In this honest novel set in the racial tinderbox of Chicago in 1969, thirteen-year-old Simon Fleming, the white son of a civil rights activist minister, is sent to a predominately African American high school, feeling charged by his parents to carry out the family’s commitment to the community and school integration. Here, he is dropped into a world where gang warfare, drug abuse, and violence are rampant. Simon’s quest for survival takes him through a failed student boycott organized by community leaders, as well as through numerous race riots, and brings him into contact with gangbangers, political activists, racist cops, and unlikely new friends. Hey, Liberal! exposes an out-of-touch education system and the universality of racial violence amid a nation moving, inch by hard-fought inch, toward a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Shawn Shiflett is an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of Hidden Place, which was included in Library Journal’s 2004 “Summer Highs, Fall Firsts” list of “most successful debuts.”
Read an Excerpt
By Shawn Shiflett
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Shawn Shiflett
All rights reserved.
Simon felt safest in the early morning, always hoping that no one was awake enough to bother with a white boy. One of many students migrating across an asphalt playground that stretched for half a city block, he paced himself to blend in. Trampled snow crunched underfoot with each step, and he'd keep his chin buried in the collar of his wool peacoat to protect himself against the brutal December cold. Then after the first period bell rang, and everyone else had already crossed Orchard Street to surge toward the main front doors of the new building, he brought up the rear. For security reasons the outside door handles to Dexter's many entrances had been removed, so the crowd pressed against the doors until a teacher's aide opened one of them from inside. As Simon topped the concrete stairs, it was always the same dread — like volunteering to be swallowed alive.
* * *
He darted up a staircase in the old building, passed through sunlight cutting a bright path on steps and risers, and reached the second floor. He spotted Clyde Porter near the dead end of the hallway not far up ahead. The boy had beaten Simon to their shared locker, already worked the combination lock, and opened the door. A few days earlier, Clyde had been kind enough to adopt the white boy as a lockerpartner after Simon's first partner, Tommy, had kicked Simon out of their locker to make room for his new girlfriend.
Approaching Clyde from behind, Simon observed him shoving a baseball mitt onto the lower shelf. In a school where basketball reigned as the supreme sport, most students didn't even know that Dexter fielded a baseball team. For just that reason, Mr. Evans, the baseball coach, had called for an early winter tryout in the boys' gym to see how hard a recruiting job he would have come spring.
"What's with the mitt? You trying out, too?"
"Yep." The gap between Clyde's front teeth both marred and enhanced his smile, on a face as dark as aged walnut.
Simon slid his baseball equipment rucksack off his shoulder and dumped it onto the locker's floor. As he began to snatch the folders and textbooks he would need for his morning classes, he asked, "Think us freshies stand a chance to make the team?"
"Hell yes!" Clyde said. "Chumps around here don't know nothing about playing no ball. We make our chance, ya dig?"
Simon noticed a button pinned to Clyde's ROTC jacket lapel, three fists superimposed on it. "What's with the fists?"
Clyde gave Simon a look and then shook his head. "Guess I'm going to have to educate your ass. The black fist mean power to the black folk, the brown one power to the Latino folk, and the white one power to the white folk. I'm a Black Assassin, but we ain't no gang no more; we's changed to a political organization. You know — I help you, you help me, then we has ourselves a revolution and take over. We can't be letting no racism get in the way, ya dig?"
Simon nodded, Clyde's easy-bake recipe for revolution clear enough even for him to follow.
"Check this here out." The Black Assassin turned ROTC cadet turned junior revolutionary grabbed a mimeographed flyer from his shelf and handed it to Simon. The paper read:
We, the Coalition of Students, Faculty, and concerned Community at Dexter High School, demand the following:
1. An end to racism in the school administration and the dismissal of all racist faculty.
2. The hiring of more black, Latino, and Latina faculty.
3. A Black History Department directed and taught by black faculty.
4. An elected Community Board to which the school administration will be directly responsible.
5. The immediate dismissal of Principal Donald Jursak.
The time to unite is NOW! Help smash racism and boycott starting on January 10.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Simon didn't see a single demand in the list that he objected to, but any action that risked stirring up a rerun of last year's riots at Dexter gave him the willies.
