Black Deutschland caught my eye in February’s Book Page and I immediately requested it from the library. A novel about a gay black guy from Chicago trying to stay sober in 1980s Berlin? Yes, please.
I’m attracted to novels set in Germany and love Chicago, city of my birth. Neighborhoods in both Berlin and Chicago figure prominently in this book, down to the mention of specific buildings. Even my hometown of Cicero, IL is mentioned (as usual, and deservedly, in a negative light), for “keeping out” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “The suburb of Cicero, Illinois, kicked Reverend King so hard it made Mahalia Jackson groan” (153). I’m not sure how to write about this novel, but I feel the need to, so here goes.
The narrator is Jed, a gay middle-class African-American man who grew up in 1960s/70s Chicago. His parents are focused on Negro Achievement and from a young age Jed is pressured to perform, to contribute, to be somebody. As a black boy growing up in racist America he knows the dangers outside of his neighborhood. Yet he’s also living the personal struggle of never really fitting in with family. Hence, his search for both a sense of self and a home. Isherwood initially points Jed to Berlin, but other forces keep pulling him back.
Jed’s cousin, Cello, acts as his foil. Also from Chicago, Cello’s parents were a mess, but the girl showed musical promise, so Jed’s mom stepped in and became a sort of combined surrogate mother, music teacher, and career coach for her niece. As a girl Cello was a talented hard-worker, on track to be somebody. Meanwhile, Jed drifts. At the beginning of the novel Cello seems to be a success story. She’s living in Germany with her wealthy German husband and their two children, still focused on her music. Jed has lived with them before and was banished back to Chicago due to his alcoholism.
Now sober, Jed it back in Berlin, his adopted home city. The bulk of the novel is Jed reflecting back on his second attempt to start his adult life. It doesn’t begin on a promising note. In their first conversation we learn Cello’s German is flawless, Jed’s is rusty: “Cello would have said that she was making me practice my German, but she was also cancelling out our equality” (18). A brilliant example of one way a family member attempts to establish dominance, both literally and figuratively, over another.
There is so much packed into this novel. Historical time periods, movements, places, events, writers, artists, politicians — all are both the backdrop for and the shaping forces of the confusion and beauty that is daily life where humans navigate the pressures of parental expectations, race, class, gender, sexuality, sex, disease, racism, hatred, nationalism, family, and everything else. How do we create a sense of self in this tornado? Why do we create the lives we live? Why are we attracted to places and people? Why is love so often shot through with pain and does it have to be that way? To whom should we be loyal and why?
Overall, this book blew me away. It’s a smart novel that draws on and makes so many cultural references it made my head spin. Some of them I got, some of them I knew I didn’t get, and I’m sure there’s a whole bunch that went whooshing over my head. It energized as it exhausted me and made me want to learn more.
In some ways its curious that I like this novel so much. I tend to like straightforward narratives and this is not that. It’s a collection of the narrator’s observations of self and others, observations that bounce around in time and space. We might think of our lives as neat chronological narratives, but the reality, when we’re present to it, anyway, is that life is messy. It felt real.
Title: Black Deutschland: A Novel
Author: Darryl Pinkney
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February, 2016
Source: Library copy
Pinckney’s earlier works include the novel High Cotton (1992) and two nonfiction works, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (2002) and Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (2014).