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'Black Bottom Saints': A Love Letter To Detroit's History

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new novel "Black Bottom Saints," Alice Randall writes this - a central significance of all Black art is that it increases the capacity of both artist and audience to restore self and to know self.

That's part of her project with this book. It knits together a hidden tapestry of Black life in Detroit, the city where Alice Randall grew up.

ALICE RANDALL: I wanted to create a lost world of Black triumph. That was Black Detroit in 1938 to 1968. And I wanted it to be a five-sense pleasure to read, even though it addressed public and private trauma. One of the themes of "Black Bottom Saints" is joy is radical.

SHAPIRO: The structure of the novel has its roots in the Catholic Church. It's a book of saints, 52 chapters, one for each week of the year, each describing one secular saint of old Black Detroit, the real people who orbited at the Black Bottom neighborhood of the city. And every chapter ends with a cocktail recipe.

RANDALL: The easy way to have that five-sense pleasure while you are reading this book is to shake up one of the cocktails, whether it's one with or without spirits.

SHAPIRO: All right. So let's talk about your narrator, Ziggy Johnson. He was an emcee at clubs. He was a columnist. He was the founder of the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theater. And you actually attended that school when you were a child. So what do you remember about the real life Ziggy?

RANDALL: I've known Ziggy since the day I was born. Researching this book, I discovered that he announced my birth in one of his columns, which I did not know...

SHAPIRO: Wait. Really?

RANDALL: ...Until - yes - until I was researching this book. Essentially, what I know about Ziggy is what you've just told, that he owned a center city dancing school - I walked into that school when I was about 3 years old - that he wrote columns for the Michigan Chronicle when that was Detroit's major Black newspaper and made it one of the biggest Black newspapers in the country. And he was an emcee at The 20 Grand and at the Flame Show bar. But more privately and intimately, he told us stories about people who had moved from trauma to transcendence, people that he had been in the world with in the world of entertainment, in the world of politics, in his world making in Detroit when he was an art activist before we had that phrase, surrounding himself with other activists who weren't recognized as this. And he was bound and determined to help particularly Black girls move from trauma to transcendence. And all I can say is he truly helped me.

SHAPIRO: That's such a beautiful description. I learned about so many people I had never heard of before as I read this book. I mean, like, Ruth Ellis started a lesbian rights organization in Detroit in the 1930s, long before early gay rights groups that we hear about in New York or San Francisco. I mean, was there one person whose story you were surprised to learn as you did your research into these characters?

RANDALL: One of the ones that I love is Sadye Pryor.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about her.

RANDALL: Sadye is in Florida. A lot of people know the story about beaches being segregated and getting - and people working to get beaches desegregated. But they don't know that often when these beaches got desegregated, the local legislators and local politicians didn't provide any funding for lifeguards for the Black beaches. So Black children's bodies were more endangered. Sadye Pryor is a Black woman down in Pensacola, Fla., who worked behind the scenes, who begged, who hung her head until she got racist legislators and politicians to provide lifeguards for Black beaches.

SHAPIRO: And her connection to Detroit?

RANDALL: Her connection to Detroit is she was Ziggy's aunt. She was Ziggy's inspiration. He says she was the librarian who was working the other end of the street, but they were in cahoots. What you have to understand is in that time period, the Gotham Hotel where Ziggy lives most of his life is a place that Langston Hughes declares the greatest Black hotel in the world. In this time period, we're talking about '38 to '68, the Black world when it could came to Detroit because it was in Detroit that they could sit and hear music with an all-Black audience, that they could see paintings and photography by Black artists because it was this giant Black audience fueled by the auto industry but also the lawyers, the doctors, the gamblers, the hairdressers living off the Black workers in the auto industry that are creating this all-Black audience that Ziggy says is fire.

SHAPIRO: Ziggy expresses a fear that this rich, wealthy Black Detroit that encompasses the resort community of Idlewild and the Gotham Hotel might fade as integration becomes the law of the land. Why did you want to write about that?

RANDALL: Because so much does get diluted when we enter into white spaces, though there are things to be gained, including the fact how many of us forgotten that there was once a caramel Camelot, a shining hour of Black art activism, athletics, industry. One of the things that gets lost when we enter into the whole story is sometimes our private stories and histories, what become untold stories and forgotten history. I completely support integration, but integration in moments of economic and political inequality often lead to erasure.

SHAPIRO: There's a line in the introduction to the book - memory and stories are powerful tools of rebellion. How so?

RANDALL: It allows us to remember the strategies that helped us survive in the past that we may use in the present. It allows us to define ourselves by the interior values of our individual selves and our culture. One of the things that lets us know is love is the strut and hate is the stumble. For example, in this moment, I think this pandemic rage is real. People are angry, and they are afraid, but dipping into art like Ziggy dipped into music or like readers now can dip into this novel can be an act of self-care. It can be a cure. And if it's not a cure, it can be a relief that allows you to rest to go back out to fight again.

SHAPIRO: Well because there is so much music in the pages of this book, what shall we go out on?

RANDALL: If Ziggy was here, there is one person he would call out - LaVern Baker. She will be known for "Tweedle Dum Tweedle Dee" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWEEDLEE DEE")

LAVERN BAKER: (Singing) Tweedlee, tweedlee, tweedlee dee.

SHAPIRO: Alice Randall's new book is "Black Bottom Saints." What a joy talking to you about it. Thank you.

RANDALL: Thank you, Ari. It was wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWEEDLEE DEE")

BAKER: (Singing) Jimminy cricket, jimminy Jack, you make my heart go clickety-clack. Tweedlee, tweedlee, tweedlee dee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.