"Keep it," Clyde said. "Teachers like Mr. Lange is helping us organize."
"Yeah, I got him for biology," Simon said.
"Man, you lucky. Mr. Lange one cool revolutionary dude. Now we best step on it. Can't get no tardy slips if we wants to stay eligible for the team, ya dig?"
As Clyde swung the door shut, its bang answered the staccato banging of other lockers near and far on all three floors of the old building. The boys started together through the labyrinth of hallways, Simon on his way to music class in the annex and Clyde to basic math in the new building. All around them, students were split into opposing flows of foot traffic. They rounded a bend, and through the library's glass doors, Simon saw a lone, twig-thin librarian stretching onto tiptoes to restock a book on a stack's shelf.
"Where do you live?" Simon asked, curious for the first time even though he had known Clyde for almost a semester.
That meant Cabrini Green, the notorious public housing projects at the south end of the school district. The closest Simon dared get to Cabrini was either passing by its barren cluster of formidable high-rises in his family's Plymouth Fury on Larrabee Street or a bird's-eye view of it as he rode the Ravenswood El train to or from downtown.
"You want to come hang in the Greens sometime?" Clyde asked. "I'll show you around."
The deadpan humor flew right over Simon's head, and as he hesitated, his expression must have showed that his brain was scrambling for a polite excuse to decline the invitation. Clyde burst out laughing so hard, he staggered for a few steps. Then getting a grip just as he split away from Simon to take a flight of stairs down to the first floor, he tossed over his shoulder, "Man, you funny."CHAPTER 2
The music teacher, Mr. Egan, was rumored to be gay. Short, plump, with an oversized head and a leprechaun's bushy eyebrows, he liked to leave his music class watching a movie of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic while he went to the teachers' lounge to drink coffee and grade papers. Pausing at the door, he'd hold his finger to his lips, look over his bifocals at kids scattered on the foldaway bleachers also used for chorus practice, and tell them in his honeyed, baritone voice, "I will be back in a few minutes. In the meantime, I want you all to be quiet like bumps on a pickle, like mice on ice, like sand on land."
Students stared at him dully. No sooner did Egan flip off the lights, shut the door behind him, and disappear down the hall past the rear exit of the lunchroom, than someone yelled, "Faggot!" and the class went up for grabs. In the dark room lit only by the flickering projector, a black boy on the third-row bench tuned in to the super soul sound of WGRT on his transistor radio. Then he called down to the projector boy in the first row, "Turn the gotdamn mothafuckin sound off, scrub, so we can hear us some for real music!" On a movie screen with COBRA STONE LOVE scrawled in thick Magic Marker lettering across the middle of it, Leonard Bernstein, dressed in tails, was working up a sweat as he conducted the New York Philharmonic through Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but all anyone could hear was the radio playing:
I'm a girl watcher
I'm a girl watcher
Watchin' girls go by
My, my, my
From a huddle of blackjack players, someone yelled, "Hit me!" The cards in his hand must have busted the twenty-one-point limit — "Sheeeeit!"
A black girl popping her fingers and bobbing her head to the music stopped long enough to tell a trio of boys, "Well, if y'all think I looks like a cow, this be one cow y'all know you ain't never gonna lay your skanky-ass hands on."
"Oooooo-weeee!" another kid hooted, laughing and slapping five with his buddy.
