Alfonso Rutherford Berry III—son of a city councilman, grandson of the state’s first African American legislator—believes that history has ordained for him but one life, and it ain’t his first love: dancing. But after a series of tragedies, starting with the death of his fierce, out cousin Carlton, his assumptions explode in his face along with his closet door.
Alfonso emerges into the life on a blanket of the jazz and blues he shared with Carlton. He hangs on Carver Street, the queer Northside of his largely black neighborhood. There, he is befriended by Carlton’s familiars: Sammy, a local storekeeper and neighborhood den mother, Bingo, a leather queen and nurse practitioner, Vera, a transgender activist and photographer, and Charlotte, his father’s political rival. At college, he becomes tight with two freshmen: Roy, an aspiring actor and acquaintance from high school and Bill, a new member of his church. He also finds love (and peril) in the form of Jameel, a long-time crush. His new life sets him on a collision course with his father, his church, and the family legacy established by his revered late grandfather.
Written in taut prose steeped in history and current events—and seasoned with the blues—Sin Against the Race follows the coming-of-age journey of a young black gay man as he progresses from an invisible councilman’s son to a formidable presence in his community.
Gar began writing early in life, but thought he wanted to be an astronomer. (He also thought he was straight. Go figure.)
At UCLA, he co-created a left-leaning paper called Free Association. He also wrote commentaries for The Daily Bruin and feature articles for the LGBTQ newsmagazine Ten Percent, for which he received an award.
He began fiction writing in the early 90s. His work has appeared in Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993), and other publications.
"The true ugliness of the closet is its subtlety. It eats away at your soul bit by bit and you don't even realize it. If you never deal with it or come to terms with it, the ultimately the closet will destroy you. Being out can be hard, but it beats the alternative." (p184)
Sin Against the Race is not perfect as a piece of writing but it is a powerful and emotional page turner of coming out story. I regularly welled up while reading it.
Not perfect because the syntax and style are marred by a few duff notes. The writing is a little clumsy at times, particularly in the early pages, and, while McVey-Russell has captured the voices of his cast well-enough to be credible to my foreigner's ear, he isn't always quite so assured with his own tone of voice as narrator. Mostly he keeps to a simple, sometimes mildly poetic but always very readable, "neutral" kind of language, but from time to time a discordant and unexpected, admittedly often witty, note is introduced that jars with the flowing melody of his words.
He also has a tendency to suddenly drop new elements on the reader without explanation as if they should already be known (A salient example: the fact that Alphonso and Bill, who have only just met, know each other to be gay and explicitly acknowledge the fact without having discussed it in a prior scene seems incongruous). In the same vein that shows a new author perhaps not completely in control of his story,
The ending could have perhaps been tighter. The book, which is a collection of film-like scenes of varied length, feels like it went a little beyond its natural end, as if the author didn't quite know how or when to let his characters go. Perhaps he simply didn't want to let them go.
The narrative, which follows the syncopated pattern of a dance, two steps forward, one step back, is laced with references to jazz and blues music, with which all the characters appear to be as enamored and knowledgeable as the author himself. Indeed the book comes with its own (not quite complete) playlist. While this cleverly underscores the often bitter sweet experiences of the characters, such a wide-spread interest for those genres, particularly from twenty year olds, feels slightly unlikely.
Thankfully these are only minor niggles that fail to truly distract from a sometimes harrowing, but consistently enthralling story told with incredible warmth. The characters are as alive as they can be, despite the rough corners, and the sense of beleaguered but loving community between the queer characters is both charming and empowering to read about.
The concept of Double Consciousness (which is referenced in the book) defines the psychological challenge African Americans experience of "always looking at one's self through the eyes" of a racist white society and "measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt".
McVey-Russell throws that concept back at the face of intolerant black people from the perspective of their queer brethren. In denouncing the overt homophobia present in sections of the black community, often fueled by religious zealotry, he creates an engrossing and moving ode to acceptance, firmly grounded in contemporaneous historical events, vividly showing how both individuals and the people around them must accept their difference. Not doing so can only mean division and pain for all.
The book is also a denunciation of hypocrisy and self-delusion, as well as an exploration of the complex relationships that can exist between fathers and sons.
"'When I am through with you, all the black folks will despise you forever because you told a lie about the savior of the race.' He said, 'I AM the savior. Sin against me, boy, and you sin against the race.'" (p335)
In addition to being highly readable and quite moving, Sin Against the Race is, I think, an important book that articulates most of the issues faced by young queer black men, from one very familiar with them. It is a shame that it readership seems quite limited (if Goodreads is anything to go buy). I hope this changes. Readers would only be doing themselves a favour in any case.
