the hospital as soon as I leave school," he said quietly. "You're not doing your friend any favor with your attitude, Louretta. Blood is just blood. It's all red, and if you were as sick as he is, you'd know it. I think Jethro will welcome my blood as much as anyone else's."

"Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, and walked out coolly, leaving Mr. Lucitanno frowning at his desk. If he were a woman, she was sure, he would be crying. It served him right. Why did white people always think they deserved extra gratitude when they offered to help you? Let him get along without it, and see if he would still be so friendly and helpful. She doubted it. (pp. 148-149)
That passage touches on one of the topics in anti-racism work that white people don't usually recognize until they've worked on it for a while: that you don't get thanked (and shouldn't expect to be thanked) for exhibiting basic decency and treating other people as human. At least, I didn't realize it for a long time. Kristin Hunter, in 1968, was fully aware of it, though.

The book ends in a more complicated way than the typical juvenile novel. In many ways Louretta and her family are better off by then, because the songs she's been singing with the boys get discovered by a record company, but she realizes that being a celebrity of a sort doesn't make for happiness:
Louretta didn't know what she had gained... There was the money, of course, but she couldn't touch that — and even when she could, what would she spend it on? Momma and William had investigated the possibility of a new house, but had found nothing available for colored families as large as theirs in better neighborhoods. After many refusals and bitter disappointments, they had decided to stay where they were. (p. 247)
Racism permeates Louretta's existence, but the word is never used in the text. Kristin Hunter showed instead of told.


Here are some other covers that have been used on the book over the years:


Ellen Fleischer said...

By the way, there is a sequel out called Lou in the Limelight. I personally don't believe it holds up as well as SB&SL; at least, I haven't been interested in rereading it. But it does expand a bit on what happened to Lou's mother. And looks very seriously at what life was like in the music industry (and probably still is!).

Buzzy Uncle said...

I read this book in HS 1976...from what I remember this took place in Pittsburgh PA...