By the windows, perched atop the highest bleacher with his back against the cinder block wall, Simon sat with his broad shoulders hunched, knees tucked, and gawky arms folded, like he was trying to reverse the biological process of growing. He'd already begun to daydream, his glazed stare fixed on how he planned to snag grounders at the tryout, zip throws to first base, crack liners off a bat's sweet spot and —
He was snapped back to reality by the pounding of someone's work boots springing from bench to bench down the risers, shaking the entire structure. Louis Collins, the only other white boy in the class, stopped at the projector table and turned to face everyone front and center. Usually he cut music, a habit that Simon would later learn was responsible for Louis repeating that freshman class a fourth time as a senior, but on those rare occasions when he condescended to make an appearance, he mostly kept to himself and seemed content to doze. Between the World War II leather bomber jacket that he almost never bothered to hang in his locker and the stubble shadow that covered his square jaw, Louis could have passed for someone well beyond the age of a hulking seventeen-year-old. Once in a great while, he would wake, take a slow panoramic view of his barren surroundings in a way that insinuated he was double-checking on whether he should start to give a shit, only to reaffirm that he shouldn't, and doze off again.
Louis cranked the projector's volume knob to full blast, drowning out the soul music, and darted across the room toward the blackboard on the wall.
"Hey, what the fuck you think you doing, honky?"
Great, Simon thought. Idiot's out to get his ass kicked. Louis snatched the teacher's pointer off the chalk ledge, sidestepped Mr. Egan's desk, and scrambled back to the middle of the room, which was always cleared of chairs whenever the risers were used. He skidded to a stop right in front of the movie screen. Cracking the long pointer in two over his knee, he made a conductor's baton out of the top half and flipped the other half over his shoulder. Simon fidgeted, adjusting and readjusting his shoulder blades against the wall. Sit the fuck down. The last thing he needed was someone white making a scene. Louis's shadow blotted Bernstein's image out on the screen. Taking charge, he began conducting his orchestra through some serious Beethoven, the picture of stuck-up solemnity as he swung his arms in clean, precise, swooping strokes. Beethoven's Death knocked at the door:
Cheeks trembling, eyes afire, Louis drove his left hand upward to command the strings to start cooking, while the baton in his right hand gingerly tamped the air to caution the horns to cool it. He was good, almost as good as Leonard. A black boy yelled, "It your thang, honky. Do what you wanna do!" Another kid stood up, clapping loudly and mimicking hoity-toity white folks — "Bravo, white boy, bravo!"
The class grew quiet. Like a raging god, Louis flung his arms high and then low, his entire body locking in a violent shudder, only to snap out of it and delicately thread, poke, and prod the baton through another glorious bar of symphony. He was pulling them all into the music, forcing students to break their safe, silent conspiracy not to learn: if no one tries, then no one fails.
The educational miracle didn't last more than thirty seconds before a girl on the third-level bench must have sensed the threat to the status quo.
"Sit your gotdamn honky-ass down!"
"Yeah, you heard Tina. Think you our motherfuckin teacher?"
Others chimed in, but Louis, thumbing his nose at majority rule, carried on without so much as a hitch in his performance. Finally, a boy got up from the fifth-row bench and came down the bleachers toward Louis. As was the fad, he wore an Afro pick stuck in the back of his hair, and his stretchy black Ban-Lon shirt advertised the pronounced muscle cords in his chest.
"Uh-oh," someone said. "You done made Ernie mad now."
Simon thought, Satisfied, asshole? He stopped his right leg from jiggling nervously, but it started up again. Ernie stood loose and ready in front of Louis, his stare theatrically cold.
"Now, honky, didn't you hear to sit your ass down?"
Louis went right on conducting, his eyes nearly lost in a mess of stringy hair the shade of baled hay.
"You deaf, honky?"
Still no response.
"Say, honky, I'm talking —"
Louis flipped his head up to reveal a snarling grin and stabbed the air with the baton directly under Ernie's nose:
Taken off guard, Ernie backed up a step, then another. With Louis stalking toward him, he damn near tripped, the whole class hooting and howling. To save face, he laughed too, yelling, "Help! Help! This here white boy a crazy mothafucka!" He dashed up the bleachers, grabbed some bench again, and held out his hands in a show of mock fear, screaming, "Be cool, white boy! Be cool! I didn't know you was Frankenstein's mama!"
Louis slowly backpedaled until he was conducting in front of the screen again. His look of swooning rapture invited one and all to share in his bliss. How the hell do you get away with it? Simon wondered. What do you got that I don't?
