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Arts & Culture

‘Black Bottom Saints’ Celebrates The Radical Joy Of Black Detroit In The Mid-20th Century

Cover of "Black Bottom Saints"
Courtesy Alice Randall
/
Each short chapter of the book commemorates a Black American, some that are well-known and some that are relatively unknown who touched or was touched by the Black Bottom neighborhood in the mid-20th century.

Though Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood may be physically gone, author Alice Randall resurrects the energy and life of the Black center of the city in her 2020 novel, "Black Bottom Saints."

The book is in part inspired by a traditional Catholic Saints Day book. Each short chapter commemorates a Black American, some that are well-known and some that are relatively unknown, who touched or was touched by the neighborhood in the mid-20th century.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with Randall about her book.

Interview Highlights

On Why She Centered Her Book On The Theme Of “From Trauma To Transcendence”

More than half of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. So, in the fabric of the founding is Black trauma of being bought, sold, and as we now know, frequently, raped and worked. So, all Americans have to move from trauma to transcendence, from the trauma in the fabric of the founding. When I was starting to write this book, it was in the rise of the #MeToo movement, the rise of the #SayHerName movement and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these speak out to historic, more recent trauma.

On Why Detroit Became A Center For Black Life

Detroit had the breadwinners. These are the Black men and women who worked in Mr. Ford's and other factories doing this very boring factory work. It prepared them when they got off to want to do something interesting, like engage with art. So, Detroit had this empowered Black audience. Because the third part of what was different about Detroit and the arts is in Harlem and in Bronzeville, if you were a Black person, you likely perhaps lived in a home, apartment or house that was owned by white people. And when you went out to the fancy, great clubs, you were going to clubs, even if Black people were performing, that they did not own. In Detroit at one point, we have 80% Black homeownership, and we also have an extraordinary number of Black-owned bars, taverns, clubs, so that Black art got to thrive by an all Black art aesthetic.

On One Of Her Favorite Saints She Writes About In The Book

Sadye Pryor reminds us that some of the most important education doesn't happen in the school room or classroom. It happens in the library. And some of the most important politics happens when church ladies with pearls wearing a black dress, go in and witness their truth to power behind the scenes, and someone actually listens.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Though Detroit’s historical Black Bottom neighborhood may be physically gone, author Alice Randall resurrects the energy and life of the Black center of the city in her 2020 novel, "Black Bottom Saints."

The book is in part inspired by a traditional Catholic Saints Day book. That’s as each short chapter commemorates a Black American, some that are well-known and some that are relatively unknown, who touched or was touched by the neighborhood in the mid-20th century.

Alice Randall joins me now to talk about her book. Thank you for being here.

Alice Randall: It's wonderful to be with you today, Sophia.

Saliby: Ziggy Johnson is the narrator of your novel. He is known for founding the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theater that catered to young Black children. He was a club emcee and a columnist with the Michigan Chronicle. Why did you choose him as the voice of the Black Bottom neighborhood for your novel?

Randall: Well, his dance school, the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theater, was the heart of a part of Black Detroit, and it was the place where the 122,808 Black girls who were living in Detroit, according to the 1960 census, gathered most intimately with me. So, Ziggy was in so many different worlds. I loved him, and I wanted to honor him. I thought he deserved a memorial.

Saliby: And you also, as you've kind of mentioned, you knew the real Ziggy Johnson when you were a child. What was your process to bring his voice to the page?

I say this is the book that took me 50 years of living and a decade of writing to construct. It was seven years of hard research.

Randall: I say this is the book that took me 50 years of living and a decade of writing to construct. It was seven years of hard research starting with archival materials, scrolling through microfilm in the basement of a library at Vanderbilt, and then following up with reading through hundreds of African American newspapers then interviewing people and also reading full book-length manuscripts. Just wild.

Saliby: Is there a particular memory of him that sticks out in your mind?

Collage of Ziggy Johnson for the book
Credit Courtesy Alice Randall
/
Ziggy Johnson was an emcee, columnist for the Michigan Chronicle and the founder of the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theater.

Randall: Father's Day. Youth Colossal. Once a year, there was a giant pageant at something called the Latin Quarter. This was such an important pageant that people including the Supremes, Sammy Davis [and] the Mills Brothers would get involved, but children in the city of Detroit would be involved. I participated in the Youth Colossal in 1964 and 1965.

And we have to understand that it was a cross between a W.E.B. Du Bois pageant and a children's recital. It was something that had to do with play therapy. It had something to do with history. It was an important place. The entire community came together. So, Ziggy backstage and Ziggy getting us ready to take our place on the stage with adults as significant voices. That's my biggest memory of Ziggy.

Saliby: You chose to accompany each chapter with a paired specialty cocktail. How did you come up with that idea?

