Strength and resilience fuel an urban teen’s fight for survival in this acclaimed novel from Bil Wright that “delivers a knock-out punch” (Venus Magazine).
Fourteen-year-old Louis Bowman lives in a boxing ring—a housing project circa 1968—and is fighting “just to get to the end of the round.” Sharing the ring is his mother, Jeanette Stamps, a ferociously stubborn woman battling for her own dreams to be realized; his stepfather, Ben Stamps, the would-be savior, who becomes the sparring partner to them both; and the enigmatic Ray Anthony Robinson, the neighborhood “hoodlum” in purple polyester pants, who sets young Louis’s heart spinning with the first stirrings of sexual longing.
Bil Wright deftly evokes an unrelenting world with quirky humor and a clear-eyed perspective in this “deeply felt coming-of-age novel” that “reads like the best of memoirs” (School Library Journal).
Mom and I were both sure Ben was dead. If I’m never sure of anything else in my life, I knew the exact moment Ben and I had stopped speaking to each other for good. And I knew Mom could tell he wasn’t listening to her anymore, either.
Ben was on the driver’s side, Mom was in the middle, next to him. I was squeezed up against the door. There should have been more room, since none of us was what you’d call big. When I was eight and first saw Ben, he looked like a craggy mountain with long arms. He was tall alright, about six three or four maybe, but he had no stomach, no hilly butt like a lot of black men have. By the time he died, he didn’t look like a mountain at all. He was more like a high pile of rocks. Mom was short and small like me. But that Sunday, she had on a handmedown fur coat she called “the grizzly” that took up most of the front seat.
When we heard the siren, Mom put her head on Ben’s shoulder and her arm around him like you see teenage girls doing with their boyfriends when they cruise past you on the highway. The difference was, Ben was Mom’s second husband and I’d never seen her sit next to him that way before, anywhere.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty-five degrees outside, but inside Ben’s car it felt like there was a bonfire in the backseat. Mom and I were sweating. I’d even seen water running from Ben’s mustache along the top of his lip when she was pounding on him. He’d sneered at us like he always did when Mom and I were going crazy, but his forehead was shiny and wet looking, which was different for him. The three of us had been in plenty of fights and Mom and I would be dripping afterwards like we’d been pushed underwater with all our clothes on. But Ben never looked any different at the end than he had at the beginning. The first time I remember seeing him sweat was the Sunday he died.
The cops came screeching into the projects parking lot and blocked Ben’s car. One of them ran over, threw open the door on my side and jumped back with his hand on his gun. A freezing wind blew in on all of us. The world was larger, again, than the inside of Ben’s Pontiac.
I hadn’t even heard the radio. One of us must’ve kicked or knocked into it accidentally during the fight. Martha and the Vandellas were singing “Jimmy Mack,” which meant it was on a station Ben wouldn’t have approved of. He didn’t usually allow the radio to be played at all, because he said it wore down the battery. When he did turn it on, the only station we could listen to was the one that played music from the thirties and forties. I’d asked Ben once why that was. He’d frowned into the rear-view mirror. “You think I’m going to argue about what to play on the radio in a car I bought with my money? When you buy your own car, buddy, you can play all the stations at the same time if you want to.”
• • •
“C’mon now, c’mon!” the cop ordered us with his hand still on his gun. I pushed out staring at the ground, shivering. Mom came behind me, gasping like she was drowning. She opened the grizzly, trying to pull me inside, but I jerked away. No matter how cold I was, I wouldn’t let her wrap me up under her coat like some baby faggot kangaroo. If they were going to accuse anybody of killing Ben, I wanted them to think it could’ve been me as much as her.
By the time the cops got there, just about everybody who lived in the projects was in the parking lot. A lot of them had circled the car and watched us, so there were plenty of witnesses eager to tell what they’d seen. When we’d stopped fighting and Ben was sitting there without the sneer on his face anymore, Isabelle Jackson, the girl from next door, put her nose up ag ainst the window and whined to Mom, “Mrs. Ben, you can’t get out?” She ran to tell her mother, who called the police to report a man had just murdered his wife in the Stratfield Projects parking lot. Once they got there, the police didn’t seem to care that the details they’d been given were wrong.
“Jimmy Mack” was over. The announcer was saying if he got enough calls he’d play “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “If you remember one song from this year, I betcha it’ll be this one,” he said. “Dial my number, kids, and tell me you wanna hear it. Call Uncle Davie and tell him how bad you want ol’ Otis to sing that song.”
When the ambulance arrived, one of the men examined Ben, listened to Mom’s version of what she called an argument and told the police Ben probably had a heart attack. They had trouble pulling him out of the car because he was so long. Every time his head thumped against the steering wheel or the door, Mom winced and whispered, “God. Oh, God.” When they got him onto the stretcher, she grabbed for me again, making an appeal to the cops. “We have to go back. My baby girl’s alone.”
It was true we’d left my sister Lorelle behind, but she was five years old and no one including Mom ever called her a baby anymore. At first, it looked like they weren’t going to let her go. She began to sob. The sobs seemed to be coming from somewhere deep inside the grizzly, getting louder with each breath. People from the projects backed away like they didn’t know what Mom would do next, but reasoned it was better to give her some room, just in case.
“Where’s your baby, lady?” one of the cops asked her. “I’ll go with you.”
