In new novel, Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood brought to life by the people who called it home
Sometimes fiction tells new truths about history. That’s what happens in author Alice Randall’s latest novel Black Bottom Saints, which draws from the experiences of Black Detroiters who lived in the city’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood. The book is structured like a book of saints in the Catholic tradition. Many of the saints are based on real people, and they give voice to a place that continues to influence Detroit, and the rest of the world, today.
Randall was born in Detroit and currently lives in Nashville, where she is a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University. She is best known for The Wind Done Gone, a satire of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Stateside spoke with Randall about her new book, as well as fiction’s role in enriching historical records.
A narrator in life and in fiction
The book’s narrator is Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson, who was a gossip and entertainment columnist for the Michigan Chronicle. Johnson also ran a dance school, where Randall took classes as a child. Before she knew him personally, though, Randall said she knew him through his words.
“The first writer I ever knew was Ziggy Johnson,” she said. “My father did not read to me from children’s books. He read to me from newspapers. Monday through Friday, it would be the Detroit Free Press and the news, but on the weekends, it was the Michigan Chronicle, and my favorite storyteller was Ziggy.”
Selecting the “Saints”
Some of the Detroit “saints” Randall includes in the book are famous. Others are just regular, everyday Detroiters. But they were all people Johnson encountered in his life and wrote about in his columns. He would often tell stories about these characters to the young students in his dance school, Randall explained.
“[The saints] knew something significant about trauma, and moving from trauma to transcendence, because when Ziggy talked to the students in his school about his Black Bottom saints, he was telling us the stories that would help us move from trauma to transcendence. So he was telling us the story of Black wisdom.”
Detroit’s artistic influence
Though Randall is now based in Nashville, the lessons Detroit taught her as a child have followed her throughout her life, and continue to find their ways into her creative process.
“The chin-up swagger and the pride in just being able to outwork anybody else. But the Detroit version of that doesn’t turn into John Henry syndrome because Detroit also privileges Black creativity and art. … So one of the things that I’ve had from my earliest days is a sense of art and industry that is just pure Detroit.”
How fiction can illuminate history
Using fiction to examine and illustrate historical African Americans’ inner lives is essential, Randall said. Many weren’t able to leave behind written reports about their personal experiences and feelings. Randall said fiction can help fill in those gaps.
“If we don’t privilege our oral histories and translate them into fiction, we lose them. Because they’re oral histories, because there isn’t documentation, I think that there’s an integrity in calling it fiction, but it is a fiction that often comes closer to the truth than the actual published record because of all the things the public’s record, the official accounting, cannot measure.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.