Alice Randall isn’t an author that typically is at the top of many readers’ lists, having written several solid quietly received novels in the past and a few nonfiction works. But her latest, Black Bottom Saints, proves that Randall deserves more attention and a place on to-read lists. Framed as a combination book of saints and collection of cocktails to honor each individual, the book of saints nominal author is Joseph ‘Ziggy’ Johnson, real-life gossip columnist for the African-American Michigan Chronicle and acclaimed dancer and showman who was at the center of the ‘Black Camelot’ of Detroit in the mid twentieth century. It’s a brilliant choice; Randall writes Ziggy with a true sense of the raconteur, expertly reeling in his audience, here to entertain as much as educate. His voice is warm and full of life, and each of the fifty-two individual portraits is affectionate, even for the saints with more complicated and tenuous relations to Ziggy and his beloved Black Bottom neighborhoods. For Ziggy, Black Bottom is as much an attitude as it is a place, a sense of holding one’s head up and using dance as victory. Some of the names are familiar: Sammy Davis, Jr., Martin Luther King, Dinah Washington and Night Train Lane solidly hold their places in history. Others are not as well known, and much of the fun of Black Bottom Saints is discovering more about the characters that deserve more attention. Among them are Bricktop, the doyenne of café society who taught the future Duke of Windsor the Black Bottom dance; Marc Stepp, the powerful UAW boss whose work ensured the future of Detroit’s assembly line breadwinners; LGBTQ activist Ruth Charlotte Ellis, who came out in 1915 (!); and most poignantly Tanya Blanding, the four year old girl shot and killed by a Michigan state trooper during the 1967 riots that marked the end of Black Bottom.
Randall’s fiction always tends to carry an autobiographical element, and many of the saints’ portraits are prefaced by the thread of another story running through the novel. Colored Girl, or C. G. for short, recalls her own Detroit upbringing, and eventual exile from her supportive father and the community of Black Detroit. C.G.’s interjections serve the practical purpose of framing how Ziggy’s book came to light and illustrates his goal of ensuring Black Bottom and the attitude it represented lives on into the future. But the real stars of Black Bottom Saints are Ziggy and his saints. Randall’s previous experience as a songwriter shines through in the rhythm of her sentences, and the stories burst with all that life offers, love and pride, bitter and sweet, whetting the appetite for more. These Black Bottom saints, Ziggy most of all, are well worth some devotion, with an appropriate libation raised in their honor.