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For Tiphanie Yanique, Black Love Comes With Baggage

“Oakland Gomorrah” travels to 1989, when Gary Lovett — who later will beget Fly — is on the run from the voices in his head with his white girlfriend, Ellie. In later stories, Ellie will continue to haunt Gary’s future wife (and Fly’s mother), a Black woman named Ellenora, from a photo frame he keeps on their mantel. For now, the interracial couple’s escape route from San Francisco to Memphis, “a winding penance,” comes to an abrupt halt at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. What was meant to be one stop on their journey quickly becomes a fork in their road.

In later tales, Fly will be scared to lose his marbles the way his father has, both figuratively and literally. Marbles become a touchstone as Fly holds them in his hands, his mouth, as he moves through all the pockets of his Black boy adolescence, into Black adulthood, Black love.

We need the touchstone, we crave it as the stories go on, jumping in time and between different perspectives: Fly, Ellenora, a third-person omniscient narrator, Stela’s mother, nicknamed Mermaid, who grew up orphaned in St. Thomas. As Stela’s stepfather puts it, “It takes a village to raise a child. But I can tell you honestly that it takes an ancestry to make a man or a woman.”

An ancestor is more than just an antecedent, and the short stories stand mighty on their own. The transitions between these distinct voices are sometimes jarring. This is intentional: As in life, the chapters are shaped, shaken, cut short by what it means to be an American — Black American, American immigrant, Caribbean American, qualify and hyphenate at will. Again and again the characters fail to understand one another, fail to speak the same language. They are trapped in “Othello”-like tragedies of miscegenation, because of course multiculturalism is the thing the characters all have in common, the most American thing there is, and the thing that keeps derailing their happiness.

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