Lisa Braxton’s The Talking Drum begins with Amos Bronson Alcott’s words, “Civilization degrades the many to exalt the few.” It is a complex story of gentrification, eminent domain, and the personal lives of those displaced and/or affected in the aftermath.
A third suspicious fire has occurred in Petite Africa, home to African and East Indian immigrants in the south end of the fictitious factory town, Bellport, Massachusetts. The city plans to revitalize its economy by exercising eminent domain over Petite Africa to build a civic and entertainment center and upscale apartments. Gentrification is a sensitive topic, especially when it involves the displacement of poor minorities to benefit incoming affluent whites. Those who live in Petite Africa would be dispersed to outside neighborhoods, and the small black African businesses would have to close and start over, or not start at all. Redevelopment would mean the end of a culturally rich and diverse community–a loss that is more important to some than to others. Each member of the community has a stake, but not all have power.
Braxton explores this deeply conflicted situation through the intersecting lives of three Black Bellport couples: in Petite Africa, Omar and Natalie Bassari; and on the other side of Bellport, upscale Black newlyweds Sydney and Malachi Stallworth and unmarried couple Della Tolliver and Kwamé Rodriguez. All have aspirations–open or secret–to be more than what they currently are. Braxton expertly draws out the way these characters achieve or fail in reaching their goals and masterfully interweaves their complicated lives and interconnections. There are issues of distrust, friction, betrayal and preconceived notions, but Braxton tells her story so clearly that the reader is deeply acquainted with each character. There is no stereotyping here.
The city of Bellport has set a date to exercise eminent domain in Petite Africa. But as more fires occur, displacing more residents, suspicions arise. Are they the work of a single arsonist or a matter of larger greedy plan? It is as Kwame Rodriguez conjectures, “The people get burned out. The city gets state and federal funding to rebuild it. The immigrants get pushed out and the white folks with their money move in.”
The Talking Drum also explores the delicate topic of intraracial prejudices between African-Americans and Black African nationals. It may come as a revelation to some readers that racism occurs not just between whites and Blacks. Through her characterizations, Braxton compels readers to measure their own degree of racism, that universal schism that divides us.
This is a story of the complex relationships and tensions that exist within a precariously balanced community. The characters are well rounded and I came to either care about–or greatly dislike–them. And through it all, Braxton reveals the issues that all humans face: sacrifice, greed, power, love, and loyalty. Highly recommended.