Don’t miss this excerpt of Lisa Braxton’s The Talking Drum!
The Talking Drum
by Lisa Braxton
Publisher: Inanna Publications
Release Date: May 30, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Displacement/gentrification has been happening for generations, yet few novels have been written with the themes of gentrification, which makes this book unusual.
In 1971, the fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon. The project promises to transform the dying factory town into a thriving economic center, with a profound effect on its residents. Sydney Stallworth steps away her law degree in order to support her husband Malachi’s dream of opening a cultural center and bookstore in the heart of their black community, Liberty Hill. Across the street, Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to frequent outbursts.
Six blocks away and across the Bellport River Bridge lies Petite Africa, a lively neighborhood, where time moves slower and residents spill from run-down buildings onto the streets. Here Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal known to locals as Drummer Man, dreams of being the next Duke Ellington, spreading his love of music and African culture across the world, even as his marriage crumbles around him and his neighborhood goes up in flames. An arsonist is on the loose. As more buildings burn, the communities are joined together and ripped apart. In Petite Africa, a struggling community fights for their homes, businesses, and culture. In Liberty Hill, others see opportunity and economic growth. As the pace of the suspicious fires pick up, the demolition date moves closer, and plans for gentrification are laid out, the residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives. “It’s a shame,” says Malachi, after a charged city council meeting, where residents of Petite Africa and Liberty Hill sit on opposing sides. “We do so much for Petite Africa. But still, we fight.”
Excerpted from The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton © 2020 by Lisa Braxton, used with permission by Inanna Press.
The former Nathaniel Hawthorne Boot Factory, was on Atlantic Avenue on the banks of the Bellport River.
It was a five-story brick and stone structure with a flat roof and a clock tower that chimed on the hour. The old building housed a daycare and provided space for artist studios and community meetings. The cafetorium was where the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association met monthly. Today, city po-lice and firefighters had the space for a briefing on the fires in Petite Africa.
When Sydney and Malachi arrived, the room was nearly full. Sydney noted a seating pattern based on people’s attire. Petite Africa people sat left of the center aisle, and Liberty Hill people were on the right. Onstage were Mayor Chauncey McShane, Fire Chief Patrick O’Connell, and Police Chief Francis Toler-ico. To their right was Petite Africa resident and restaurant owner Mustapha Mendy. Sydney had seen his picture in the newspapers. Mendy appeared to be in his late sixties, bony, with heavy bags under his eyes and grey, coiled hair and beard.
At the back of the room were tables filled with toiletries, blankets, stuffed animals, and canned goods. Sydney picked up a can of corned beef. “What is all of this for?”
“The Neighborhood Improvement Association’s Relief Ef-fort,” Malachi replied. “Whenever there’s a fire or we find out about a needy family, people go shopping or bring things from home. Then they come here and put together care packages.”
“We should go through our things to see if we can donate anything.”
Malachi grinned. “As stuffed as your closets are, I’m sure you’d find something.”
Sydney playfully poked him in the side. “I could say the same for you.”
She spotted Kwamé, dressed in a grey, pin-striped three-piece suit. He swaggered as he worked his way down the aisle, shaking people’s hands and clapping men on the back. His smile broadened as he strolled over to them. “Glad you two could make it,” he said.
Sydney told him about her assignment to report on the meeting for Inner City Voice.
“Cool. So that worked out for you,” Kwamé said. “Max is good people.”
“Looks like you’ve got a full house,” Malachi stated, looking around.
Kwamé nodded, and puffed out his chest. “We did what we had to to get the word out. I’ve been telling the mayor for weeks he needed to have one of these. I said, ‘Mayor, my man, we can’t keep people in the dark. It’s not fair to them. Lives are in jeopardy. They need to know what’s going on’.”
Sydney rolled her eyes. More big talk from Kwamé, she thought. She and Malachi found two chairs near the back of the room by the tables of donations. “I’m sure Kwamé’s inflating his level of influence with the mayor or making up the story entirely,” she said.
“Not now,” Malachi whispered, tightness in his voice. She pulled her camera out of its case. As she took out her reporter’s notebook and a pencil, a hand grabbed her shoulder. It was Max sitting in the row behind her. “I didn’t tell you I was going to show up because I didn’t want you to get nervous,” he said in a loud whisper. “Just pretend I’m not here. If you need anything, you’ll know where to find me.” He got up and took a seat near the front of the room. She appreciated that. This was a big story and she wanted to do a good job. He wouldn’t be looking over her shoulder. But he’d be close enough that if she needed some guidance, he’d be right there to help.
Once the clock tower chimed at seven p.m., the mayor rose to the podium and gave brief remarks. He introduced Kwamé. While Kwamé strutted to the stage, people resumed their con-versations. When he go to the podium and slammed the gavel five times, more than was necessary, people quieted down. He introduced the other men on the stage and then sat down. Chief O’Connell stepped up to the podium. He was a burly man with thick, white hair, gin-blossomed cheeks, and a mixed-grey handlebar mustache. For some reason, as he opened his mouth to speak, he focused on a spot near the ceiling. Sydney took notes in her own version of shorthand.
“We want to bring you up on what we got with the fire investigation,” he said slowly in a Boston Irish accent, pro-nouncing “are” like “ah.” “We got different kinds of fires here in Bellport. Some are accidental, caused by residents. Some are acts of God. The fire where lightning struck the cupola on the Ukrainian church two years ago is an example of that. Some were caused by bad wiring, and some were set. They were deliberate.”
