The author of “Cinders” reveals the human consequences of racism and poverty in her upcoming reading in Chester
As the presidential election intensifies, campaigns have focused on inner-city issues of poverty, drugs and crime. Most of these arguments are based on statistics rather than the kind of real-life insight offered by people who have survived the worst city neighborhoods.
Cindy Brown Austin, author of the new acclaimed memoir, “Cinders,” brings that inside view to Chester in a free program on Sunday, November 6, at 9:30 a.m., as part of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek’s long-running Books & Bagels series.
She grew up in one of Hartford’s toughest projects as the self-described “love child” of an African-American mother and Jamaican father. In the project, gangs proliferated, violence was the norm, and the sting of racism was prevalent whenever she tried to lift herself out.
By the time she was 19, Cindy was brushing the cockroaches from the dresser-drawer so her infant daughter, her third child, could have a place to sleep, and she was lamenting, “Oh, Lord, is there no place on earth for me?”
In time, after she and her longtime husband David Austin had their fourth daughter, she began to describe her experiences in print, publishing many accounts from urban life in the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine, and then reprinted in Reader’s Digest, where she attracted a national following.
Lary Bloom, who was the founding editor of Northeast, says, “Cindy is the most eloquent and courageous writer on urban subjects that I ever published. She breathes honesty, and this comes through both in her essays and her speeches. I’ve been a champion of her work since 1990, and it just keeps getting better.”
Even so, these days Cindy runs scared. Her memoir details hair-raising events, including the whizzing of bullets past her head. But a recent incident in Windsor Locks left her stunned. “For the first time in my life I was afraid of the mob. I’m a tough person. I’m not usually afraid of anybody.”
She and David were staying a hotel because the mold in her Windsor home had made them ill. One night she went out to get a burger, and then on her return, outside of the hotel, “a group of young white guys, twenty somethings blocked the doorway. I had to get past them to get into the building. For the first time, I was so afraid. I asked myself, why am I so afraid? I said hello, but there was such hostility in return. You could feel the mob thing.
“For the first time in my life I felt what tyranny must feel like. They were emboldened. When Donald Trump steps into the spotlight, we, as blacks, tremble. We have so little, and to be hated by someone who has so much is so unfair. He’s stirred up the crowd, brought out so much fear. For black people, the doors are shut. If Hillary doesn’t get in, I can’t even imagine what will happen. The threat is so real. Everybody’s afraid.”
Indeed, indignities intensify. Recently, her husband David, on the same route to work through the suburbs as he’s followed for twenty years, was stopped by the Simsbury police, his car searched for weapons and drugs, just because he had made the terrible mistake of driving while black. (Cindy, outraged, drew an apology from police headquarters.)
Cindy’s appearance at the synagogue was arranged by our Program chair, Tracy Kleinberg, who says, “What an incredible learning opportunity for our community to have someone come and speak about being on the front lines of issues like racism and poverty, especially in today's political and social climate where it is of the utmost importance to begin to listen and understand each other. The more people who can engage in conversation about the very real situations in underserved communities the better off we will be as a society as a whole.”
Andy Schatz, chair of Social Action, says, “One of our social action themes at CBSRZ has been to embrace diversity, and we have focused on the challenges of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism. Cindy Brown Austin tells some real-life stories behind those challenges, set in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in one of the richest states in America. Although we have been spared the most public examples of tragic conflict between police and community in recent years, those problems exist here as well. We hope everyone will come to discuss with Cindy her stories and what we all might do to change the narrative of our times."
This event is free and open to the public, no advance registration is required. Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek is located at 55 East Kings Highway in Chester. For more information, visit our website or call the office at 860-526-8920.