Color Me Dark

I’ve definitely read this book with the intent of reviewing it like four separate times and for whatever reason I just get bogged down every time and forget about it and move onto something more interesting. Why? It’s not boring! It’s well-written! Maybe by the time you finish reading this recap you’ll have an answer for me.

Color Me Dark: The Great Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, Patricia McKissack, 2000.

nellie lee

This is one of those books that technically takes place in two places—Chicago, at the end, and Tennessee, where it starts. Nellie is eleven and lives there with her twelve-year-old sister Erma, her parents, her uncle, and their grandparents, in the funeral home her family runs. She has an older brother, who’s still with the army, and a young uncle who’s off with the army as well. So things are relatively smooth there—they have to go to a coloured school, which isn’t great, and there are bullies, but otherwise their family is happy and things are going pretty well.

Nellie’s father and grandfather are members of the Colored Men’s Improvement Association chapter (which is an organization by the NAACP), since they’re business owners and community leaders, but this occasionally leads to some tension with the local constabulary. But this is less important than the news that Nellie’s uncle Pace is coming home on the train, and everyone is tickled to death to see him again. But the sheriff brings him home, instead—saying he was so drunk he lay down on the train tracks and was hit by a train. They’re all baffled, first, because Pace doesn’t drink, and devastated second. Erma Jean is with him when he dies, and after that she becomes mute. Just flat out can’t speak anymore. She says nothing all through the wake and funeral, even when the far-flung uncles and aunts come into town, including her uncle Meese from Chicago.

Although Nellie’s family is desperate for answers, the (white) sheriff says there’s nothing he can do—accidental death and all that. Even after they point out to him that that’s ridiculous, he shrugs and says there’s nothing he can possibly help with, because, of course, Pace was black. But through all of this investigating Erma still can’t talk, so their father takes her to Nashville to the hospital, where they have no answers, either. Instead, Meese offers to bring her and their father to Chicago, where Erma can be seen by specialists, and off they all go to Chicago. While they’re gone, there’s a tornado, which is the last straw for a lot of folks, who up and leave for bigger cities where there’s a fighting chance and—they hear—less racism.

When Nellie’s dad comes back, turns out he’s left Erma in the city with a friend of Meese’s, but it’s okay—he’s only come back long enough to pack their things and bring Nellie and her mother, because they’re all moving to Chicago, where he’ll open another funeral home. More than anything, Nellie hopes Chicago is less prejudiced against darker people—this is a constant point of contention between her and Erma. Nellie is light, like her mother, and Erma is very dark, like her father. While they’re on the train north, another girl tells Nellie she could pass if she wanted to, and Nellie is crabby about this—but mostly excited to be going to the big city.

Meese isn’t there to greet them, but he sends his assistant, Link, who drives them home in the motorcar along the paved streets, past all the thousands and thousands of people. Erma is beyond happy to see them again, and she’s been staying with a neighbour, Mother Doris, in their new apartment building. Their new apartment is clean, but incredibly small compared to the big house they’ve been living in all their lives. But! It has a flush toilet! Which is incredibly exciting! Along with their new home they get a new church, with a picture of “a Colored Jesus as dark as any Colored person I have ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off Erma who couldn’t take her eyes off the picture.” Turns out the reverend there is what we would identify today as part of the “Black Christ” movement, and teaches classes for kids focusing on pan-African history on the weekends. Erma really takes a liking to him, and the girls go while their parents try to get things sorted out with their new funeral home.

They try to puzzle out what Meese does for a living (owns a nightclub), and how there can be black policemen, and why their dad is having so many problems starting his business. They keep rejecting his paperwork, and Meese says that a bribe will grease the wheels, but Nellie’s dad flat-out refuses to do that. But they reject his paperwork for a second time, and now it’s their mother who is refusing to take any part in a bribe. They go off to a lawyer, who’s a friend of Meese, who gets them in to see the owner of the Chicago Defender, which is the biggest black newspaper in Chicago.

That all takes a backseat when Nellie’s brother William comes home from the army, and they’re all overjoyed to see him. They go to the beach to celebrate because it’s incredibly hot, but a boy accidentally drifts across to the white section. Suddenly, people are hurling rocks at him and then each other, and Nellie’s dad hustles them home as fast as they can all go. That kicks off the race riots that go on for a full week, scaring the shit out of the whole family. Together with their neighbours every night they stay home, deeply afraid, and when Nellie’s dad declares he’s going to go out and fight, Erma finds her voice again—begging him not to go and be killed “the way they did Uncle Pace!”

Erma finally confesses what Pace told her just before his death—that he sat in the white carriage of the train since there were no seats in the colored section, and several white men consequently beat him badly, poured whiskey on him, then left him on the train tracks to be hit by a train and die. While they knew this was true, the more pressing worry at the moment is that they’re running low on food and the riots are still raging. When they finally end, the final tally is thirty-eight dead and hundreds and hundreds of people hurt.

The girls’ dad has to take a job as a porter to make ends meet while waiting to start up his funeral home, and the girls themselves get ready to start school in September. The school itself is fine, but everything in it is broken-apart and falling down, and there are plenty of bullies around ready to rag on them for being “country.” Luckily, though, Mr. Love is able to meet with an alderman and get things rolling for his funeral home, which buoys the family quite a bit. Their aunt comes for Thanksgiving from New York, where she’s gotten into Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement, which is a little bit too forward for the rest of the family, but educational nonetheless.

This is one of those rare Dear America books with an uplifting ending. Things are going well for their family—the girls are doing well in school, they’re settling in Chicago and making friends, their dad’s business is taking off, their mother starts working in the suffrage movement, and while they’re not as together as they were in Tennessee, things are really looking up.

Rating: A-. I liked this one so much, I just couldn’t cross the hump into loving it! It deals so well with a number of really sensitive issues—leaving home, identity politics, racism within and without the black community, and so much more. I think what was keeping me from loving it was that I would have really liked a stronger focus on the riots, which in a lot of ways were the focal point of the novel. Normally I prefer the slice-of-life aspect, which is great too, but I feel like this could have done with a little more tightly-drawn focus there. Other than that, I really don’t have any complaints! It’s well-written, handled with wonderful grace, and a really strong entry into the Dear America canon.

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