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Welcome to Soul City, where roses bloom in the cracks of the sidewalk along Cornbread Boulevard, musical genres become political platforms, and children use their allowance money to buy records from the Vinyl Man. Its an unusually peaceful and magical American community with a strong heritage and sense of unity — at least, thats how journalist Cadillac Jackson first finds it.
When Jackson visits Soul City on a magazine assignment, a mayoral election is imminent and candidates from opposing parties are battling to control the citys soundtrack. Amidst the increasingly hostile campaign, Cadillac falls for Mahogany Sunflower, a beautiful Soul Cityzen, and begins a struggle to shed the embattled African-American identity hes been taught to adopt, in order to exist in a community where the content of his character really does determine a black mans identity. What he discovers reveals as much about himself as it does about human nature and the meaning of race in America.
ALSO BY TOURÉ
The Portable Promised Land
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.
— Oscar Wilde
THE TRAIN eased to a stop at Soul City, and Cadillac Jackson smoothed off into a new life. He had a pen in one hand and a pad in the other, hungry to catch every detail. He was from The City and infused with the requisite towering ambition that everyone from The City had. He'd come to Soul City to research the book that would establish him as one of the great writers of his generation. Whether he had the talent to render the world of Soul City honestly remained to be seen. He'd been sent by Chocolate City Magazine, ordered to spend three days, write a short piece about the mayoral election, and get back home. But he had other plans. He'd always wanted to visit the city that boasted "more mojo than any city in the world." To see the world-famous one-hundred-foot-tall Afro Pick, to hear one of Revren Lil' Mo Love's crazy sermons, to get a sack of six at the Biscuit Shop. And he'd always wanted to write a book about Soul City. He knew all the other books had gotten it wrong. No one had really figured out what made Soul City what it was. He vowed not to leave until he knew. Great books had been inspired by Dublin, Venice, Paris, Bombay, and New York. He would add Soul City.
Cadillac stepped out of the station onto Groove Street and saw men cooling down the block with walks of such visible rhythm, physical artistry, and attention to aesthetics that it looked like a pimp-stroll convention. Across the street a barber was clipping and snipping at a prodigious fro in an open-air barbershop, clipping with the arrogance of a famous painter wielding his brush, snipping whether in or out of the fro, turning those scissors into a snare. On the corner a street sweeper swept with a theatricality that transformed his duty into modern dance.
On Mojo Road a flock of girls double-dutched, pigtails bouncing, the rope cracking at lightning speed, while the three in the middle danced in the air, never touching the ground. They seemed to be levitating, but those ropes were moving so fast it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on. Maybe the ropes were whipping up a mini-sonic boom that created a pocket of air that the girls could surf for a moment, like an invisible magic carpet. That made no sense. But what he saw made no sense either: six- and seven-year-old girls in rainbow-colored tights with ropes zipping under their bent legs eight, nine, ten times before they touched the sidewalk. They touched down less from gravity than from boredom, as if they'd been just hanging out in the air.
He checked into his hotel, the Copasetic on Cool Street, then walked from Nappy Lane to Gravy Ave to Cornbread Boulevard. The sidewalks were forty to fifty feet wide and the streets were abuzz with all-age minifestivals of hair braiding, marble shooting, bubble blowing, puddle stomping, roller-skating, faithful preaching, "God's coming!," mommies strolling, babies toddling, groceries spilling, lots of flirting, and gossip flying. On Bookoo Boulevard the Vinylmobile crept by, offering old albums for a few dollars, and children poured from homes to chase it as children elsewhere chase ice cream trucks. The Washeteria on Badass Ave had its own DJ so you could dance while you dried. And it made perfect sense that in a world where bad means good, the traffic signals used green for stop and red for go.
On Irie Way and Downhome Drive he found flowers leaping up through the sidewalks. They were American beauties and African violets, more vibrant, fragrant, and giant than any he'd ever seen. He bent and saw their roots were buried beneath the concrete. The flowers had confronted the pavement and punched through it, undeterrable in their desire to get closer to the sun. Bent low, he could see the little speakers that had been built into the sidewalks all over town. First he heard Satchmo think to himself what a wonderful world, then Bob spoke of redemption songs, then James proclaimed he was Black and he was proud. There was an easy vibe to the place, as if everything in the world were possible and there was all the time in the world to do it, for Soul City minutes were ninety seconds long. Cadillac tried to scribble a few words that would capture the scene, but nothing came.