He paused, as if waiting for the crowd to react. Chief Tolerico joined him at the podium and cleared his throat. “We have an arsonist setting fires. Petite Africa is being targeted. It may be the work of one person. There may be several. Whoever is doing this, we’ll catch them. That’s why we put together a special arson squad. Personnel from Bellport Police and Fire, plus the state police will work together. We’ll have helicopters and patrols covering the neighborhood. In the meantime, we want people to be careful, and Chief O’Connell will talk about that.” Tolerico sat down.
“We want you to protect your homes,” O’Connell stated. “First of all, lock your doors.”
Snickers went up in the audience. O’Connell raised a palm to get people to quiet down. “Now I know that sounds obvious, but when our fire investigators come around, the residents are telling them that they leave their doors unlocked. A simple lock can keep an arsonist out. Dead bolts are good. Lock the windows, too.”
A man in a Boston Celtics jersey stood up. “That’s part of the problem. The people down there in Petite Africa don’t believe in locking their doors, nothing personal, but they need to be told.” Sydney made a mental note to talk to him after the briefing. The man looked around at the room. “I’m not passing judgment on anyone, but there’s a difference in the way they do things down there.”
The room filled with the low hum of conversation. “Oh, no. Here we go,” Malachi muttered under his breath.
“This might be a better story than I thought,” Sydney responded.
Kwamé came to the mike. “Y’all need to quiet down and let the chief respond.”
O’Connell nodded a thank you to Kwamé. “There’s no point going into who locks their doors and who doesn’t. The point is, we want everyone to lock their doors. We also want people to install lights outside of their homes. Those of you who are renting, ask your landlord to do it. Floodlights near your doorway will discourage an arsonist.”
Malachi leaned over and whispered in Sydney’s ear, “We should get those lights for our place, too.”
O’Connell turned around to say something to Mendy. The restaurant owner slowly stood up. People on both sides of the aisle clapped as he walked to the podium. A few whistled.
“To find people starting these fires, we must work with arson squad,” Mendy stated in an accent Sydney could barely under-stand. “Criminals destroy our community. This community is, how do the Americans say, a place of incubation. Before we pioneer the rest of America we come to Petite Africa. Without the neighborhood, we lose this. We cannot let arsonist steal our launch pad.” People applauded. Mendy waited for quiet before continuing. “I know that many in my neighborhood do not have money to pay for bolt lock and motion light. I have sponsor taking care of these things. See me after.” Mendy sat back down.
“Arson is a crime of opportunity,” O’Connell said, return-ing to the podium. “We need to remove piles of leaves, paper you don’t need, bags of trash, anything an arsonist can use to start a fire.”
A woman stood up on the Liberty Hill side of the aisle. “Petite Africa is a mess. If they haven’t cleaned it up in all this time, what makes you think they’ll start now? They live in filth down there.”
A woman on the other side stood up. “What about the gangs?” Her accent sounded West Indian to Sydney. “The gangs from up on The Hill are coming down to Petite Africa. It’s those gang members in Liberty Hill. They shoplift. They pick people’s pockets. They steal cars. I bet they’re setting the fires.”
A man stood up on the Liberty Hill side. “And Petite Africa doesn’t have gangs?” he shouted. “I know there are at least two Jamaican gangs over there.”
People started yelling at each other, some of them jumping to their feet. Sydney trained her camera on the activity. Kwamé shot to the podium and slammed the gavel. “Blame won’t fix this,” he pleaded into the microphone. The crowd didn’t give him much of a chance. If anything, they grew louder. Some shook their fists at each other and shouted across the room. Sydney thought the news conference might become a riot. Chief Tolerico grabbed the gavel from Kwamé and slammed it down so hard that the handle broke off in his hand. “Can we have order?” he shouted. Then he shouted, “Order!” again, and the people quieted down. He took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his sweaty brow.
“All right then,” he continued. “We want everyone to notice their surroundings,” he continued. “If you see someone who looks suspicious or see some suspicious activity, tell us. We’ve been working with the city on boarding up the vacant buildings, but sometimes squatters pry them open and move in. They start fires to stay warm. If you see anything like that, let us know. We need you to be our eyes and ears. We can’t do this on our own.”
After the fire and police chiefs fielded more questions, May-or McShane directed people to a table in the lobby. “Take a flyer. It’s got the arson hotline listed and some fire precautions everyone should take. Chief O’Connell, Chief Tolerico, and I will be giving regular updates on our investigation in the newspapers, on tv stations, the radio. If necessary, we’ll meet here with you again in person.”
After the meeting adjourned, Sydney looked around the room, deciding which residents to interview. The police and fire chiefs and Mendy were surrounded by residents who climbed onto the stage to talk with them. She would get fresh quotes from them after the crowd thinned. Max was in a conversation with Kwamé.
“It’s a shame,” said Malachi as they stood up. “We do so much for Petite Africa. We do charity work. We collect food and clothing for the poor families. But still, we fight.”
Sydney decided her husband had just given the perfect angle for her newspaper article.
About the Author
Lisa Braxton is an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Fiction Writers Program and was a finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, her M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University, and her B.A. in Mass Media from Hampton University. Her stories have been published in anthologies and literary journals. She lives in the Boston, Massachusetts area.