Featured on Ms. Magazine's June 2020 Reads for the Rest of Us and Bustle's 23 Debut Books That Are Too Good To Ignore.
It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place. Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi's dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.
For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage. Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.
Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.
The Talking Drum explores intra-racial, class, and cross-cultural tensions, along with the meaning of community and belonging. Examining the profound impact gentrification has on people in many neighborhoods, and the way in which being uprooted affects the fabric of their families, friendships, and emotional well-being, the novel not only focuses on the immigrant experience, but the way in which the immigrant/African American neighborhood interface leads to friction and tension. This book thus provides a springboard to important discussions on race and class differences, on the treatment of immigrants, as well as the government's relationship and responsibility to society.
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"He seems like a nice guy," Sydney said after the officers walked out the door.
"One of the best." Kwamé stubbed out his cigarette in the tin ashtray on the table. "Wilson was all set to go to college, but then his mother had a stroke. He decided to stay here to look after her, thinking he'd go to college later, but he never did."
"So he became a police officer?"
"Not at first. He did factory work for a while. Then when folks in Liberty Hill got sick of the cops bashing their heads in, I led some protests, and we got some of our people to study for the police officer's exam. We had to put together study groups because the exam was rigged. Strib joined the study group, took the test, and passed. We're trying to get more of our people in the pipeline."
The waitress brought their orders: two plates of red snapper with plantains, Jamaican rice and peas, and collard greens. The waitress left and returned a few moments later with iced tea for Sydney and a cup of coffee for Kwamé.
He pulled back his sleeve. "You've been here now about twenty-four hours. You must have some questions about our fair city."
She wasn't sure if he had actually checked his Rolex or was looking for an excuse to show it off. "Yes. Malachi said you know everything there is to know about Bellport."
"I'm your man. Ask me whatever you want." His eyes floated down to her cleavage.
She looked away. "I can see why the city declared Petite Africa a blighted community, but it looks no worse than what I'm seeing out here." She gestured toward the street.
He scooped rice onto his fork and spread it on top of the fish. "You're right. A while back, the city tried to declare Liberty Hill a blighted community. It fit the bill. The mayor was secretly talking to the developers about building the arena project here. I put together a committee of folks to protest the project. Our complaint was that the city was gonna go behind our backs and take our property without telling us what they were up to. We collected money, got an attorney, signed petitions. When the newspapers got the story. City Hall was so embarrassed that they held a public hearing, which is what they should've done in the first place. We got four hundred people to show up at council chambers." He took a bite of his fish.
"So the city backed off under pressure?" Sydney asked.
Kwamé shook his head. "The city was still gonna go through with it. The only thing that saved us was that one of the council members was doing payback on the mayor because the mayor didn't do snow removal on his street the year before. Anyway, this dude on council defends our cause. He defended us better than our attorney did. The press had a field day with it. And that's what got the city to back off of Liberty Hill."
Sydney cut the tail of the fish and then severed the head. As Kwamé had done, she spread rice on top of the fish. "So how did the project end up going to Petite Africa?"
"The developer was getting impatient. He was threatening to pull out of the project and take it to Jersey. And the mayor didn't want that embarrassment on his watch. In fact, he had grand plans for the Harborview Project to be part of his legacy. He wrote a letter to the planning commission recommending that the South End, Petite Africa, be the alternative site for the development. It's a land grab. The city declares Petite Africa a blighted community, with rundown homes, bad streets, lousy schools. The people get burned out. The city gets state and federal funding to rebuild it. The immigrants get pushed out and the white folks with their money move in."
"How much of a chance do the people there have of stopping it?"
He shook his head. "Slim to none. A lot of the people down there are immigrants. In some of their home countries, you do what you have to in order to stay away from the government, unless you want to get your head bashed in or blown off. The last thing you want is for the government to get in your face. So they're not that vocal and don't fight. Then you have the issue of split loyalties. They're all from different countries, mostly first generation. Their loyalty is to their home country, not to each other. So they don't want to unify. And there's a language barrier. Many of them learn English growing up, but the American accent is so different from what they heard coming along. They have a hard time understanding the language, not to mention, the laws, municipal statutes, and rules."
Sydney was enjoying the fish with the rice mixed in. She topped it off with a little plantain.
"Another factor working against them is the change in the makeup of city council," Kwamé continued. "That councilman I told you about who was getting back at the mayor lost re-election by the time the city was seriously looking at Petite Africa, so they didn't have him to advocate for them."
"That's a shame. I mean, I guess it's good for the economy to get this development, but it's not right to take those people's homes."
"There's a restaurant owner over there from some African county. Senegal, I think. Mustapha Mendy. He's the godfather of Petite Africa. At least that's what they call him. He's organized a committee of some of the other property owners and tenants on those blocks. They're fighting eminent domain. They hired an attorney like we did. They say they're not selling. They're trying to preserve at least a little bit of the neighborhood. Kwamé wiped away flakes of rice that had landed in his goatee. "I went down there every so often to give them advice. I told them to be more strategic with the rallies and protests." He shook his head. "They showed me no respect. I can't worry about the immigrants anymore. More power to them."
Kwamé seemed to be involved in just about everything. She chased down her spicy greens with some iced tea.
"You know, that used to be our neighborhood, " he continued.
"What do you mean?"
"When black folks first started coming here from the South, they moved to that area, and that's how it got its name."
"I thought it was because of the African immigrants."
He shook his head. "The label was put on us by the white folks. It wasn't no compliment. It goes back some fifty years. The men got jobs at the wharves and in the factories; the women worked mostly as domestics. By the early 1940s they were getting themselves together. The women went to secretarial school or community college, and the men worked up the ladder in the trades. There were a lot of Jews in Liberty Hill from Eastern Europe at the time. We had a little melting pot going-the Jews and the blacks. The blacks left Petite Africa and moved into Liberty Hill once they could afford it. The Jews moved to Brookline, Newton, Belmont. The Africans and West Indians moved into Petite Africa, replacing the black people. No other place would rent to them." He raised his cup toward the waitress to get her to refresh his coffee. "You know how it is, once our people get a little something in their pocket, they think they have 'arrived.' They want to forget where they came from."
Sydney mulled this over for a while. She knew that her grandparents on both sides of the family had moved from Virginia to Western Massachusetts at the turn of the century. They rarely went back south for visits. She recalled her grandmother on her mother's side talking about working hard to lose her southern accent because people made fun of her. Sydney wondered if there was a downside when people distanced themselves from their background.
Kwamé wiped his hands on his napkin and checked his nails. They were perfectly straight with a clear polish finish on them. Sydney suspected that he'd had them professionally buffed. "We've had a serious problem with absentee landlords, slumlords," he said. "That's why the conditions around here are so bad. As it is now, Liberty Hill is isolated. You saw how it was when I drove you around. You have to deal with the one-way streets, dead ends, traffic patterns that make no sense, the potholes. Then there's the drug problems and car thefts we've been dealing with. But Harborview will change it all. When they build that arena and off ramp, this will be a new neighborhood. Once the construction's done, you'll see thousands of people going to the concerts and the sporting events. Police patrols will pick up. The foot traffic will spill over into Liberty Hill. Having people like Tovah, like you and Malachi investing in Liberty Hill, revitalizing it, is critical to the future of this neighborhood."
Sydney finished her food.
Then Kwamé reached across the table and squeezed her wrist."So what do you think? You think you'll have enough to keep you busy around here?"