Celebrating the history of Detroit’s Black ‘saints’

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In the introduction of her amazing new novel, “Black Bottom Saints,” Alice Randall turns the talking over to the one, the only, Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson — the legendary emcee, newspaper columnist and dance theater teacher who held court in Detroit, from 1938 to 1968. Beginning in the ’30s, Black Bottom was Detroit’s most well known residential neighborhood for African Americans. It was destroyed in the early-’60s to make way for an expressway, a housing and a medical center.

As the reader joins the story, Ziggy is dying and he uses his remaining time to remember the “saints” who have moved through his memorable life. Randall uses the unusual literary conceit to tell the story of Ziggy and Black Bottom, which was Detroit’s equivalent to New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville.

The book’s 52 brief chapters borrow strongly from the Catholic “Lives of Saints,” with Ziggy sitting back reviewing his life and the life of the “saints,” who filled his columns in Detroit’s African-American newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle, or walked into the lobby of the Gotham Hotel, Detroit’s premier Black hotel, where Ziggy lived.

There are the well known saints, such as Joe Louis, Robert Hayden, Ethel Waters, Dick 'Night Train' Lane, Martin Luther King Jr., Della Reese, LaVern Baker and Eartha Kitt, and the lesserknown that we still should know, such as Elsie Roxborough, the “first colored woman to go the University of Michigan and live in the dorms,” and Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old girl who was shot dead during the Detroit riot of 1967.

Then there is Lynette Dobbins Taylor, the spouse of African American entrepreneur Hobart Taylor — the first African American woman to dance at an inauguration with a president, Lyndon Johnson. Taylor was the first female elementary school principal in Detroit, and her husband, Hobart Taylor, was the first person to coin the phrase “affirmative action.”

At the end of each chapter, Randall adds another interesting technique by adding a special drink recipe for each saint. For example, Berry’s sister, Anna Gordy, has a drink called “Step Follows Gaze,” which includes a jigger of Old Tom Gin, 1 pony of orange juice and a dash of orange bitters. Just add ice and shake.

The names of the drinks, “The Will and the Skill,” “Union Card” and “Fun House Mirror,” a paean to Maxine Powell, an etiquette and style consultant to the stars, are as tantalizing as the saints themselves. Why cocktails? First, Ziggy was the emcee at two popular Black nightclubs, The Flame Show Bar and the 20 Grand Lounge.

Randall said the idea for drink recipes draws on the experience of Tom Bullock, the first African American to write a cocktail recipe book, “The Ideal Bartender.”

Randall said she has always had a close relationship with Ziggy.

“Not only was he a family friend, but I took dance and theater lessons from him at the Ziggy Johnson School of Theatre. My father would read his columns to us and he was the first writer I knew and he inspired me to be a writer,” she said.

Randall also uses another interesting literary technique. Each chapter begins with a short commentary by Mari, whom Randall calls, “Colored Girl” or “CP.” CP’s story is told in tandem with that of Ziggy’s. Although not autobiographical, CP is the default author of the saints and tells her own story.

Randall said she considered more than 100 potential saints before trimming it to the 52. Note: She cheats a little, since there are actually 61 saints in the book.

Ziggy — like thousands of other African American Michiganders — would also make his way north to Idlewild, The Black Eden, on summer weekends. It was there he crossed paths with another important saint, Arthur “Daddy” Braggs, another emcee or “ringleader,” as Ziggy calls him. Braggs was responsible for booking acts into the legendary Idlewild nightclubs. Ziggy writes: “There are so many white convertible Cadillacs up there in Idlewild you can’t tell where folks spent the night — unless you get a good look at the license plates.”

Randall said she has always been attracted to Michigan.

“Michigan is just an exciting state. It’s rising from the ashes, which no city knows more about. Michigan has always been living on the frontier and the intersection of art and industry,” she said.

Randall, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, said, “I first started to see the world from Detroit.”

The author is also a believer that Detroit has been a powerful influence for African American women.

She said the year following her own birth the 1960 census showed 122, 808 Black girls living in Detroit. “This story is their story. The root of “Black girl magic” runs straight through Detroit,” Randall said.

The author said she spent years researching the saints in the book and pouring through microfilm of the Michigan Chronicle to find Ziggy’s columns in order to piece together his life in contemporary Detroit.

“Black Bottom Saints” is Randall’s fifth novel, including the 2001 best seller, “The Wind Done Gone,” a parody of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” She also co-wrote a 1995 country western hit for Trisha Yearwood, which she said perfectly fits the urban-rural roots of Detroit. One of the courses she teaches at Vanderbilt covers Detroit writers.

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