AT THE corner of Ebony and Mecca, Cadillac found the Biscuit Shop. He knew they had supernaturally good biscuits. He didn't know they had a DJ and people danced as they ate their biscuits. When he walked in, Prince was talking about a lady cabdriver and there was a full-blown party goin on even though, or maybe because, it was Friday afternoon. Someone screamed that the roof was on fire, and a couple jumped up on top of a table to dance. An ancient-looking woman came trembling from behind the counter, her pace so much slower than the high-slung rhythm of the party that she seemed like a superimposed freeze-frame. She was golden brown and paper-thin with silvery hair and Coke-bottle glasses, leaning for dear life on an ornately carved cane, a thick wool shawl clinging to her shoulders. She looked as sweet as any cookie-bakin grandmother who ever lived. Then she opened her mouth. "Git the fuck down from there!" she croaked. "Y'all think y'all at home?"
"Sorry, Granmama," they said, their heads bowed. They jumped down. But the party went on.
As Cadillac waited in line he looked at the photos that covered the walls. There was Granmama with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, the men young, sweaty, and clearly brimming with thoughts. There was Granmama beside Martin Luther King, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, Madame CJ Walker. And sepia photos and daguerreotypes of Granmama beside people who had been dead for a good long while: Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. For these pictures to be real, he thought, Granmama would have to be more than two hundred years old. They had to be Photoshopped. A two-hundred-year-old woman was impossible.
When Cadillac sat down with his sack of six biscuits, they were still piping hot and the butter's seductive scent was dancing into his nose. As soon as he took a bite the biscuit began melting in his mouth, first flaking into pieces, then a little river of butter washing over his tongue, butter sweeter than he'd ever tasted. He remembered that it was just the sort of biscuit his aunt Omen had given him at her house on Downhome Drive when he was a boy. The taste of it shook an image loose from the ocean floor of his memory. It came floating up toward his consciousness, the memory of what it was to have been young and in the air, riding on breezes, cutting through clouds, flying. There was no need to put his arms out because gliding was as natural as walking. The weight of life was lifted and the air felt slower and he felt free. He gazed down at Soul City from a bird's view and saw Honeypot Hill and Niggatown and Soul City's central monument, its Eiffel Tower, the one-hundred-foot-tall black steel Black fist Afro Pick, with fifty-foot-tall teeth shooting up from the ground and flowing together to form a muscular, militant Black power fist, so big that aliens cruising by in outer space couldn't miss it. Then everything stopped. How could he remember flying if he'd never flown in his life? How could he remember the Afro Pick if he'd never seen it? And who was this Aunt Omen person? What was in this biscuit? It was a long time before Cadillac understood that each of Granmama's biscuits had a memory baked into it, but a memory from whoever had baked that biscuit. He'd gotten lucky and eaten that one in a thousand baked by the one girl who worked in the shop and knew how to fly.
When Cadillac stood to leave, the DJ scratched and suddenly Prince's needle-sharp falsetto leaped from the speakers, wanting your extra time and your . . . kiss. The Biscuit Shop screamed as one and launched into dancing so intense that the room was just this side of a riot. He looked at the DJ in her dowdy Biscuit Shop uniform, dull gray like a cheap maid's outfit. But she had long, cascading diva curls, a face like Dorothy Dandridge, and was flowing from vinyl to vinyl with a cigarette in her hand. Her name tag said MAHOGANY. When he passed she didn't smile. He walked to his hotel replaying the memory of flight over and again, clinging to the images, afraid if he forgot for a moment he'd never know flight again.
BY MIDNIGHT that Friday there were thousands in Paradise Park munching on blackened barbeque chicken and gulping beer from peanut butter jars, ready to cheer for their candidate in the Soul City mayoral debate, sponsored by the Biscuit Shop. Cadillac thought it was an hour more congruous with partying than politics, but he had a wing in one hand and a pen in the other, and he was about to learn that in Soul City, how you party is very political.
