“On the Rooftop” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton 

Genre: Historical/Domestic-African American FictionOn the Rooftop
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pub. Date: September 6, 2022

The Fillmore District, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco during the 1950s, is the setting for the book. An African American musical family and their tight nit neighborhood are central to the narrative. The novel has a sincere attitude but is a tad lackluster. Vivian is a widow who fled the racial cruelty of segregated Louisiana for San Francisco. She lives in a community where she and everyone are close friends with the barber, the butcher, the pastor, and many other neighbors. While working as a nurse, Vivian raises her three daughters, all talented singers. She wants to turn them into celebrities. Consider a Gypsy Rose Lee dynamic that is less jarring. The sisters are very close and firm believers in the power of prayer. As adults, they will not all share their mother’s preferences. The tensions in the family are predictable, making their scenes read sluggish.

Many leading jazz performers, including Louis ArmstrongJohn ColtraneElla FitzgeraldBillie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, visited the district. The nightclubs were bouncing and overflowing. Reading about the sight and sounds of jazz and blues music was fun and exciting. Still, the main narrative is the community’s gentrification and the impending decline of the jazz scene in the area. The bookstore owner informs the beauty salon owner, “Pretty soon, you’ll go around these streets, and you won’t see yourself reflected back in it.” (Spoiler: Once again, racism forces Vivian out of a home she loves.) The author captures the anguish felt by all black people who fought but lost the battle of ethnic cleansing in their neighborhood. The book’s conclusion is factually correct but written in a corny way that reads more like women’s fiction than historical fiction. Considering the Fillmore District had an energy and life of its own, I expected a more memorable tale. The story would have had more punch if it had less syrup. That is me. If you enjoy women’s domestic fiction, you will enjoy “On the Rooftop.”

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