Alice Randall, author of the best-selling The Wind Done Gone, mines history once more for her innovative new novel Black Bottom Saints. It is about Detroit’s historic Black Bottom, a predominately African American neighborhood, during its mid-20th century heyday. Narrator Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson, the founder of an eponymous dance school; a celebrated gossip columnist for the “colored” newspaper; and emcee at the famed Flame Show Bar, is the perfect guide to Black Bottom’s golden era and legendary habitués. As a race man and bon vivant, he hobnobs with the Black glitterati whom he refers to as his “saints.” At the end of his life, from a hospital bed, he takes on the monumental task of immortalizing them in a book structured like a Catholic Saints Day book. Knowing he may not live to see his finished project, he entrusts Colored Girl, a beloved former dance student, to edit and complete it when he’s gone.
Ziggy writes lovingly of Black Detroit, a “self-perpetuating cauldron of sepia excellence” he calls “carmel Camelot.” The 50+ saints who inhabit his book range from renowned stars like Nat King Cole, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Motor City’s own Joe Lewis and Della Reese, to pioneering entrepreneurs, underworld hustlers, steadfast activists, upright clergy, and more. Through Ziggy’s eloquent anecdotes and remembrances, a mix of fact and fiction, Randall highlights the many real-life movers and shakers who shaped Black Bottom and made it a cultural landmark on par with Harlem in New York and Bronzeville in Chicago. By elevating these men and women to his brand of sainthood, Ziggy solidifies what they symbolized for the culture.
Randall’s captivating writing style, combined with short chapters, allows you to read about all the saints without becoming overwhelmed. I googled a few to learn more about them. Another interesting thing about Black Bottom Saints? It is not a chronological narrative, so you do not necessarily have to read it from beginning to end—I sometimes skipped around according to my interests. I got a kick out of each saint’s patronage, and the cheeky choice of libation cocktails—a secular departure from the feast recipes typically found in saints books—undoubtedly a nod to Ziggy’s nightlife. For example, Anna Gordy, sister of Motown’s founder Berry Gordy, is “Patron Saint of Putting Family First, Living in the Present, and Black Enterprise,” and her libation is a gin and juice concoction named “Step Follows Gaze.” Bonus Tip: Listen to the audiobook version narrated by the wonderful Prentice Onayemi. It is truly transporting! Like many Black communities that once thrived and produced some of our best and brightest, Black Bottom's existence was fleeting. I am grateful that Randall put it back on the map, illuminating its history, importance, and many saints.
Reviewed by @JuliaChance