The mayor of Soul City was Emperor Jones, a six-foot-three, 330 pound, seventy-two-year-old man in a three-piece, deep blue, white chalk pinstripe suit. The gold links of his pocket-watch made a line as long as a normal man's arm. A leonine mane of graying curls ringed his face. He'd been the mayor of Soul City for twelve long years, and this year would be his last. Four decades back he made a name for himself in Soul City when he won the Nut-Holding Contest in the Summertime Carnival. The Nut-Holding Contest required men merely to stand holding their nuts as long as possible. Emperor stood there six days, fourteen hours, and twenty-eight minutes straight, sometimes sleeping while standing and holding his nuts. His record still stands. They put his picture in the Soul City Defender and in no time flat he was campaigning for city council. Now, after six consecutive terms as mayor, he was at the end of a life in public service, and Soul City was about to start over with a new, and undoubtedly lesser, man. As Emperor stepped to the podium they chanted, "Don't Go!" so loud it seemed certain he would've been reelected the moment he agreed to run. He wanted to run, but the stress of being the mayor of Soul City had made it impossible to lose the weight that his doctors and girlfriends were on him about.
In Soul City the mayor's prime function is to DJ for the town. All the speakers in all the sidewalks are connected back to the central turntable at the mayor's mansion, and every two years the people go to the polls and choose a mayor based on what he plans to spin while in office.
This year's ballot consisted of the Jazz Party's Coltrane Jones, the Hiphop Nation's Willie Bobo, and the Soul Music Party's Cool Spreadlove. Emperor Jones, of the Independent Party, had the DJ skills and the taste to integrate a variety of sounds and create a balanced playlist. The candidates had neither the vision nor the ears to get beyond their party's narrow platform. Whoever won would stick to the music of his party alone, which could unbalance the mood of the town and lead to all sorts of catastrophes. It was a critical point in Soul City history.
Everyone wanted to know who Emperor thought should be the next mayor, but Emperor looked at all three candidates with disgust. He refused to endorse any of them. They all made him cringe for the future of Soul City. Especially Cool Spreadlove. Who was now an hour late.
"I'm gonna open this evening's festivities," Emperor Jones boomed into the microphone, "with a thank ya to our sponsor!" He turned to look for Granmama and from behind him she trembled into view, her soft droopy skin shaking with each careful step. Her smile was brief and reluctant, but the entire park bloomed at the sight of her dentures like a valley of flowers rising to attention when the sun comes up over the horizon.
"Granmama been sponsoring the mayoral debates for one hundred forty-four years now!"
"One hundred forty-two!" Granmama said, annoyed. "Get it right, kiddo."
"So we got to keep supportin Granmama! She is Soul City!"
The Soulful cheered.
"Y'all know her Biscuit Shop at the corner of Ebony and Mecca. Go down there and get a sack of six of Granmama's soft, flaky butter-baked-in biscuits! They so light and flaky if there's anything left to swallow after ya finished chewing . . ."
The crowd answered as one, "YOUR NEXT BISCUIT'S FREE!"
"Granmama," the mayor said, "think this'll be the year you finally get around to putting cornbread on the menu like you been talkin bout?"
"I don't know," Granmama grumbled dismissively. "It's hard as shit gittin the biscuits right."
"For the last time," he whispered, "no cursing onstage!"
"Fuck you, fatboy," she whispered.
An aide rushed up. "She doesn't obey Death," the aide whispered. "Why would she obey you?" The aide gently coaxed her off the stage. The mayor ripped a hanky from his pocket and dabbed his sweaty brow. "In all my years in Soul City," he said grimly, "this is the most important election I've ever seen. You may think this is about music, but it's not. It's about character. The character of this very city. A couple years with just one sound on the speakers and we're going to become a completely different city!"
A muffled grumble came from the Soulful. It was nearing one in the morning. They were eager for the music to start. They loved Emperor, but in everything he did he went on forever, from holding his nuts for days to being mayor for years to speechifying for hours when it was least wanted. "When I was a boy," he said, "my grandmother used to say, 'Sound'll shape ya!' What she meant was music is just like food! You are what you eat, and what you hear makes you what you are. On Monday, when you go to the polls, don't think about what you want to hear, think of who you want to be and who you don't wanna be because —"
"Enough with the gum-flappin, fatboy!" Granmama yelled, turtling her way toward him. "We wanna hear some fuckin music!"
Emperor Jones cut his eyes at her but said nothing. Even a man as powerful as Emperor dared not talk back to Granmama in public. He walked over to a set of turntables and a mixer, took a power cord from the hands of a smiling aide, and as photographers from the Soul City Defender and the Soul City Inquirer snapped away, he plugged the cord into the base of a street lamp. "I declare the debate begun!" The Soulful cheered wildly. Emperor looked down the stage and saw that Cool Spreadlove still had not arrived. He was now more than two hours late. Emperor shook his head in disgust.
