Coffee Will Make You Black

Sinclair, April. Coffee Will Make You Black. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

A black woman sitting in a steaming cup of black coffee.

Jean “Stevie” Stevenson is a Black preteen growing up in a working-class family in South Chicago during a time when Black is not beautiful—the mid-1960s. Her stern mother refuses to let her use AAVE, makes her get her hair straightened, and encourages her to use skin-lightening cream. Her peers compare skin color to see whose is better (lighter). Stevie is desperate to fit in and become cool. When she finally gets invited to a popular girl’s party, Stevie is overjoyed to be noticed.

Coffee Will Make You Black follows Stevie through middle and high school as she navigates school life, family, dating, friendships, and racial inequality in a tumultuous time. She has to balance her desire to do well in school with her desire to be cool; her wish to be authentic with her wish to be “normal”; and the warning that “coffee will make you black” with the new Black is Beautiful movement.

Stevie is such a wonderful character. She’s smart, funny, confident, and politically aware. I loved witnessing her come into her own, not backing down from unfair conflicts, deciding to wear her hair natural, and admitting her feelings for the “funny” (read: lesbian) school nurse. The writing is excellent, too: fast-paced and humorous, with lots of vernacular expressions that are culturally specific as well as tied to the time and place.

Coffee Will Make You Black was named the 1994 Book of the Year (Young Adult Fiction) by the American Library Association and also received the Carl Sandburg Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library. I look forward to reading the sequel, Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice.

About Charlie McNabb

Archivist, Folklorist, and Legend Tripper
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