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Welcome back, Miah Jeffra!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired over the past twelve months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Miah Jeffra, whose novel American Gospel will be published in early 2023. American Gospel will be Miah’s second title with Black Lawrence Press. His short story collection The Violence Almanac was published earlier this year.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our June Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies), anthology proposals, and translations from German. 

 

 

The Author

Miah Jeffra is author of The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), the chapbook The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2021). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review, The Pinch, The Greensboro Review, DIAGRAMjubilat and Barrelhouse. Miah is a founding editor of Whiting Award-winning queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press, and teaches writing and antiracist studies at Santa Clara University.

 

On Writing American Gospel

 

American Gospel is actually my very first book project, a love letter to my hometown, Baltimore. I wanted to capture its identity crisis—a northern town south of the Mason-Dixon, a black majority city yet with one of the most extreme cases of racial inequity in the U.S. I wanted to also capture its beauty, its corruption, and the racialized violence associated with urban renewal projects. All three of the main characters—Ruth Anne, Peter and Thomas—are a composite and reflection of my complicated relationship with the city. However, the starring character in the novel is Baltimore itself, how it fastens itself to its history, how it stumbles into its future. 

 

Prelude: April

 

The morning sky was a single, flat layer of matte gray. There was no betrayal of a sun peeking through, no suggestion of blue. The halcyon haze compelled the brick to crackle the air with its fire color. Matter, indeed, made of fire.

On the front steps of King Middle School, beyond the plastic orange safety fence that surrounded the soon to be abandoned school, residents of Ellwood Park assembled—with posters, with signs made of foam-core and rulers, broomsticks and duct tape.

Some of the protesters thought at first it was their own burning that rendered the brick so alive on this particular morning. Of course, the art teacher, one of the first several hundred protestors of many more to come, whose studio classroom faced the street on the second floor of King Middle, knew that this was the ideal light for photographing the city. The soft, even gray of the sky acted as the perfect white balance for the camera, for the eye, and made all other colors more manifest. She would have shared this insight with eighth graders in her 2D Art class during 3rd and 5th periods in the Fall term, if she had not been reassigned to a middle school in the county, if King Middle had not announced that this Spring term would be its last.

Reverend Arnold James, of All Friends Baptist Church, emerged at the top of the steps. He waited for the crowd to lower its chatter, its early-morning excitement. He wore an olive green double-breasted suit with a tan checkered tie, like a high-class camouflage. The crowd settled even more when they heard him tapping the microphone attached to the portable amp.

“It is so good to see so many folks out here on this gloomy day. Hopefully, the march to Patterson Park will warm our bodies up.” The crowd clapped and whistled, began hoisting their signs into the air:

            Housing is a Right!

            Save Our Neighborhood!

            Crabtown Is A Joke!

            Would This Happen in a White Neighborhood?

More people arrived. And before churches opened their doors for first Sunday session, the crowd had grown to over 1,000. If one saw the congregation from above, they might mistake the image for an ancient Greek amphitheater during Dionysia, a radial band surrounding a single man. And the chorus between them, evenly spaced apart: six uniformed police officers, standing stoic between James and the protestors, between the orator and his audience, a thin white line. People began practicing their chants:

            No Justice, No Peace!

            Impeach the Fools, Save our Schools!

Soon, a new wave of participants arrived, a younger group, mostly men. They stood on the fringes of the crowd, their gaze sideways, shifting stance from one foot to the other, an energy in their bodies that seemed uncontainable, that pulsed in their veins, that could escape and break brick. Pastor James noticed these men during his rally speech, and if one was particularly perceptive, they would have heard the slight change, the minute hesitation, in his voice, not quite as resounding in its conviction. If one had been more perceptive, they would have also seen the alarm in the police officers surveying the crowd as James roused the rally, would have seen Officer Nathan Borofsky glance at his squad—each of them nod in return—and subtly tilt his head towards the left and speak into his shoulder microphone. And, if one were especially perceptive, they might have discerned by the movement of his mouth that Borofsky had requested backup under the auspice of a potential 10-15, a potential 10-34.

The news trucks rolled up, a new layer to the throng. The reporters and cameramen and grips and boom operators scurried around the crowd to locate a spot, their best angle, sometimes interrupting those on the fringe of the rally, running into their signs, tripping on feet, protestors vocal in their annoyance. One of the cameramen said to his assistant, “This is way bigger than we thought.” The assistant nodded, seemingly transfixed by the closing remarks of Pastor James.

