Publisher/Date: Harper, Feb. 1995
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming Out
I can remember reading COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK as a teenager. It was the first novel that truly moved me. Rereading it years later, it still touches me.
Coffee Will Make You Black, the classic coming-of-age novel by acclaimed author April Sinclair, follows Jean “Stevie” Stevenson as a teen growing up late 1960s Chicago. Back then, times were truly a-changing: black folks were still known as colored, but were slowly beginning to embrace the mantra “Black is beautiful.” It was an era where parents wouldn’t let their children drink coffee for fear it would darken their skin color. Social unrest and the civil rights movement were in full force. Born to working poor parents—her mother a bank teller, her father a janitor—Stevie, as she’s affectionately known, is just a black girl is trying to make her way through adolescence in one piece.
At the novel’s beginning, Stevie is 11 and a half and in the sixth grade. She’s in that awkward stage, flat-chested and taller than most of her male classmates. Her skin is the color of Cracker Jacks, but “most Negroes didn’t get excited over folks who were darker than a paper bag.
Stevie’s only desire is to be popular, to hang with Carla, the girl everyone adores. She finally gets her wish when, after an altercation, the two become fast friends. Carla’s a lot faster than Stevie and teaches her a lot about life.
The novel traces Stevie’s five years of her life, from first crushes to first kisses to first love. She learns a lot about herself through her friendships and her family, all while trying to pave her way in a racially-conscious time. But Stevie does make a white friend in Nurse Horne, one of the few Caucasian faculty members at her predominately black school. Nurse Horne believes in her and tells her she can become anything she puts her mind to. She also lets Stevie know it’s ok to be “funny,” to embrace her blossoming sexuality.
Written with great heart and down-home humor, Sinclair’s debut novel sizzles and makes a bold statement about being black and being yourself. Coffee has a fresh voice and takes you back to being young and trying find your way in this world. Sinclair has crafted a novel that 10 years later, still resonates with the little black girl in all of us.
Reviewed December 2005