The Seven Days meet every week. They descend on Kenya’s house, circling around her father, their leader, with energy, awe and a deep desire to bring change to their community in West Philadelphia. Every week the Seven Days chronicle their efforts to effect positive change (one day every week is dedicated to such activities) in their community. They gather over bottles of wine, spinning vinyl. A glass of wine is passed around the table. Each member sips the wine, pours some in a bowl and evokes the name of a martyr in the battle for Civil Rights: Malcolm X, George Jackson, Nat Turner, “everyone [has] a favorite martyr.”
JohnBrown, Kenya’s father, is the charismatic leader of an eccentric group of Black nationalists living and working in West Philadelphia in the late 1980s. JohnBrown, in his quest to be black enough (to prove his worth and identity to himself), eschews education, questions the necessity of desegregation, and skewers anyone whose opinion differs from his (but he does so in a way that inspires loyalty among this small group—up to a point).
Kenya is a fourth grader at the novel’s opening, one who equally admires and is confused by her father’s brilliance. He doesn’t work, not really. Instead he writes a manifesto of sorts: a project he calls “the key” which uses black philosophy to provide a “way of living for nonblack peoples who were enlightened.” He is an extremist who loves to undermine the police and is eventually jailed for vandalizing police stations, but not before a series of terrible events sunders Kenya, her mother, and the Seven Days. Everything changes with one confession, with the ringing of one gun shot.
Race is an impossible double bind, one that I cannot write about with any authority or real comfort because I am a middle class Caucasian American. Solomon intimates that being black is not simply a matter of skin color and that an African American can be viewed as not black enough, can be marginalized within their already marginalized identity. JohnBrown fears this, his own middle class upbringing and lighter-skinned parents make him question his own authority and sense of self. His extreme behavior is the result of constantly proving his identity to himself and the world.
Kenya’s mother, Sheila, both loves and is exasperated by her husband’s passion, his tirades and tyrannical rants about justice, civil rights and the government. She agrees with him, but only to a point. When opportunity allows she watches soap-operas, perms her air, and drives an expensive car. Rejecting material goods is a much easier philosophy to live by when the means for material goods are not available. Kenya pinballs between the two extremes her parents come to represent, neither identity one she feels comfortable in.
The shame of being alive is another theme of Kenya’s evolution from an alienated fourth grader, to a confused adolescent, to a young woman searching for her true place in the world. Kenya, and readers, struggle to understand what JohnBrown means by “the shame of being alive.” Some things are nothing to be ashamed of: bodily functions, being poor, and feeling lonely. Being black is certainly nothing to be ashamed of (though folks might try to make Kenya feel said shame). Kenya hears this phrase in her “father’s voice; it wafted in and out of consciousness like the chorus of a song.” He “provided the language for this shame” and Kenya sees how her parents “created a world of opportunity for her to experience it.”
This brave, provocative novel explores our nation’s horrific history of inequality, the dissolving ties of a Black nationalist family, and a journey of self discovery that feels both universal and personal. The dialogue is fresh, the characters are so detailed that they breathe. The explorations of race, sexuality and identity leave readers breathless, and Kenya steals our hearts. This is an important novel and an entertaining one. The events and relationships unfold in complicated swathes, tying back to each other in ways that are surprising but familiar. This story feels true yet possesses a stunning creativity. Kenya’s story—the highs and lows, the paradoxes of living and the bewildering adult world seen through the eyes of a child—leave readers disgruntled, with a deeper understanding of what being black in America might mean.