“Are you ready to march for justice?”

The rally cheered, and with that, several crowd leaders ushered the protestors to move along Lakewood Avenue, towards the park.

Feet shuffled, pushed forward, searching for cadence amidst the dense lot, arms raised to hold signs high.

            No Justice, No Peace!

Arnold James followed behind. He kept an eye on the boys, the young ones with their sideways glances. None of them looked familiar, had never attended the neighborhood meetings, the town halls at the school. Were they even residents of the east side? He watched them lurking the edges of the march, their limbs less purposeful, too loose for James to feel any comfort in their presence.

            No Justice, No Peace!

Not even two blocks into the march, Borofsky’s backup arrived, eight vehicles, directly ahead of the mass. The screech of the tires on asphalt, the hurried exit of the officers, made the marchers instinctually jerk back, and then, with even more conviction, press forward.

Borofsky flinched and muttered a small “fuck” under his breath. Couldn’t the cars have parked further up Lakewood, out of sight of the march, been in position by the time the crowd passed by? He knew the conspicuous entrance would appear confrontational. He hoped the new officers would quickly fall into formation, line Lakewood as they had been instructed, before any fear or agitation could sweep over the crowd.

            No Justice, No Peace!

But it was too late. Stray cats on the corner could taste the metal in their back teeth. The air was crackling with stares and wound bodies. The anger harbored deep in the hearts of the crowd—an anger that was so entire and encompassing that none of them could see its origin—surfaced, rising from their organs, through ribcages, creeping through muscles, and into the thin layer of skin, all nerves triggered, alight and charged.

As the crowd approached the scrambling officers, their chants grew louder. Some marchers now faced sideways, towards the cops, instead of forward. For a few, the chants became something else, closer to a cry. They chanted for something more, beyond the neighborhood, something that bore a history older than the brick that surrounded them. And one woman, thrusting her sign like a shield instead of a flag, added to the chant:

            No Justice, No Peace. No More Racist Police!

Quickly, the modified chant, the desire so great for something larger to channel the pain of the crowd, surged through the rest of the marchers.

And then it happened, as it does, the great need for the laden current to jump circuit, the crave for discharge: from crowd to mob.

A woman threw her sign at the police officer in front of her, tears in her eyes. She cried not for her neighborhood, not at this moment, but for her fifteen year-old son, who now lived paralyzed on his entire left side from being beaten by police for resisting arrest during a random street check. Almost immediately after the woman hurled her sign, two officers grabbed her, wrenched her to the ground. The woman scratched at the officers, the fury a fluid, something to fill. Several protestors shrieked at the sight.

“Calm down, ma’am,” the larger officer said.

“Don’t you call me ma’am,” the woman yelled, waving her arms in hopes to connect to something, to scratch, to catch, to grab at retribution. Her son had been hanging with friends on a stoop during the street check, and refused to be humiliated in front of his new girlfriend when police ordered him to get on his knees. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. Three batons made contact with his spine before it was over.

The officers struggled to keep hold of the woman, her arms flinging. The larger officer restraining her—perhaps in a moment of frustration, but also something else that was lodged deep in him, that summoned his father’s voice, news casts, stories around BBQs, ridiculing laughter, that twitched the muscles in his crisp blue uniform, a metallic bite of feeling from somewhere hiding behind his guts, that slid out of the shadows of his organs, and rose up to his mouth and pulled his lips into a snarl—hoisted the woman up by the back of her hoodie a full six inches off the road and slammed her back to the asphalt. Upon doing this, the metallic bite abated, his fear and regret immediately flooded him. “Now,” his voice trembled, “keep it together.”

A voice, strident and clear amidst the inchoate cloud of noise, exclaimed, “She’s bleeding!”

Indeed, she was. And, the crowd saw. And many screamed at the sight.

The officers surrounded the scene, faced the encroaching crowd. “Get back,” they yelled. Some pulled out their batons, lifted their elbows in preparation. A woman was pushed forward, a baton met her shoulder. A scream. Men in the crowd began to ram through, their hands collapsing into protective fists, fists for their wives, their children, for their homes, and their history. Another baton raised. More screams. Then a rock thrown, a piece of metal.

And this is how it ends, and this is how it begins.