Family history, personal experiences and a universal coming-of-age theme paint a stunning, realistic picture of racial relations in Spokane in award-winning author Sundee Frazier’s new book “Mighty Inside.”
While the book is listed as historical fiction, the story is fueled by Frazier’s paternal family who was the first Black family to move onto Empire Avenue in the 1940s.
By night, Frazier’s grandfather, William Tucker, snuck through Spokane suburbs, taking note of open houses. By day, a white man posed as Tucker to acquire and eventually purchase a house. White neighbors had protested the family staying in the area, but the family stayed.
“I just wanted to highlight and honor my grandfather,” Frazier said in a recent interview. “That simple act of disobedience was him being himself. He was just a man who did all of these things that society tells Black men they’re not supposed to be way back in the early 20th century. He was a trailblazer and my desire with this novel was to give honor to him.”
Frazier’s grandfather was a common man; He went by “Grampa,” loved fishing, hunting, reading poetry and taking care of his family. And he loved his wife’s meatloaf, barbecue ribs and the trout he caught. Since he was color blind, his favorite color was the only one he could see clearly: blue, which was the color of his Christmas tree lights every year until his death in 1976.
As the main character in “Mighty Inside,” Melvin, represents Frazier’s father. He and his siblings became the first Black children to be raised on Empire Avenue, attending Rogers High School. The book serves as a historical transcript of Spokane’s racial history and what still stands today.
“I very much relied on reporting of my aunt and uncles and Dad who grew up in Spokane in the ’50s and ’60s (people who) totally know that experience of not being biracial but being Black in a predominately white environment and channel their experience,” Frazier said.
In the “Mighty Inside,” Melvin’s family attends the Bethel A.M.E., the Black Episcopal church. It has been a place of worship in Spokane since its opening in 1890 by Reverend A.C. Augustus. Club Harlem was a real, Black-owned space where both Black and white patrons were welcomed, just not on the same days.
At the beginning of Chapter 4, Melvin wonders, “What was Mom bringing to the Jessups’ annual Labor Day cookout?” Frazier acts as an archivist, marrying the past and present depictions of Spokane’s Black community for an accurate setting.
“Despite not having the same opportunities as their white counterparts, by forming civic organizations, Freemasons and other things, (Black families in Spokane) did look out for each other,” Frazier said. “(They) achieved freedom and financial stability and a sense of social acceptance. It was very inspiring.”
With Black perseverance a focal point, Frazier’s prose deserves just as much praise. She finds places to let her words shine and resonate with the audience. Frazier embodies Melvin’s naïve desires, channeling the confusion behind racism, integration and community fears of racial violence. In one of the earlier scenes in the book, Melvin attempts to convey what it’s like to have a stutter. He is the only one in his family “cursed with this particular problem.”
“Every word felt like a fence too high to clear; if he spoke, his tongue would get snagged and he would fall on his face.”
Melvin’s sister, Marian, wears a turquoise and blue plaid skirt with a scarf around her neck. “Instead of pennies in the shoes’ front slots, she had placed dimes, in case she ever needed to call home.”
Tastes of the ’50s are soaked within the story too. Melvin’s teacher, Mrs. Stimson, dishes a lesson about the ongoing Cold War. She has to quiet Melvin and other students after they were in an uproar about Emmett Till’s murder and the gruesome pictures associated with his mother crying over his casket and brutalized body.
But Melvin’s world is also a little more open due to the integration that takes place in the ’50s and ’60s. He has a crush on Millie Takazawa, the daughter of a Japanese American family that owns a shop on Normandie Avenue. His best friend, Larry, is Jewish. Melvin, one of two Black students, has classmates that don’t really understand the impact of racial violence since they don’t live it. He learns to fight against not only racism, but against anti-Semitism. Throughout the story, Melvin learns one of first steps of claiming his own humanity: sticking up for himself and those around him.
“As Melvin learns, confidence comes as we stand up for ourselves and for others who are getting pushed around,” Frazier said. “When we root ourselves in the tradition of people before us who stood their ground, who asserts their equality through their actions, we will find ourselves strengthened before the task at hand.”
This is her fourth book in the children and young adult category. All of them feature children of color and their journey of identity and race. Frazier is Black and white and has mastered the child-like voice in her books after working with kids in atmospheres such as summer programs.
“As a fiction writer who needs to convey the inner emotions of my characters, I mostly draw from my memory of what it was to be a kid,” Frazier said. “I remember what it felt like to feel small but to believe you could do big things, to strive to belong and be an individual at the same time.”
Discussing race relations from a child’s point of view is an integral aspect of the book. With “Mighty Inside” told through the lens of someone transitioning from tween to teenager, there is a potential to discuss race relations on a bite-sized, digestible scale appropriate for young readers.
“There is so much to talk about around historic events and how they intersect with discrimination and distrust of people who are viewed as ‘other,’” Frazier said. “The Cold War, lynching, redlining, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and anti-Semitism. There’s the potential to connect these historic wrongs to today.”
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