Telling Our Stories, Preserving Culture

David Nicholson’s Flying Home features cinematic storytelling, rich in lyrical, descriptive language and filled with authentic African- American characters. This debut fiction collection by a former editor of The Washington Post Book World Washington and founder of Black Film Review magazine, reminds us of people and African-American communities we may have forgotten as the old die and neighborhoods become more racially and economically diversified. 

But his powerful stories do not smother us in a nostalgic rendition of all things black. Rather they take us to parts of present day Washington, DC, behind the monuments, the museums and the enclave of federal office buildings. We travel past commercial corridors like U St. NW and H St. NE made popular by journalists who refuse to travel to the city’s bountiful and beautiful interior. 

A native Washingtonian, Nicholson doesn’t place readers in any specific neighborhood, except Chevy Chase, which is predominantly white. His African- American characters refer to “the street” and “the avenue,” although a student of the city’s history and geography would probably assume the latter might be Rhode Island Ave.  But the landmarks— Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and the Howard Theater, for example—and the book’s cover leave little doubt the stories whisper about the lives of folks in the nation’s capital who are not often discussed, except perhaps when sociologists seek to conjure pathologies.

“Living on the street’s like walking into the Sylvan after the picture’s started,” the narrator of “Getting On the Good Foot,” says. “Neville knows he’ll never really understand what he’s watching because he missed all the important stuff.”

The recently arrived to the District of Columbia may have missed much of its development but Nicholson clues them into the good, the remarkable and the extraordinary in the ordinary. He portrays tough boys, like Big Boy Bullock and his crew, who are mostly harmless but with whom young Neville and Wilson do not wish to tangle. 

Nicholson takes readers inside the barbershop, a cultural center, where black males—and some females-- have gathered for more years than I have been on this earth. The barbershop men in “A Few Good Men,” including proprietor Lamarr Jenkins, womanizer Speed, and Hubble tell tall and tender tales. Lloyd Carver, for example, loved a woman so deep and hard, she sent him to the poorhouse and an early grave. As the men close out an evening of cutting heads, shaving faces, and sharing stories, it’s the one relayed by Hubble that leaves everyone in the shop puzzled, and this reader saddened. 

We are allowed to eavesdrop on the quiet evening conversations of maturing black women without men; they counsel each other not to become victims. There are couples, like Daisy and Odis Renfro; he tries to teach his son the definition of manhood, only to be treated to his own refresher course. 

The husbands and wives, married for years, are still learning each other, the depth of their commitment, and the strength of their love to each other, which gets them through the turbulence of life as working class people. In “Seasons,” Nicholson exposes us to the renewal of love and admiration between Tyson and his wife Garnet, who works for a white family in Chevy Chase. A former pitcher with the Dixie Dukes of Washington, DC – a Negro baseball team that mimics the Washington Homestead Grays--Tyson has been telling a story about striking out Babe Ruth. Did it happen as he spun the tale to Jesse, the son of Garnet’s employer? The answer comes when the young boy shows up at Tyson and Garnet’s front door late one night.

In the title story “Flying Home,” Shepherd takes his teen daughter Jessica back to his old neighborhood. He wants her to have a sense of where he came from, and, thus, her own history. But the typical teen moodiness clashes with his good intentions. In the end, she concludes with tearful sadness what he has yet to fully realize. It is an episode that could have been taken from the lives of many blacks who left their neighborhoods, searching for the larger American dream. 

While their names may have been different, I know the people in Nicholson’s book. I have met them in Deanwood, in Bellevue, in Bloomingdale, in Petworth and other parts of the District of Columbia. Truth be told, I knew them in my native New Orleans, La. The Bells, the Barbarans, the Thomas’ and Jacksons lived within a half mile radius of my grandparents home on Mexico Street. Like the folks in DC, they were ordinary people struggling with the challenges of life but their wisdom, invincible spirit and resilience earned my respect and admiration. 

There is much to praise about Nicholson’s book. Each story is told with almost perfect pacing. The language is chosen with precision. The cadence of each character’s dialogue is authentic, reminding us of the way so many of our friends and neighbors speak. And each narrative opens wide the African-American culture and communal history with care and unabashed affection. The only slight jolt in the collection is the appearance of Jimi Hendrix. But maybe that’s just me. 

Constance McLaughlin Green wrote back in the late 1960s, a book that captured an aspect of Washington behind closed doors. “The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital” was a groundbreaking work of nonfiction.  While Nicholson hasn’t written an overt race book, he provides a contrasting view of black and white neighborhoods and a glimpse inside their relationship, mostly as employee and employer.  But never do the black characters trade their dignity and integrity.

Nicholson’s “Flying Home” is a welcome addition to the canon of African-American literary fiction. Folks interested in knowing the real Washington, DC—the one that continues to exist, despite tales of its demise, may want to pick up a copy of this wonderful collection.

Flying Home is being released June 2, 2015.  Pre-orders are being taken by