A dazzling fiction debut from the author of Mama's Girl, Miss Black America is the warm and tender story of Angela, a young girl growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. Angela goes to school one ordinary day and returns home to find her glamorous and fiercely independent mother gone. Her magician father, Teddo, left to raise Angela alone, insists on keeping Melanie's disappearance shrouded in mystery. As Angela grows to womanhood and struggles to understand her mother's motivation for escaping the bonds of her family, she wryly observes, "My father was a magician, but my mother was the real Houdini."
A universal story that is both finely tuned and elegant, Miss Black America captures the intricacies, pleasures, contradictions, and complexities at the heart of every family. Spare and finely told, this novel will seep beneath your skin and stay with you long after the last page has been turned.
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June 13, 2005
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Excerpt from Miss Black America by Veronica Chambers
Love in Plain View
It was 1979 and escape was heavy in the air. Assata Shakur made a daring bust out of a maximum-security prison. And although my father and I did not yet know it, Mother had also been tunneling her way to freedom. Assata broke out of the Clinton Correctional Facility, guns blazing and motors running, Jesse James-style. No Cleopatra Jones, mine wasn't a gun-toting mama, though she was the baddest one-chick hit squad to ever break my heart. My mother's getaway was as subtle and silent as a magic trick. She simply walked out the door one wintery evening and never came home. My father was a magician, but my mother was the real Houdini.
It was not the way I understood grief, the way my father and I responded to the shock of it all. Time moved quickly that year and the day she disappeared began to fade from me. A few months after she was gone, I struggled to remember the details of the last day I saw her. What was I wearing? What did I have for lunch that day? What was the last thing she said? Was it "Good-bye, sweetheart, be good." Or was it "Gotta run, baby. Be good." I remembered the "be good," although by the time she was gone for a year, I hadn't been good at all.
In my mind, my mother's face fills every empty frame. Have you seen her? Melanie Aisha Brown. She is five feet ten inches tall. I do not know what she weighs. She wears a size 6 dress and a size 7 shoe. She has dark skin, and straight hair, which she wears in a flip. She is beautiful, look-twice-on-the-street gorgeous. She is thirty-four years old, but can pass for much younger. She likes burgundy lipstick and bright nail polish and anything made from potatoes: potato chips, mashed potatoes, french fries. She smokes when my father isn't around and keeps a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, covered by tampons, in a brown-and-white plastic cosmetics case in her purse. She is a woman with secrets.
* * *
When I was six, my grandmother died. I woke that morning to Mommy's screams punctuating the air. All I heard was holler, holler, holler, holler, holler, holler--precise and almost musical, like a church bell, pealing off the hour. I ran into the room and she was in a long pink cotton nightgown that was washed so many times it lost its pattern. Sponge rollers, half undone, hung around her head like a Halloween hat. She nearly wrenched my arm off when she spotted me by the door, pulled me to her so fiercely, as if she feared we were both headed for our doom. Of all the things I have forgotten in the years since Mommy left, this stays with me: her loss, shiny and heavy with heartbreak.
"I have no mother," she mewled in my ear, "I have no mother." I can hear her say it even now, and her voice, as it was then, is low, eerie, haunting, as if the loss was far from singular, but multiple and perpetual. A curse that will haunt woman upon woman in our family line until kingdom come. Which, of course, it will. Eventually.
The day Mommy disappeared, I did not scream as I should have. The day was too much like any other. I came home from school and Mommy wasn't there. My father sat at the kitchen table, eating an omelet and reading the Amsterdam News. I remember a riddle my father used to ask. "What's black and white and read all over?" And the answer, not a newspaper, not any old newspaper, but this special one: the Amsterdam News.
I asked for my mom and my father told me she was working the night shift at the bank. She cleaned office buildings and sometimes she worked days, 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., but she preferred nights. Fewer people in her way, she said, and I knew that was her pride talking. She dressed to the nines to go to work. Her hair pressed and curled, a gold cross nestled in the bosom of her purple-and-black-striped wraparound dress, high-heeled boots that grazed her knees. She was the proud owner of three of those wrap dresses, each paid for on layaway, and she wore them with the kind of love that only comes when you buy something, as she called it, "on time."
Mommy's eyes were heavy-lidded and almond-shaped; it gave her a sleepy look that men seemed to like. Her half of the medicine cabinet was filled with makeup from Revlon's Polished Amber line. The packages resonated with their slogan: "Now, you don't have to borrow anyone's beauty." Mommy ripped out the ads from Essence magazine, pictures of thin, beautiful, brown-skinned women, like Barbies dipped in chocolate. She read the fine print, buying each product to re-create the model's image and practicing a look before wearing it out for the evening. During the day, she wore amaretto nail polish that matched her amaretto lipstick and in the evenings spiced it up with a deep burgundy color called cognac. When she went out with my father, she tucked a fake tortoiseshell compact of pressed powder, with a label that read "Love Pat," in her purse.