CINDERS: Stories of an Inner-City Survivor

By Cindy Brown Austin

Heliotrope Books | 2016 | 276 pages | $15.50

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

author Cindy Brown Austin

“No Name in the Street”

One of the literary highlights of the recently concluded Age of Obama was the gradual and then sudden renaissance regarding the legacy of James Baldwin.

In recent years, Baldwin’s famously searing essay-collections (Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name) have been alluded to, quoted from, rediscovered, and enshrined anew in all sorts of categories: Social History, Race Relations, African-American History, Gender Studies, World Literature, American Studies, and so on.

Two of James Baldwin’s book-length essays (The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work) have also been excavated like the long-lost treasures they are, and amid all the arguments and debates about everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the meaning of the Age of Obama, the mind of James Baldwin has been celebrated.

But, the missing link in this much-needed rediscovery of Baldwin’s varied works is his 1972 book-length essay No Name in the Street. That work, written and published in the aftermath of the 1960s, is a post-revolutionary lamentation. It is also a template for Cindy Brown Austin’s CINDERS: Stories of an Inner-City Survivor.

In addition to being a remarkable writer, Cindy Brown Austin shares another trait with the late, great Baldwin.  She is steeped in what is known as “street ministry,” and her commitment to her perennial efforts to help others who are down and out (in manifold ways) is a living, breathing form of faith – not a once-weekly exercise.

Hartford, Connecticut, is the red-hot center of this memoir. It’s where Cindy Brown Austin has lived and worked for decades. And, it’s where she’s witnessed a type of chronic indifference to the deprivations of the black community that most of white, wealthier Connecticut can afford to look away from. The infamous 2012 Newton massacre of 20 elementary schoolchildren (mostly Caucasian) earned the attention of the world press and especially American media, for weeks on end. Months, even.

But as CINDERS makes clear, from beginning to end, such unspeakable violence and mayhem have been occurring incrementally in Hartford to mostly African-American children for a long, long time. Yet, little attention has been paid to their tragic fates.

The power and precision of Cindy Brown Austin’s prose merits lengthy quotation. Here’s how she draws in readers to her grim, troubling subject matter:

You had to be there, in the thick of it, to really understand what happened to us poor urban kids, growing up in an affluent place like Connecticut. The third wealthiest state in the country after Maryland, New Jersey, and Hawaii, there were forty-six other states with fewer resources, less income than Connecticut. But growing up, I always imagined they’d be far more humane in the way they took care of their children and in the dignity they accorded their poor. I definitely couldn’t imagine any place being worse.

“For myself and many of my comrades who came of age in my era, growing up black in Connecticut was like being a stranger in your own land, a guest who had overstayed his welcome in someone else’s home. And although they didn’t necessarily say it, you could feel the restless hostility, the sullen impatience of the host family, anxiously waiting for you to pack up and leave. But where was home if not in the place you were born and raised—and where were we expected to go?

“These are our stories, Connecticut Stories from the Underground. They were written not to accuse or blame anyone. They were written because forgetting about what happened to us would be like forgetting the Nazi war camps and other atrocities of history. Telling our stories is the only way I know to explain what racism and poverty can do to children, to people.”

The very first anecdote that CINDERS presents comes straight from the author’s own Sunday-afternoon experience. We read of a Sunday back in 2014, when after church services and a light lunch, it comes to the attention of Cindy Brown Austin that the young children playing upstairs are, in fact, not at play with toys or dolls or Legos.  Instead, some 3-year-olds are using a stuffed animal to act out what they call “Bury.”  A stuffed rabbit is being waked and buried as if it were a neighborhood kid. 

In short: Children not yet old enough to attend Kindergarten re-create funerals for other children, who they all know, at any time, might be killed by a stray bullet.

From that stunner of a true-life tale, CINDERS then evolve into a book-length narrative that is equal parts story collection, meditation, indictment, and most of all a grievous lamentation for lost hopes, shattered dreams, and perpetual urban blight.

Cindy Brown Austin is a former staff columnist for the Hartford Courant and also a licensed Apostolic minister. Her language soars with vibrant Biblical cadences and vivid incantations worthy of Jeremiah; and her memoir combines autobiographical scope (recapitulating the author’s coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s) with devastating testimonials, one after another.

Here’s another example of her pulverizing style:

“But like many of the other kids in the project, my public interactions with whites outside the neighborhood were not usually pleasant. As a little girl, I grew up sensing their icy hostility, the vibe that let me know I wasn’t welcome in their stores. And how many times had I seen them yank their children back and away from us if we happened to share a public space? It was as if we were infected with some kind of lethal contamination or virus, as if breathing the same air would kill them.

“As a little girl, I was afraid of white people and saw them the way they’d wanted me to at that time; as a special breed best left to themselves.

“When my mother took my sisters and me out of the project for day trips downtown, white people stared at us as if we belonged in cages, like it pained them to be near us, like we were trespassers in our own country.

“Our faces, our clothes, our banter, seemed to always meet with their disapproval, and white sales people were always trailing us closely in department stores as if they wanted us to decide what we wanted quickly so that we could leave or as if they expected that we had come in to steal something.”

It is a tribute to the author’s indomitable spirit and faith that the fifth and final part of her memoir is titled “Hope.” And yet, Cindy Brown Austin is no Pollyanna.

Even at the end of this impressive, engaging, and deeply unsettling work, there is nothing but conflict, tension, and distress to report. Wherever she goes, the author notes how fiscal policies (especially in the higher education rackets, where endless fees and extra charges for required courses leave her, at age 50, just shy of finally receiving her diploma) and tangled bureaucratic obstacles are always in place.

Nonetheless, it is both hope and a transcendent kind of fortitude that makes Cindy Brown Austin vow to go on. She walks her talk; lives her faith; and does all that she can to enhance the lives of those for whom she practices her “street ministry.”

If there is any justice beneath the moon, one hopes that this blistering memoir will not only shine a light on Cindy Brown Austin (who was once the subject of a New York Times feature), but also lure readers to her 2007 debut novel, appropriately titled By the Rivers of Babylon. As a writer and as a witness, she is luminous.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.)

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