As first posted on The Modern Green Book book club
Last Summer on State Street is about Black girlhood and what it means to lose your home. Set in the Robert Taylor Projects in urban Chicago, we get a glimpse of the lives of four friends, Felicia (“FeFe”), Precious, Stacia, and Tonya. They spend the summer watching the buildings around them crumble and how that forces them to grow up and grow apart.
Last Summer on State Street puts faces to the experiences of the people displaced by the destruction of the projects. I remember a similar occurrence happening in my own hometown of Columbia, SC. When I was in high school, I remember seeing a story in the news about a public housing complex being torn down and new ones being built in their place. My young mind thought it was a great thing because that complex was rundown and full of crime. The day came when I rode by the complex and saw nothing but piles of ruin.
It’s been eleven years since they leveled that complex, and there’s still nothing left but a grassy field.
All those people displaced. All those people who lost their homes.
My sixteen-year-old self made assumptions about those people, many, if not all, of them Black like me. I couldn’t imagine a little girl like FeFe learning and loving hard in those buildings. I couldn’t imagine a pastor, his wife, and his daughter like Precious praying together before a meal.
What I could imagine was girls like Stacia, coming from a home where everyone older turned to crime in order to survive and have something in this world. If FeFe and Precious illustrated being exceptions to the rules, Stacia was the mold. People think Stacia and her family are bad people and they deserved to experience bad things.
And then there’s little girls who slip through the cracks, forgotten, like Tonya. The tragic story of what happens when your mother suffers from addiction. Tonya is who I remember the most from this story. She isn’t very present throughout the pages, but her presence is still felt in every single chapter. Tonya weighs on you, like a wet coat.
It’s through FeFe’s twelve-year-old eyes that we see all of the destruction of that summer. The buildings around her are being torn down; she is losing her brother to the world; her little group of friends dwindles one at a time.
The one thing I didn’t really care for about the book was the ending. I thought the ending threw off the pacing of the book, and everything felt rushed towards the end. Things felt resolved, but I would have kind of liked leaving me to imagine the future.
I think Last Summer on State Street is a powerful read. It blends fiction with history in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming or dry. FeFe’s voice lends a wisdom apt for both a twelve-year-old and a grown woman. But above all, this story of Black girlhood fills the void that only stories like this can.
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