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Humor, heartbreak and wisdom are key ingredients in the new book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now,” edited by Amy Newmark and Breena Clarke and featuring Evanston writer Sharisse Kimbro.
The title may be long, but the vignettes are short and can be consumed as quick literary snacks. The perils of raising sons and daughters in an unjust world, the painful legacy of segregation and the healing power of soul food are just a few of the topics presented with aplomb in this collection of essays, reflections and poems. With unflinching honesty contributors recount facing challenges as ordinary as a new hairstyle and as earth-shattering as a brutal encounter with police.
In “Hand-Me Down Blues,” local writer and mother Sharisse Kimbro recalls unearthing a six-year-old T-shirt designed to honor the memory of Eric Garner who died shortly after his encounter with a Staten Island police officer. “I Can’t Breathe” reads the T-shirt she pulls from a storage bin, and in a horrifying moment of clarity, Ms. Kimbro realizes that the message is still appropriate. Her younger son now has something to wear to an upcoming George Floyd protest.
During a recent interview, Ms. Kimbro explained that the protests were an important way for her then 17-year-old to process the events at the time. He attended rallies in Chicago as well as in Evanston. “He wanted to learn more,” she says. “He wanted to understand and try to find a place where he could make sense of it. I think it was important for him to feel like he belonged to something bigger than himself, and he wasn’t the only person feeling alienated, angry, frustrated, confused, sad.”
Parenting is a theme that looms large in the new book, and many of the stories spotlight the particular challenges of growing up Black. In “Raising a Black Son in this World,” Cherith Glover Fluker shares a list of dos and don’ts she has instilled her college-age son. “Make every effort not to get gas at night. Be careful about running or walking too swiftly because that might suggest you’ve done something wrong. Don’t walk around with your hands in your pockets; someone may think you have something that you shouldn’t have.” The list goes on.
All moms worry about whether or not their kids will return home at night, says Ms. Kimbro. “But as a Black mom you do worry about it at another level. So you go over the drill of how to act in front of a policeman. And they kind of know the drill, but even if they know those things, it might not matter.”
Child rearing is serious business for the contributors of “I’m Speaking Now,” but the book also contains many moments of levity. In “The Jig Is Up,” Rachel Perkins lets us in on the joke as she heads off for work one morning sans relaxer and reassures her scandalized mother, “The jig is up, Mom. They know I’m Black.” Naomi Johnson celebrates her flawless execution of a cherished family recipe in “Her Famous Pound Cake.”
Ms. Kimbro says it is a special honor to have her story included in a compilation of this kind. She has written many essays as well as the novel “Beyond the Broken,” published in 2013, but it’s particularly gratifying to be part of a book that’s centered on the narratives of Black women and provides a glimpse into their world.
“It’s important to have opportunities for diverse voices to be lifted up, so we can continue to grow in our understanding of one another,” she says. “Not just Black voices, but all kinds of voices.”