Just then the sound of the classroom door shutting firmly signaled Egan's return. He must have forgotten his pen or grading book to come back so soon. In the course of the year, he had taught his pupils the difference between a major and minor chord, where to find middle C on the keyboard, and the lyrics to such oldie but goody classics as "Way Down upon the Swanee River" and "Eating Goober Peas." Puzzling over his bifocals at the white boy conducting in the center of the room, Egan stayed close to the door and further telegraphed his return with an "Ahem!"
Louis, not about to abandon his orchestra without damn good reason, continued on with his back to Egan. Everyone else, including Simon, smirked with an infectious us against teacher attitude, waiting to see what would happen next.
Still no answer.
"I'm talking to you, Mr. Collins. That pointer is public property and wasn't put here to be abused."
Arms swinging and jabbing in a flurry of dueling instructions, Bernstein's talented protégé seemed to have withdrawn all the more deeply into the music. Egan cautiously crept toward Louis, paused, crept closer, and then stopped a few feet behind the boy.
"Mr. Collins, I will not have you disrupting my class. Do you comprehend me, Mr. Collins?"
Louis worked and coaxed his musicians for all they were worth. The longer he ignored Egan, the more Simon wanted to burst out laughing. The teacher held out his open palm, his voice decidedly more stern.
"Hand me the pointer, Mr. Collins. I said, hand me —"
Louis flipped his head up, whirled around, and moved toward his victim, waving the baton like he wanted to cram the whole Philharmonic right down Egan's throat. The hapless man backtracked, his bushy eyebrows twitching and mouth forming a terrified O. As students laughed and whooped it up, Simon joined in, forgetting his fear of being white at Dexter.
"I think you'd better sit down, Mr. Collins. I think — oh my God — you're bucking for a suspension, young man — oh my God. If you don't sit down this instant and behave, I'm afraid I'll have no other choice than to — oh my God."
Each baritone oh my God entertained students to slaphappy greater heights. Louis cornered Egan up against the windows near Simon. Not missing a single beat with the baton, he used his other hand to pull on a shade. It rolled up with a final whip-like snap, sunlight flooding the room. He leaped onto a chair that stood beneath a window, his body silhouetted in an aura of light, and waved the baton through a final crescendo. Egan stared up at him, at a loss what to say or do next. With a flip of the wrist, Louis threw the broken pointer into the air, pushed open the hinged window, climbed out, and hopped down to the crusted snow on the yard outside — an easy feat since classrooms in the annex were built at ground level. He stuck his head back inside the room and wiggly-waved his fingers to one and all.
Excerpted from Hey, Liberal! by Shawn Shiflett. Copyright © 2016 Shawn Shiflett. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Chump Change,
Part I: A Long Day,
2 Death Knocks,
3 Honky Love,
4 Mira, Mira!,
5 Amoeba Politics,
6 Drivers' Education,
7 'Tis the Season to Be Jolly,
8 The Body Politic,
9 Home Front,
Part II: Boycott,
10 Happy New Year,
12 Paranoia Will Destroy Ya,
15 Black Power,
16 Baby and Me,
17 Nazi Nuts,
19 The Good Old Days,
20 Radicalism for Beginners,
21 Come Together,
22 Passive Resistance,
Part III: Return of the Riots,
24 Black Friday,
25 Frog Genocide,
26 Hail Mary,
28 Gun Diplomacy,
29 Higher Consciousness,
30 Mistaken Identity,
31 Maxwell Street,
32 Game Over,
Epilogue: National Pastime,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hey Liberal is a coming-of-age story set in the racially tumultuous Chicago of 1969. Simon is a 13 year old boy sent to a predominantly black school by his liberal parents. Chosen to carry their message of school integration, he is thrown into a world filled with gang warfare, violence and drugs. Meanwhile Simon is just a boy, going through what 13 year old boys go through, but in an environment that challenges his values and his life. The world of this novel is intense and frantic, while also being nostalgic and entertaining. But the read is smooth and engrossing. This is an important book that also happens to be a great read.