Disgruntled is the story of Kenya Curtis, her family, and her community in West Philly. They are, as the title suggests, disgruntled and with good reason. The story begins in the early 1980s when Kenya is about 10 and follows her for almost a decade. Solomon tells a rich, detailed, powerful story in a mere 287 pages and shows wit, intelligence and humor throughout. Themes dealing with race and class feature prominently and should engender lively discussion among readers.
The novel begins with “The Way It Was,” in which Kenya is in elementary school, living with her parents Sheila and Johnbrown Curtis in West Philadelphia. Kenya attends an inner-city public school, where she is smart but not the smartest and where she is ostracized by classmates. Sheila and Johnbrown are community activists who, with like minded friends, have formed a group called the Seven Days. The Seven Days’ goals include community service and confrontation, volunteering and demonstrations. They wish to assist the members of their community in daily struggles but at the same time educate them as to the sources of injustice and perhaps spur them to meaningful action and change. Johnbrown, however, always seems a bit closer to the edge than the rest, eager for confrontation with the police. At the Seven Days’ meetings, which Kenya attends, members start with “libations” in honor of martyred heroes of the cause such as Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, etc. Johnbrown often mentions Julian Carlton, who was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler. The tragic and violent story of Julian Carlton has special meaning for Johnbrown and resurfaces throughout the novel.
The roots of the troubles to follow are seen in this first chapter: Johnbrown’s obsession with his cause, Sheila’s secrecy, Kenya’s isolation and her repressed anger. The chapter ends with secrets revealed, betrayal, and the family broken. As life and the story move on, Kenya finds herself at the Barrett School for Girls — an affluent prep school where both her race and her class set her apart. Kenya dreams of having a true best friend, perhaps a boyfriend (or at least some dates), and of breaking away from her family to attend college and make a new life for herself. Her plans, though, will be challenged once again by her mother’s secrecy, her father’s devotion to his personal cause, and the dishonorable actions of other males in her life.
The themes in Solomon’s brilliant novel are pretty heavy but terribly relevant, particularly the discussions about injustice, anger, and the use of force to achieve one’s ends. Johnbrown, in extolling the virtues of Julian Carlton, tells the members of the Seven Days,
You can’t tell me that a mass murder doesn’t say more than a mass march.
… more regular outbursts by seriously disgruntled black employees would achieve more than three hundred sixty-five days of peaceful marches.
Kenya, who I found to be a very appealing and sympathetic narrator, has her own latent impulses toward anger and violence. Her favorite show in her childhood was “The Incredible Hulk.” She thinks,
… how thrilling to lose control and demolish a person!
She also recognizes, though, that Hulk’s destructiveness is what forces him to keep leaving the towns he enters and prevents him from having a settled life and love. Kenya understands enough to fear her anger and what it could do even as circumstances, and especially her parents, push her closer and closer to the edge.
Asali Solomon is a terrific writer. I truly enjoyed reading this novel and hated to put it down. Her observations about relationships within the black community as well as between black and white, between haves and have nots, are astute and delivered with finesse.
Grandmama’s parents had been of the generation that was middle class on the weekends, at their churches and social clubs, but cleaned floors and swallowed bitterness during the week.
In a rare moment of openness and honesty with her daughter, Sheila tells Kenya that while Johnbrown and the other members of the Seven Days grew up in neighborhoods with two-parent families and some stability, she was from a single-parent family in the projects; Johnbrown and his friends wanted to help the “community,” but Sheila says … I was the community.
In one memorable scene, teen-age Kenya is at a high school party where, once again, she is one of the only people of color in the room. She feels uncomfortable, worried that if she should spill a drink on the wrong person, the scene could explode. She observes that the music at these rich white-kid parties is usually rap, like Public Enemy and NWA, and then this:
Kenya wondered what kind of music the young racists of the fifties got pumped up to before going out to spit on children trying to integrate schools.
The end of the novel does not present any easy or definite resolution to Kenya’s situation with her family or her future, but it does present the possibility of change on her own terms. It’s defining those terms that is the work of our lives. Click here for the NPR interview with Asali Solomon.