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Sylvester Brown On ‘White Castles With Jesus & Uncle Ray At The Used Tire Shop’

012021_providedkathleenwyatt_sylvesterbrown.jpg Sylvester Brown
Provided / Kathleen Wyatt
Sylvester Brown grapples with race and humanity in his new story collection.

Sylvester Brown’s new book, “White Castles with Jesus and Uncle Ray at the Used Tired Shop,” collects stories and essays the St. Louis native and longtime journalist wrote from 1995 to 2018. And reading the collection, what might strike you most is just how little things have changed.

Take the column Brown wrote in the year 2000 for the publication he founded, Take Five Magazine. In it, he portrayed racism as St. Louis’ “crazy old uncle” — “the kind you lock in the back room because he might embarrass you when company comes over.”

The column includes a memorable exchange where Brown argues with “Uncle Ray” that things are looking up, that more white people are talking about diversity and even showing up to protests. Uncle Ray fires back that it’s all part of his plan; those actions don’t stop well-heeled whites from claiming tax abatements for their downtown lofts and sending Black city residents “packing” as they take over their longtime neighborhoods.

Brown acknowledged on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that the decades-old observation feels eerily timely.

“When I was reading that again, I was like, ‘Man, this could be written in 2014, 2015, 2020,” he said. “Because Ray is still very, very powerful. And in many ways, he's elusive. He's there, but he's not there.”

He added: “The heartbreaking part about this ... is that I'm 63. My children, my grandchildren, and my great grandchildren will be dealing with the issue that I dealt with, my father dealt with, my grandfathers dealt with. And that, to me is just heartbreaking.”

Asked whether St. Louis had made any headway with its “Uncle Ray” problem, Brown paused. “Oh my God, that’s a loaded question,” he said.

He continued: “On the surface, yes, there are more black folks in power, more black persons in politics, more Black persons in influential positions. On that level, yes. But on another level, I think the most important level, we have got work to do on ourselves.”

Brown also discussed his time as a columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which ended with his very public firing. (The paper offered to let him go quietly after terminating him for what the paper’s brass portrayed as an ethics violation; he, convinced he was in the right, refused.)

He said it felt like the paper had been gunning for him for some time. In the daily’s push for affluent suburban readers, he posited: “I think they just wanted to get rid of the guy who was ultra liberal and ultra Black. And you know, I just wish they had done that. I just wish they had fired me, instead of just coming up with this bogus charge.”

The story collection includes some columns Brown wrote for the Post-Dispatch, as well as one he wrote for his blog reflecting on his dismissal. In it, he turns the conversation over to two longtime fictional devices, “Sal” and “Sol,” two older Black men who held court at the neighborhood used tire shop.

He said he was inspired in his technique by Jesse B. Semple, a fictional character Langston Hughes used in his Chicago Defender columns. More than that, though, they represent the voices of the men he knew as a kid in hardscrabble St. Louis.

“Growing up in the poor neighborhoods I was in, there were always Black men, they were griots, they were preachers, they were shade-tree mechanics, they were guys on the corner, just drinking and talking smack,” he said. “I would listen to their stories and listen to their advice, and how they bantered back and forth, rarely agreeing on anything, and just how animated and colorful they were in those conversations. But they stayed with me.”

Having Sal and Sol argue about his departure from the paper was a way of dealing with his own inner conflict. “I felt that I was wrongly fired. And I felt that I was right. And I felt I ended the way I should have ended it,” he said. “But on a whole other level I was like, ‘Man, you lost a damn good job. You lost your benefits. You lost your vacation. And you know, your wife is not happy about this. And you got two little girls.’ And so, yeah, I was beating myself up and I had to talk my way through it.”

These days, Brown is on a one-year fellowship as the inaugural Deaconess Fellow covering the COVID-19 crisis for the St. Louis American. He said he’s enjoying the beat.

“The people I've talked to, from the street level to the academic level to the medical level, have all been inspiring to me,” he said. “They're all facing this pandemic and trying to survive, and coming up with ways to do things that are creative.

“It's inspiring, but also it's been a chance to flex my narrative muscles to go in there and find a story. You know, I could do statistics and quotes. But I really want to know about a person: Who are you? What makes you tick, what bothers you? What makes you cry at night? What makes you keep going? It's been challenging for me. It's also been very rewarding.”

For Brown, fictional characters like Sal and Sol may prove a bridge to his next step: He’s dreaming of writing fiction à la Walter Mosley. But for now, he’s enjoying where he is.

“It seems like the universe is working with me,” he said of his life today. “Everything seems to be falling in place.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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