I know that I’m super late, but if anybody happens to be later than me, this is a must read! I read this book like I (used to) binge TV series on Netflix, and it’s about 400 pages long. But it reads like you’re watching episodes of TV. It’s Power before Power existed, from a woman-centric perspective.
The book summary:
Ghetto-born, Winter is the young, wealthy daughter of a prominent Brooklyn drug-dealing family. Quick-witted, sexy, and business-minded, this teenage female hustler knows and loves the streets like the curves of her own body. But when a cold wind blows her life in a direction she never expected, her street smarts and seductive skills are put to the test of a lifetime.
That’s not a whole lot to go from. And reading this summary didn’t really prepare me for what I was about to read. So I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it and may think about it, because it was a good surprise. But honestly, this book should be required reading in school, regardless of whether that school is urban or rural, majority POC or the beigest of beige. It made major societal issues digestible and interesting, and could be followed up with any number of more tedious (i.e. textbook/academic journal) approaches to the same topic, since young folk may actually be interested in the topic since it was introduced through a more dynamic and engaging piece of fiction to humanize and provide realistic examples of how things actually happen without the politicization and endless statistics.
The book most obviously speaks to the effects of drugs on a community, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration. You could literally read this book and then follow it up with A New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and it would make Alexander’s book much less overwhelming. You can see how the policies and court cases she talks about actually translate into the arc of people’s lives and entire communities. How the introduction and spread of drugs in the Black community and then the war on drugs from so called “well-intentioned” policy makers (*side eye), depressed a growing social movement and shifted community ideals to see material gain at any cost as the ultimate goal rather than one of liberation and social equity. In one of the exchanges later in the book, a character writes in a letter:
It’s ironic that a young male who had so much more than some young blacks in America, a father, a country, a culture, would end up in the same low-life business that killed his mother, with the same attitude that murdered his father. So you say it’s about your survival huh? If that were true, you would of quit after you accumulated some loot. Maybe started a little legit business, rescued your sister. But no. The money is in your blood. The money is your God. It’s all about the Benjamins. So call it what it is. In life people make choices. We pay for every little choice we make. you traded everyone else’s life for yours. I traded my life for everyone else’s. We don’t belong together.
Drugs is a government game, Bilal. A way to rob us of our best black men, our army. Everyone who plays the game loses. Then they get you right back where we started, in slavery! Then they get to say “This time you did it to yourself.” I won’t play that game (pp. 354)
It sounds oversimplified in this one page, but I think the beauty of the book as a whole is that it took these false dichotomous arguments, and notions of it being just about individual choices, and contextualized them. It provided backstory for how characters get into these situations, where we only see the ending that gets demonized on TV and talking heads pathologize Black people as just being poor decision makers who don’t take advantage of opportunities. In this book you get the additional elements of structural and institutional racism and violence that proscribe individual choices, that push people into paths they don’t necessarily want to take but have to, and then they have to rationalize those “choices” in order to live with themselves.
Another prominently featured subject, that wasn’t necessarily the focus of the book, was public health. There was a lot of sex in this book: A LOT! In nearly every chapter sex was either happening, about to happen, being pursued, or just being thought about in the dialogue. Pretty much every sexual encounter was unprotected, and this book is set in the 90s, so you’re talking about the end of a drug epidemic on top of government officials finally acknowledging that HIV wasn’t just a “gay disease” and was heavily burdening communities of color, and the push for safer sex isn’t making it to the character’s community in a way that resonates with their using a condom. There’s a whole conversation about how condoms aren’t socially acceptable. But beyond just the frequency of sex, there’s also many conversations about the normativeness of early sexual initiation (like at 11 and 12), sexual assault within families, the lack of gynecological exam access and knowledge about the importance of routine exams, and there’s a good bit of dialogue on abortion.
You could also spend the entire book talking about what a healthy relationship looks like. Addressing domestic (interpersonal) violence isn’t always physical and helping young women (and men) identify what emotional abuse looks like, that financial and psychological manipulative control is still abuse. Unhealthy relationships are normalized in the adult relationships in the book, and it becomes exceedingly clear throughout the story, that when the children of those relationships enter into relationships of their own, their internal debate of whether what’s happening is okay or not is based on the dynamics they saw between people growing up, so they rationalize their pain or sadness. The only women characters who don’t engage in this way are largely viewed with suspicion in the book, and it’s a really tangible way of talking about the importance of social norms and health, which can otherwise get drowned in theoretical arguments.
I wrote more than I intended to, but it was a powerful book. You know, you’re required to read so many books or specific authors in high school and college that are considered “seminal” or “classic,” as if there’s a universal experience that young people can relate to from reading these books, and some unifying message that can be derived. And some of them are seminal, I guess. But The Coldest Winter Ever, beyond being an incredible social commentary, is a really great piece of literature. And it just drives home the point of how unbelievably eurocentric, judeo-christian, heteronormative,…, our educational system is and what a disservice it does to everybody. Why am I just reading this book at almost 30? I enjoyed this book much like I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, or Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I think it’s time we rewrite our literature courses, because, at risk of sounding hyperbolic, Sister Souljah holds her own among the greatest novelists.