As national outrage about police brutality and bias in the criminal justice system against African Americans has reached a crescendo, Sister Souljah’s latest novel, A Moment of Silence (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, $27.99), drops her character Midnight right in the middle of such a storm. He encounters crooked cops, lying detectives, dismissive judges and a population of incarcerated black men with no hope for the future. The novel, set in the mid-1980s, is the third in her series about the Sudanese immigrant, a young, devout Muslim with two wives who also happens to be a dangerous ninja warrior fighting for his freedom in Rikers Island using the few resources at his disposal: his incredible discipline, his faith and his major butt-kicking skills. Oh, and a good lawyer.
Sister Souljah has had plenty to say about the criminal justice system and race relations since her days as a rapper and activist in the early ’90s. Her controversial commentary on American racism put her at odds with many, including President Bill Clinton, who condemned her as divisive (the “Sister Souljah moment” of legend). She used rap tracks to galvanize the black community, most notably in Terminator X’s 1991 song Buck Whylin’, where she issued a call to arms: “We are at war!” Decades later, as the country has begun to keep tabs on the rising body count of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement, Sister Souljah’s frustration and outrage from the post-Rodney King era does not seem misplaced.
Along with her activism, Sister Souljah has been prodigiously writing for the past two decades. She penned a bestseller, The Coldest Winter Ever, which recently was optioned for film. “It’s going to be an independent film but well done, with the right people,” she says. That book spawned the Midnight series, in which Sister Souljah uses her signature style, which blends street slang with straightforward prose, to create a story that blurs the lines between fiction, self-help and social commentary.
Q. You started writing as a platform for your activism with “No Disrespect,” which was autobiographical. What made you decide to write fiction?
A: I actually started writing when I was young living in the projects in the Bronx, with a series of letters to my mother, about things I had questions about, things I disagreed with. The reason I wrote the letters was because I would always get in trouble for my tone of voice. If I wrote down my concerns, I couldn’t get slapped for them. So I actually have been writing for a full lifetime.
Q: Your fiction blends a lot of topics about which you are passionate — self-respect, financial independence, reverence for women — into Midnight’s story. Have you found fiction to be a more effective vehicle for these sorts of lessons?
A: Different people receive their life lessons in different formats. With fiction, you reach the kind of people who need it to not be a rigid lecture formula.
Q: You spend a lot of time explaining in detail the ways Midnight makes his money. Why was that important to the story?
A: I come from a background of financial poverty. I come from the projects and welfare cheese and free peanut butter and Medicaid, and there is a total loss of control over our finances, our lives. So as a child I spent a lot of time really confused about how this money situation works and about why my family doesn’t have any money. Why we are searching through pockets and clothes looking for coins. For the population of the poor in this country, trying to figure out how to become someone who earns money and what the rules are for it to become a legal thing, you spend a lot of time thinking about that.
Q: Did you decide to place Midnight in a situation where he must deal with law enforcement because it gave you an opportunity to comment on the issues of the criminal justice system that have become part of the public debate in the last few years?
A: No, I don’t write in reaction. I am not a reactionary writer. I come from a population of people where at least 25 percent of the African males are either incarcerated or under some kind of court supervision. I come from a background where many families are managed by the justice system. This is an ongoing thing, and it has been going on forever. It’s just a reality.
Q: Why do you think these issues are suddenly reemerging in the public discourse?
A: For many years the authority had the benefit of the false assumption of racial superiority, and that meant that when the police said something happened in a particular way, everyone, including the court, took the word of the police over the citizen. But in the digital society, everyone of every race and class has a cellphone and is recording; now it’s difficult to get away with your crimes being unknown. I think also some of the white population is now shocked because some of the things they believed in are being shown to be false.
Q: How do you think the dialogue about race has shifted since you were a young activist?
A: I think meaningful dialogue can only be had if it includes people who have studied the issues, and I think that’s how the dialogue has changed. When I was younger we had so many different leaders who were qualified, who were lawyers, Congress people, people who studied or who were even affected by the system and because we were affected we studied it. I think the dialogue is more likely to lead to change if people are included in the conversation that understand how to talk about the issues. Certain people who should be navigating the conversation are locked out of the conversation.
Q: Considering your exchange with Bill Clinton all those years ago, could you ever vote for Hillary Clinton?
A: I don’t have a preferred candidate, and that’s the most I want to say about that right now.
Meet the author
Who: Sister Souljah
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Room 2106, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave.
Cost: $8 general admission; $5 for 13-18 and over 62; 12 and under free