What was it like for blacks in America during those painful years immediately following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968? This is the subject of Jabari Asim’s debut novel, Only the Strong. In it, Asim, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of the fictional Gateway City, loosely based on St. Louis, as they try to move forward into a better future.
We are introduced to Gateway City through the figure of Lorenzo Tolliver, known as Guts. A former muscleman for the city’s No. 1 black organized-crime boss, Ananias Goode, Guts has gone legit. That night, two years ago, “when Dr. King had gone down in Memphis, Gus had steered his sedan through streets aflame and undergone a change of heart.”
In the vein of the hard-boiled detective who saves the day, Guts is a paragon of masculinity—he speaks little, always wins his fights and is eerily, uncannily smart. Even though he is retired from the crime life, managing a taxi fleet, and is newly in love, when Goode asks him for a favor—to babysit Rip Crenshaw, one of the first black baseball players in the white league, and make sure nothing happens to him—Guts agrees. And, despite themselves, a friendship forms between Crenshaw and Guts.
One of the chief delights of Only the Strong is the background action: The world of Gateway City and its supporting characters are beautifully drawn. The old-timers sitting around Guts’ cabstand talking the talk sound as if they’re in a barbershop in Harlem or on a stoop in Brooklyn. It is timeless, really, the wisdom of the elder black folk. “They’re not preparing our kids for careers,” a Gateway citizen says of the City Council’s dissing of black students. “They’re preparing them for prison.” Here is the understanding, even then, that the policy of failing black children by deliberately failing their schools was already in place—that the school-to-prison pipeline is nothing new.
What is revealed in Only the Strong is that we are only as strong as how we help one another, we black folk. Those in power have a vested interest in our destruction, not our success. Guts takes Crenshaw on a tour of these elder statesmen of Gateway City, and Crenshaw meets one of his idols—an old-time player from the Negro Leagues named Slick Daddy Johnson.
This meeting changes Crenshaw’s self-destructive attitude. Says Crenshaw: “That conversation with Slick Daddy had me thinking about how I should carry myself … I could do better.” Gone will be the reckless playboy, channeling his pain into negative behavior. Instead, Crenshaw will spend time teaching local kids to play ball—and will get more excited about it than we have seen him get about anything in the whole book. Here, Asim gives us a powerful yet organic portrayal of the importance of mentorship; of relationships and community. Of role models.
Asim wisely gives the women equal weight in this narrative—a difficult feat when writing a historical saga in which black women were still dealing with socially accepted sexism, in addition to racism, that further restricted their opportunities in life. Able to separate his consciousness as a writer from the sexist norms of the epoch, Asim makes a statement, not just about racism but also about gender inequality.
Asim does this by adopting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s advice on the “danger of a single story” and crafts three drastically different main female characters—traditional homemaker, student and educated professional—although the writing does seem to reinforce the belief that the choice for women must always be successful career or family, never both at once. The most compelling female character is Dr. Artinces Noel, one of four women in her class at Howard University Medical School, who apparently had forgotten that “if she’d been born just a few years earlier she’d be swabbing the halls of the hospital and not patrolling its pediatric ward with a clipboard and a six figure budget.”
Dr. Noel’s deep caring for her patients in the face of an indifferent staff endears her to the reader. Before her sojourn at the hospital, black children had little medical care; some “white doctors outright refused to treat black children,” while “others had ‘black days’ during which black youngsters could be admitted (always at peculiar hours) without contaminating the waiting room or white patients in their presence.”
It is the heartbreak of history that makes injustice so real. One easily imagines the black baby—sick, dying—the frantic mother and no health care to be had. Your kind is not wanted here. We will not treat you.
But enter Artinces Noel, who “resolved to do all she could, all the time” and succeeded in “lowering the death rate from 80 percent to 20 percent in two years.” Still, despite her success, Dr. Noel is haunted by the death of her father at the hands of white supremacists and her mother’s complete inability to function afterward. At the same time, she realizes that her experience with white violence was not unique but endemic to the times: “Every family struggling in every shack had suffered some version of her loss.” This was the black experience in America. The question was, would it break you or not?
To be black in America and survive, Asim writes, you must be only the strong.
And, indeed, as the novel builds to its fever pitch of a climactic ending—with carjacking and gunfights by enemies determined to take down Guts and Ananias Goode and destroy Dr. Noel in the process—it is only the strong who survive. The voices of the characters intertwine, building a narrative that bursts full of life. Here are rich, detailed characters, a vivid setting and a historical epoch made personal and intimate through details of experience. An intelligent, superbly executed and gripping masterpiece.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.