I’m often asked what inspired my debut novel, The Talking Drum. I’ve drawn inspiration from a multitude of experiences and individuals, but much of the inspiration comes from my parents.
Mom and Dad were part of The Great Migration of African Americans moving from The South in the middle of the last century to The North for better job opportunities and treatment.
After my dad completed his two years of service in the U.S. Army in San Antonio, Texas, during the mid-1950s, my parents had their wedding ceremony in my great-grandmother’s living room, and almost immediately, my uncle picked them up and drove them from Virginia to Connecticut where he and my aunt had moved a decade earlier. My parents grew up under Jim Crow and wanted desperately to get away from it.
My parents found jobs fairly easily in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My dad worked at General Electric for many years, becoming a plant foreman. But he always had dreams of working for himself. He wanted to open a clothing store. My mother supported his dream and they agreed to operate it together.
They chose a location on Stratford Avenue in the East End of Bridgeport, near where they had rented an apartment when they first got married, long before my sister and I were born. It was a racially mixed neighborhood that they had loved as young newlyweds.
Mom: Stratford Avenue was nice. On the corner was a shoe shop. And then there was a clothing store and a bank, a diner, nice men’s clothing. The shoe shop was nice. I bought shoes there. And there was a drug store. Clean, well-supplied. Like you would find anywhere. And there was a theater.
Dad: There was no crime that I can think of. And the meat market-the butcher, when he went to lunch, he didn’t even lock his door. He’d go to lunch for an hour and come back and everything stayed the same. And you had the clubs. There were three or four clubs. You had the nightlife all along there. Nightlife was very enjoyable. You could go out and have fun each Friday and Saturday.
In 1969, they opened Braxton’s Men’s Shop on the corner of Stratford and Newfield avenues. Braxton’s became known for having the finest in men’s fashions.
My parents’ higher profile in the community led to my dad serving a term on city council and several terms as president of the local branch of the NAACP. For many years my parents sponsored the East End Little League, funding the purchase of uniforms for the young athletes and sports equipment. In addition to being a retail establishment, over the decades, Braxton’s served as a watering hole of sorts to discuss the issues of the day and the problems in the community.
It wasn’t unusual for a reporter from the local newspaper to stop by the store to get my father’s perspective on one issue or another.
As my dad describes it, their clothing store initially did “extraordinarily well.” But that didn’t last long. The neighborhood began to change. The steel plant which generated millions in revenue left the city and rendered many unemployed. Other factories left.
Suburban flight in the East End began to erode the tax base and drugs infiltrated the community. Crime increased. Even so, my parents continued to operate the store into the 2000s until a redevelopment project came on the horizon.
Plans began to solidify to redevelop the block for a mix of apartments, retail, a grocery store, and a new library.
There was talk of taking Braxton’s and the adjacent properties that my parents owned by eminent domain. However, community leaders rallied around my parents. The city backed down and negotiated, handing my parents a check.
In early May of 2017, the mayor of Bridgeport was at the controls, demolishing what was Braxton’s Men’s Shop.
Mom and Dad retired. I reminisce sometimes about the lessons I learned at Braxton’s Men’s Shop: watching my parents work together as a team, me helping out at the store on weekends and learning about customer service, maintaining inventory, how to price goods to make a profit. Dad taking me with him on business trips to New York City when he had meetings with wholesalers. Flying with mom and dad to Las Vegas to The Magic Show, which I mistakenly thought was a convention of magicians, but was actually a clothing expo.
All of those experiences served me well, providing me with important life lessons and giving me insight on creating the world of The Talking Drum.