Randall: The book takes as one of its major themes, "joy is radical," but it is situated also in the movement from trauma to transcendence for people, period, but Black people specifically. I loved including the cocktails because they are a five-sense address to joy: the touch, the taste, the sight, the sound and the scent of joy.

I loved including the cocktails because they are a five-sense address to joy, the touch, the taste, the sight, the sound and the scent of joy.

And the cocktails also connect us to Thomas Bullock, one of the saints, and they connect us to Ziggy's Catholicism. And so, the form takes something from both of those traditions, the Saints Day book, or hagiography form, and the cocktail recipe book form.

Saliby: There's something you said there, "trauma to transcendence." It's something I've heard you mention a few times in interviews. Can you tell me more about how this became a central theme of your book?

Randall: More than half of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. So, in the fabric of the founding is Black trauma of being bought, sold, and as we now know, frequently, raped and worked. So, all Americans have to move from trauma to transcendence, from the trauma in the fabric of the founding.

When I was starting to write this book, it was in the rise of the #MeToo movement, the rise of the #SayHerName movement and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. All of these speak out to historic, more recent trauma.

Collage of Tanya Blanding for the book
Credit Courtesy Alice Randall
/
A Michigan State Police Officer killed 4-year-old Tanya Blanding in a hail of bullets during the Detroit riots of 1967.

Just to speak for a moment about #SayHerName, Tanya Blanding [is] the saddest saint. She's a little girl who was shot down in her home in the summer of 1967, her home in Detroit, by a Michigan State policeman. You don't get to move from trauma to transcendence if you get shot down in your home at four years old.

But we must all try to figure out how to rise from the ashes of that trauma. Just as today, we all have to figure out how to rise from the ashes of COVID.

Saliby: This book is centered on Black Detroit, but I really found it to be about the Black America of the mid-20th century, as Ziggy Johnson weaves through the civil rights movement, sports legends and cultural icons.

Why was it important for you to focus on Detroit rather than these places like Chicago's Bronzeville in New York's Harlem, that many of these saints also interacted with at around the same time?

Randall: I actually think that Detroit in the mid 20th century was the epicenter of Black art, activism, athletics and industry. Notably what Detroit had, among other things that Bronzeville and Harlem didn't have, was the Gotham Hotel. Langston Hughes, himself, called the Gotham, the number one Negro hotel in the world. So, it was delightful to come to the Gotham and not just stay in this hotel, but to see the Black art on the walls. Artis Lane will have her portraits of Black Detroiters and others on those walls, and, today, she has a sculpture in Biden's Oval Office.

Notably what Detroit had, among other things that Bronzeville and Harlem didn't have, was the Gotham Hotel. Langston Hughes, himself, called the Gotham, the number one Negro hotel in the world.

So, it wasn't just one kind of art of dance and song that we associated with Detroit, but it was a variety of arts. Why? Because with it, also Detroit had the breadwinners. These are the Black men and women who worked in Mr. Ford's and other factories doing this very boring factory work. It prepared them when they got off to want to do something interesting, like engage with art.

So, Detroit had this empowered Black audience. Because the third part of what was different about Detroit and the arts is in Harlem and in Bronzeville, if you were a Black person, you likely perhaps lived in a home, apartment, or house that was owned by white people. And when you went out to the fancy, great clubs, you were going to clubs, even if Black people were performing, that they did not own.

In Detroit, at one point, we have 80% Black homeownership, and we also have an extraordinary number of Black-owned bars, taverns, clubs, so that Black art got to thrive by an all Black art aesthetic. That was the difference of Detroit is the fire of the breadwinners as an audience.

Saliby: To finish this conversation, it's February. We're kind of reaching a year of living in this pandemic. Is there a saint that you are particularly reflecting on in this time?

Collage of Nancy Johnson and Sadye Pryor for the Book
Credit Courtesy Alice Randall
/
Sadye Pryor lobbied Florida legislators to make sure there were lifeguards for Black beaches.

Randall: One of the saints that I love is Sadye Pryor. She's a librarian. She's a woman who wears her little black dress and her pearls, but she goes behind the scenes. And she argues with racist legislators to get lifeguards for the Black beaches. A legislature is only as good as the people lobbying it and the witness they bring.

We see all the front-page people who are involved in politics, but Sadye Pryor reminds us that some of the most important education doesn't happen in the school room or classroom. It happens in the library. And some of the most important politics happens when church ladies with pearls wearing a black dress, go in and witness their truth to power behind the scenes, and someone actually listens.

Saliby: Alice Randall is a novelist. She wrote the book, "Black Bottom Saints." Thank you so much for joining me.

Randall: Thank you for being here to celebrate. Joy is radical. Love is this strut, and hate is the stumble. And on that note, I wish everyone an extraordinary and joyful end of Black History Month.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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