Disgruntled by Asali Solomon is the story of Kenya Curtis, the only child of two black nationalists living in West Philadelphia. The other children in the neighborhood find her family’s beliefs strange, and Kenya comes of age as an outsider.

With only one friend at school, the highlight of Kenya’s social life is listening to her parents’ and their friends’ political gatherings, where race and philosophy are discussed. This eclectic group, called the Seven Days, serves as Kenya’s surrogate family.

Kenya’s charismatic father Johnbrown proves to have the most extreme views, admiring Julian Carlton, a “disgruntled” employee of Frank Lloyd Wright who responds to his sudden firing with a murderous rage.

Admiration of this murder spree could have come across as delusional or even evil. But, in Johnbrown’s case, the admiration seems more metaphorical, the admiration of the urge to destroy a racist society that can’t be redeemed any other way.

Johnbrown was raised in the upper middle class suburbs, his mother a teacher and his father a pharmacy owner. His childhood did not lack for material comforts, but it seems to have been largely silent on the issue of racial justice. The gentle, yet passive upbringing might be part of the reason why Johnbrown’s approval of violence is both intense and largely philosophical.

The most violence he can bring himself to is property damage—vandalizing local police stations.

Because the book is told from Kenya’s perspective, it is hard to determine the exact mix of selfishness and idealism driving Johnbrown. Johnbrown refuses to get a “square job”; he’s too busy working on his magnum opus, a sprawling work of black philosophy. Supporting the family is left to Kenya’s mother Sheila, and, over time, she seems increasingly aggrieved by this skewed division of labor.

Eventually, their arrangement becomes unsustainable, and to Kenya’s dismay, her parents, and then the Seven Days, break up. Sheila and Kenya take off to the suburbs, and Kenya is sent, on scholarship, to an almost all white private school.

Once again, Kenya is on the periphery of the social sphere she finds herself in—this time, not because of her strange Afro-centric beliefs, but because she is lower middle class and black in a white, wealthy enclave. She joins a small group of other misfits, not so much because she likes them, but because she decides it is better to be with them than to be all alone.

Like most good books, Disgruntled is simultaneously interestingly particular, and universal. It journeys through different ways of being black in the 1980s and 1990s, but it also illustrates what it is like to grow up as an outsider. The latter is a universal experience, something that happens in every culture. There is always someone who doesn’t fit in with the dominant values.

Solomon masterfully illustrates the hardships of the role of outsider: the loneliness, the shame, and the insecurity. But she also illustrates the benefits: the heightened perception, the empathy for suffering, and the independence of thought. Ultimately, she shows how vulnerability can be turned into strength, but also the tenuousness of that: sometimes people break instead. It isn’t a foregone conclusion they will find their way.

KELLY SARABYN

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Kelly Sarabyn
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