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.”
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“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
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. www.lisabraxton.com
On sale date: May 30, 2020
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