QC Blues: Mayhew Highlights Little-known Era of Charlotte History in “Tomorrow’s Bread”

Every town and city, any place we call home with pride likely has within itself some less-than-desirable era or characteristic. For my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, this era hit its zenith during the 1960s, as the city sought to dismantle the predominantly Black Brooklyn community that was then located in Second Ward, which is primarily downtown. They saw “blight,” a lot of which did truly exist yes, but they also envisioned a chance to make a lot more money by establishing what would become one of the world’s premier banking centers.
Anna Jean Mayhew fictionalizes the events leading to this hostile takeover of sorts in her 2019 novel Tomorrow’s Bread, a tite derived from a Langston Hughes poem that calls on us all to stand up for what we need today rather than waiting for some promised tomorrow that might then never arrive. It centers on Loraylee Hawkins, a young Black mother who works at the S and W cafeteria, one of the great diners of that area, as a server. The portion of the story which she directly tells is written in partial dialect so that the reader gets a feel for how she and those around her talked. She stayed with her grandmother, whom she called “Bibi,” and her uncle Ray. Bibi experiences memory loss and must thus be watched very closely, while Uncle Ray acts as a father figure for her child whom they call “Hawk”. As is a truism in the Black community about which many often joke, nearly all of the people in this book have nicknames.
Also true is the idea of a multi-generational family living in a somewhat rundown abode that they nevertheless own with pride. As their house is threatened by the coming “urban renewal,” Loraylee interacts with Persy Marshall, the wife of one of the most zealous attorneys who wishes to set these changes in motion. This alters Persy’s feelings about things, and she works to try and influence her husband to little avail.
Throughout his relatively short piece, we see ways in which segregation had and hadn’t changed, and the impact this had on the psyche of Black folks and white folks alike. Potential relationships not to be, trips to the beach and other waterways fraught with possible danger, and the little regard given to those who were powerless to control their ultimate destinies. Against all that tragedy though, Mayhew displays a city vibrant with fun and chaos as well, taking us into a local juke joint, a locally owned grocery store, and a shoe repair shop, to name a few. As a Charlottean myself, I learned a lot about this city from which I originate with pride, some of which I liked and some of which made me very sad. I also enjoyed the many bits that brought back childhood memories, such as radio stations, churches and street with which I am familiar. Overall, this is the most complete portrayal of the Queen City I have ever come across, as so many other novels that purport to take place there feel as if they could have been set anywhere. I think locals especially but everyone who wants to understand the possible harms and benefits of Urban renewal generally should check this book out.

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