First to the turntables was Coltrane Jones, sporting a chocolate brown suit with sharp black wing tips and a black beret tilting off his shaved and gleaming dome. He flicked on the mixer, pulled the sonic earmuffs over his beret, and spun through a history of jazz.
Once, the Jazz Party had ruled Soul City. In the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, they'd dominated even more completely than the Blues Party had before them or the Gospel Party, who prefer to be called God's Party, had before them. In the mid-60s the Soul Music Party took control of the mayor's mansion and stayed there throughout the 70s, so powerful they even kept the Disco Party out of office in the late 70s, though that was partly due to a mid-decade merger with the Funk Party. In the 80s and early 90s the Hiphop Nation was dominant, and now that Emperor's reign was coming to a close, many believed the Hiphop Nation would soon be back in the mansion.
It was almost two when Willie Bobo from the Hiphop Nation ran up to the turntables in a crispy clean white wife-beater, baggy sweatpants with the left leg rolled up to the knee, and a black Negritude U baseball cap clinging to the side of his head at an impossible angle—so obtuse that he was either employing glue or defying gravity. A thick gold chain hung halfway down his chest. At its end was a gold bust of his mother. He grabbed the microphone and said, "Yo, yo, Raggamuffin Projects in the house!" The candidates weren't supposed to speak directly to the audience during the debate, but no one could ever stop Willie Bobo. He was an unpredictable little being, now genius, then asinine, now violent, then tender, a grown man, but still a boy. Four b-boys in black Adidas suits and shelltoes with fat laces flipped into headspins and windmills as Willie spun the party back to the South Bronx and hiphop's founding moments.
It was a little shy of three when Cool Spreadlove's Princemobile roared up to the park, blaring "International Lover." Spreadlove waited as busty women poured out of the red Corvette as if from a circus clown car until one of them walked around the car's nose and opened his door for him. It was surprising that he had even made it. Spreadlove was never where he was supposed to be because he was cursed with charisma. Nothing was easier for him than making people love him. So all he did all day long was make love to people. He hadn't had a job in fifteen years. But he did have a bevy of Sugar Mamas who loved him so well that they supported him completely. Some even financed his dates with other women. He even had one of his women paying for his mayoral campaign. But you can be sure the little smidgen of juice clinging to the edge of his mustache as he strolled into the park wasn't hers.
Spreadlove stepped to the stage in a white floor-length fur-lined mink draped over his white Gucci suit with a white shirt and white leather shoes that shined like diamonds. He had long manicured nails and a freshly sliced basketball-size fro, so you knew he wasn't putting his hands on any records or any earphones over his doo. Instead, he had two fine mamas in short shorts and strappy stilettos running between the turntables, the crates, and his lips. Standing perfectly still, he whispered in their ears what to play, leading the party from an Al Green sermon about being tired of being alone to Prince saying you could smash up his ride—well, maybe not the ride—to P-Funk preaching about Chocolate City. That was always a Soul City favorite, but Spreadlove and his women got as much applause for their music as for their little show. Never let it be said folk don't like the theater.
Spreadlove had loved all sorts of women all around the world, but his kryptonite remained the blond, blue-eyed American white woman. He was transfixed by them, whether or not they were pretty. Just something about the sunshine in that hair made his mind all slushy. Emperor knew that if Spreadlove were mayor it'd be just a matter of time before John Jiggaboo was invading Soul City. Ten years ago Jiggaboo had come to town looking to sell some shampoo. Emperor used the stuff himself and felt Jiggaboo Shampoo's malevolent tingle. He thought, There's something real funny about this shampoo, and promptly banned it from the Soul City market. Black people across the country fell in love with Jiggaboo Shampoo, but Emperor steadfastly refused to let it into Soul City. Emperor thought, Will Spreadlove continue my ban on Jiggaboo Shampoo? No. He'll probably invite Jiggaboo and his white women to come party in the mayor's mansion.
But Emperor wasn't too worried about Spreadlove. He knew there was no way Spreadlove could win, because Spreadlove never campaigned, because he was always having sex. What neither Emperor nor Spreadlove knew was that his women loved him so well that they campaigned for him behind his back, even when they knew he was off somewhere inside someone else. Spreadlove couldn't be bothered to look at the polls, but without even trying he was solidly in second place.
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2007
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Little, Brown and Company