To be young, gifted and black

May 11, 2005 at 12:00 am

Flint-born writer Christopher Paul Curtis knows about hard work. After high school, he spent 13 years hanging doors on Buicks on the assembly line at General Motors’ Fisher Body Plant No. 1. Curtis took college classes at night, and wrote during breaks at work to get away from the noise.

The writing helped him escape the racket, but there was another, more pressing reason why Curtis dived into his notebooks. As a kid he’d been an avid reader, but none of the books he absorbed in his youth seemed to speak to his own experience, growing up in a black community in a city that for many years boasted the highest per capita income for African-Americans in the nation.

“You say, ‘I grew up in an all-black neighborhood,’” says Curtis, who makes his home in Windsor, “and people think there’s something negative being implied. But at the time, Flint had a thriving black community. The doctors were black, the lawyers were black, the shopkeepers were black. Even the people who worked in the auto factories were making good money. But as the factories pulled out, Flint’s struggled. I love my city, but it’s depressing to go back there sometimes. There’s been so much lost, and what can you do?”

What Curtis did, during those years on the assembly line, was to mine his childhood for material. As he wrote, he began hearing the voice of a young black kid from Flint, telling stories about a place and time he had never seen represented in books when he was young. As his pen moved, Curtis let that kid tell his own story.

It took a while to crack the market — Curtis was 42 when his first book appeared in print in 1995 — but when he finally began publishing, the accolades came quickly. The recipient of a Newberry Honor Award, a Newberry Medal, and two Coretta Scott King Author Awards, Curtis has made a name for himself as a writer of touching, thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny young adult novels.

Yet Curtis’ three books — The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963; Bud, Not Buddy; and last year’s Bucking the Sarge — amount to more than simply excellent young adult fiction. Taken together, each preserves a specific historical and cultural moment in African-American history, and meditates on that moment through the eyes of young narrators just beginning to deal with the problems of the grown-up world. Like the best young fiction writing, Curtis’ books aren’t escapist — they’re serious (though not somber) depictions of kids who are socially powerless, surviving and triumphing over dire circumstances.

Watsons is about a young man sent South by his family from Flint to Alabama, who comes face to face with one of the central events of civil rights history, the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. Bud, Not Buddy finds its orphaned young narrator chasing across 1930s Michigan, trying to track down the standup bass player for a jazz combo who he’s convinced is his real father.

His recent book, Bucking the Sarge, is set in present-day Flint. Luther T. Farrell, Sarge’s 15-year-old narrator, seems all but destined to become a 24-karat hustler, like his mother, the “Sarge” in the story.

“When I was sketching the Sarge,” Curtis says, “it was around the time of Enron and WorldCom, all those people who lost track and ended up doing anything to get to the money. But I don’t think of her as evil. Her analysis of her situation is very accurate. She sees money as the lifeblood of so much that goes on in this country, so to hell with the rules, to hell with people’s lives, rules are for suckers. That’s why Luther loves science and philosophy. He craves some kind of stability and sureness in his life.”

Curtis is just finishing a new novel, Elijah of Buxton, which leaves the Flint setting for the first time. Set in the historical community of Buxton, Ontario, a terminus for the Underground Railroad, Elijah deals with black community and culture as a positive force, both psychologically and practically.

“Buxton was famous throughout Canada, and throughout the U.S. as well. It became sort of emblematic of what a fully functioning black community could accomplish, even in the 1800s. And Flint is sort of that way too, from another standpoint. It really is kind of symbolic of a lot of America, a lot of cities that have had their heyday and are now sliding, and fighting that slide.”

“There are so many interesting stories in places like these that don’t get told,” Curtis says. “I think my writing tries to be one way of rescuing those stories.”

Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]