Mom apologized to me over her shoulder as the two of them started toward the apartment. “I’ll be back, Louis. I will.” That left me alone with the gun-happy cop, the gawkers from the projects and the ambulance men banging Ben’s body around. The Fifth Dimension had just started “Stoned Soul Picnic” when the cop reached in and finally turned the car radio off. Now Ben’s battery had been wasted on Martha and the Vandellas, Otis Redding and The Fifth Dimension.
With everybody from the projects staring, waiting to see whether I’d be dragged away in handcuffs, I couldn’t tell whether it was the cold or my nerves making me twitch. I focused hard on a broken Coke bottle frozen in the ice, concentrating on the curves in the glass and the part of the letter C that was left, trying to control my shaking.
Somebody called my name. Although it sounded like the voice was coming from a million miles away, I knew who it was without having to look up. Miss Odessa. She lived at the other end of the projects but it goes to show you they were all there. That’s how it was in the projects when something bad happened to somebody. It was always better to witness someone else’s hard luck, the closer the better, rather than hear a second or third hand version later on. Being a witness could make people give you some respect, at least for as long as it took you to tell what you’d seen.
Miss Odessa put her hand on top of my head, so strong it felt like she was trying to push me into the ground. You want to talk about somebody big? Talk about Miss Odessa.
I didn’t answer. I only looked up because I could feel her pressing harder on my head and my knees were folding under me. I was trying to keep from sinking into the parking lot in front of the entire Stratfield Projects. I didn’t want to look at her directly, so I stared instead at the Christmas corsage she had pinned to her coat with a huge gold safety pin. The corsage had white bells that looked like they were carved out of mothballs. I was focusing on the mothball bells when the cop asked me, “So what was the fight about?”
Trying to figure out how I was going to get out of saying anything to either Miss Odessa or him, I stared into the mouth of one of the bells and imagined sound coming out. Martha and the Vandellas again. “My arms keep missing you.” But now Miss Odessa was pushing even harder.
“Louis, the policeman’s talking to you. Don’t you hear the policeman talking to you?” The cop had his hand on my shoulder. The pressure from her was featherweight compared to the cop’s grip.
First, I looked real hard at Miss Odessa to let her know even if she was pretending to be a friend of Mom’s, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t like her and never had. Then I focused on the cop’s face. I wanted to make sure he knew I was lying.
“I can’t remember what the fight was about, sir. I can’t remember anything.”
And while both the cop and Miss Odessa kept pushing me down like trash in a can, they couldn’t get me to say another word. I went over it in my mind, though. From the beginning. For myself. To make sure I really could remember it. It was important to keep all the details in some part of me that was safe, for later.
Bil Wright is an award-winning novelist and playwright. His novels include Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), the highly acclaimed When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and the critically acclaimed Sunday You Learn How to Box. His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD nominee) and the winner of a LAMI (La Mama Playwriting Award). An associate professor of English at CUNY, Bil Wright lives in New York City. Visit him at BilWright.com.
"Heartbreaking and heartwarming. I was touched in so many ways by this absolutely dazzling and elegant debut. You won't be able to put it down. "
– E. Lynn Harris The New York Times bestselling author of Abide with Me
"The patient, subtle rendering of one boy's developing emotional life leads us right into the mystery of how love grows in us all."
– Judy Lightfoot, Seattle Times
"With striking immediacy, keen insight, and grace of language, Wright captures the anguish of adolescence and the complex bond between mothers and sons...riveting."
– New York World
"Understated humor marks Bil Wright's first novel, Sunday You Learn How to Box... the absence of sentimentality is refreshing."
– The New York Times
"A realistic, poignant story. It grabs you from the beginning, digs at your heartstrings, and doesn't let go."
– The Philadelphia Tribune
"Sunday You Learn How to Box has all the rhythm, drama, and dance of a good fight but in this case the battle matters more because the soul of a boy is at stake. In elegant and agile prose, Wright matches brutality with passion and heartbreak with hope. And a man in purple polyester pants walks off with the prize. This book is a knockout."
– Karin Cook, author of What Girls Learn
"A mother's uphill battle to forge a better life for her family, her young son's struggle to survive in a world where the lines of "manhood" and "masculinity" are harshly drawn -- Bil Wright's wrenching novel about growing up gay is sometimes crushing, sometimes exhilarating, but always full of grace. In this elegant and honest book, Wright engages difficult themes of love exhausted and renewed, dreams derailed and put back on track again, and the stubborn will to create one's destiny instead of falling prey to it. I was powerfully moved by Sunday You Learn How to Box. Its images singe. Its characters gleam."
– Gerry Gomez Pearlberg, author of Marianne Fauthfull's Cigarette and editor of Queer Dog: Homo/Pub/Poetry
"Sunday You Learn How to Box is smart and sexy. Bil Wright's gorgeous first novel overflows with wit and lyricism, the wonders of desire, and the brutality of racism. Louis shows us the power of salvation when the savior and saved are one -- I couldn't put it down!"
– Stephanie Grant, author of The Passion of Alice
“Louis is a winning character, an adolescent coping gracefully with his bitter lot, whose emotional strength and resilience ensure his survival into adulthood.”
– Publishers Weekly
“A poignant coming-of-age story. Wright has written an unsentimental portrait of a vulnerable young black man.”
“This deeply felt coming-of-age novel reads like the best of memoirs. …. Wright has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a genuine gift for capturing the intricacies and indeterminacies of family and community life. Both ensure that Louis Bowman will live with teen readers long after they close the book.”