Matilda Sissiretta Jones
Ada Overton Walker as Salome. She was considered the “Queen of the Cakewalk”
am nearing the completion of a new novel written for National Novel Writing Month. I just learned about it in September at a UCLA Writers Fair and decided to take the plunge. The objective is to write a 50,000 word novel by Nov. 30. I just passed 36,000 words and have structured the 14 chapters.
The working title is Cakewalk.
It tells about the 14 year period between the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the forced displacement of the Barbary Coast in 1921.
Like my first two novels, Grampa Jack’s Secret and Lake Merritt: What Goes Around Comes Around, it is an historical novel which adds flavor and depth to real events. Because the historical events are subjects which I’ve researched as an historian, the simplest way to tell the story has been to insert my alter ego, Will, as the narrator. Will was also the narrator in Grampa Jack’s Secret, although he was then a high school student navigating the desegregation of schools in the South. For Lake Merritt, I used a gaggle of Canadian geese as the intermediaries between the reader and the story.
For 14 years, I’ve researched the first jazz club and the first jazz band in history. Purcell’s So Diff’rent was the name of the establishment and its house band was led by Sid leProtti. It was located in the 500 block of Pacific Street in San Francisco and the building still stands, along with seven other black-owned “resorts” from the period between 1906 and 1921.
Sam King and Lew Purcells, the original owners, leProtti and his band members and Lester Mapp, the subsequent owner of six of the clubs, are little known figures in history. My op-ed editor at the San Francisco Examiner gave me a tip to look into a book called Jazz on the Barbary Coast back in 1995. As I have subsequently done genealogy research to identify descendands and find artifacts, I’ve learned that each of them had a national and global footprint through the people they touched..
Better-known names ranging from Bert Williams to Jelly Roll Morton to Anna Pavlova to Rudolph Valentino have a connection to the story in some fashion. As we’ve gathered more detail. we’ve gotten a sense of the personalities involved, particularly through talking to relatives and journalists who’ve known them.
I’ve also been able to extrapolate what things must have been like based on the trends and history before this period and what has occurred since then.
My overall conclusion is that this period of San Francisco history is also one of the most important periods of African-American heritage. In many respects, the more heralded Harlem Renaisance was seeded by figures from San Francisco. The first black to perform and the first black to write a play on Broadway both came from San Francisco.
Will Marion Cook,Paul Laurence Dunbar, J. Rosemond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson were among the national figures who collaborated wtih these San Franciscans, who had a different way of looking at things because they had the benefit of ownership of facilities along the San Francisco waterfront from the 1850s.
At the same time, this relative freedom was seen as a threat locally and nationally, because of its ability to raise the aspirations of blacks around the country and world.
So the novel becomes the interplay between the push and pull of black aspirations and talent and the resistance to that expression.
I’ve had enough aha! moments while projecting how real events must have happened to expect that some of my scenarios may turn out to be closer to reality than one might expect.
I chose the title Cakewalk because the dances of the period which originated in this neighborhood are central to the plot, and also because the term has taken on a collogquial meaning. That meaning is one of relative ease. These real figures were people who projected an aura of success while overcoming extreme obstacles.
That’s not much different from the experience of African-American entrepreneurs now. So I can definitely feel their spirit moving through me as I write.