‘The crisis we face has, most disturbingly and alarmingly, robbed us of a leadership, a voice within our city.’
California author Gar McVey-Russell studied at UCLA where he co-created a left-leaning paper called Free Association. He also wrote commentaries for The Daily Bruin and feature articles for the LGBTQ newsmagazine Ten Percent, for which he received an award. SIN AGAINST THE RACE is his debut publication though he has had articles published in Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993), and other publications.
Gar’s skill as a writer of prose is very close to that of an accomplished poet. His language is beautiful and his ability to create the atmosphere of his story place as well as unveil the minds of his characters, allowing the reader entry into their psyches, is that of a polished professional.
He greets us on an early Monday Morning with the following entry – ‘ Sirens broke Alfonso’s sleep, but when he awoke they’d gone. His mind switched on, he again found himself in the desert of another sleepless night. Disasters stirred in the dimly lit alleys of his mind. Sweat sopped his forehead. Closed eyes longed for sleep. Weariness eventually drifted him into what his cousin Carlton described as a halfway to dawn state, neither dark nor light, neither asleep or awake, He wanted to linger in that state for as long as possible and cocoon himself in ambiguities.’
A moody beginning and a passage that, once the book is finished, is an even more meaningful experience. The language becomes raw when the story requires verbal bulwarks but the flow of the writing continues gently passionate in this very fine coming of age experience of ‘a young gay black man as he progresses from an invisible councilman’s son to a formidable presence in his community.’
Gar’s synopsis shares the plot well – ‘Alfonso Rutherford Berry III—son of a city councilman, grandson of the state’s first African American legislator—believes that history has ordained for him but one life, and it ain’t his first love: dancing. But after a series of tragedies, starting with the death of his fierce, out cousin Carlton, his assumptions explode in his face along with his closet door. Alfonso emerges into the life on a blanket of the jazz and blues he shared with Carlton. He hangs on Carver Street, the queer Northside of his largely black neighborhood. There, he is befriended by Carlton’s familiars: Sammy, a local storekeeper and neighborhood den mother, Bingo, a leather queen and nurse practitioner, Vera, a transgender activist and photographer, and Charlotte, his father’s political rival. At college, he becomes tight with two freshmen: Roy, an aspiring actor and acquaintance from high school and Bill, a new member of his church. He also finds love (and peril) in the form of Jameel, a long-time crush. His new life sets him on a collision course with his father, his church, and the family legacy established by his revered late grandfather.’
Enough said – the pleasure of this excellent novel is in the reading, an experience that leaves the reader assured that Gar Mc-Vey Russell is an important new voice in literature. Highly recommended!
SIN AGAINST THE RACE (2017) by Gar McGreevy-Russell is an outstanding coming of age / coming out story about a young gay Black man. More than that, it's also: (1) a story of difficult fathers and the sons who try to love them, with greater and lesser degrees of success; (2) the ways in which American churches institutionalize homophobia; and (3) the way a community comes together to address oppression directed at it from without and within. Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III is our young protagonist but I was equally taken by his community, the predominantly Black Huckleberry Park ("The Huck") area of an unnamed big city. It occurs to me that I've never actually lived in a "community," per se, just apartment complexes and subdivisions and a small town where I was very much an outsider. Also: I think it's safe to say SIN was strongly influenced by Larry Duplechan's BLACKBIRD, not just the young Gay Black Man Coming of Age but also its exquisite deployment of Jazz to evoke the mood and temperament of its characters, human and geographical.
Sin Against the Race is a page turner for sure. I opened it up while waiting for my daughter to finish some errands and ended up reading it clear through, in nearly one sitting.
The book tackles issues of sexual preference and race in a way that I think nearly everyone can relate to on some level. It's focus is a young, black, gay man, but as an old, straight, white woman, I could easily relate to the issues. I could relate to the issues because the underlying issues are really about how we think the world sees us and how we would like the world to see us. Everyone deals with this at some point, on some level, in life.
When I read the summary for this back, I thought it was set in the past for some reason. Probably the references to jazz and blues. It's actually set in 2015 and provides a great look at what intersectionality means in a person's actual life. I adored Alfonso, and his chosen community. Characters that seemed unredeemable often had complex backstories, much like real life. I loved the look at what it means to be a young, black, gay man in American. The plots involving HIV were also interesting since it shows how science alone won't solve the crisis as long as social issues, accessibility, and shame continue to exist.
In small delicious bites of diary-like entries, we get a full meal of family trauma, heartbreak, politics, and a young man finding himself and his sexuality, all with a memorable soundtrack of jazz and blues. The cast of characters is varied and hauntingly real. Growing up is never easy, but growing a black, gay, and in a religious family, mere survival is an accomplishment.