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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Forbidden Brownstones by Clifford Browder is a fascinating look inside the mind of a free-born black man in New York City just prior to, during and after the time of the Civil War. Junius Fox was born free, his father a well-known and highly-regarded barber and his mother a natural healer, much in demand amongst the poor black neighborhoods of New York. When Junius’ father realized his son was no wizard with the shears and barbering was not an option for the young man, he confronted Junius with a challenge to find his place in this world. For Junius, this was a no-brainer. Ever since he was a little boy, he had experienced a deep attraction to and fascination for the mysterious and beautiful New York buildings known as “Brownstones”, where the wealthy, white folks lived. Junius’ dream was to live in one of these citadels of luxury and ultimately to possess his own brownstone one day. After finding employment as a waiter for an elderly, wealthy widow who was rather down on her luck, he served with her until he was able to secure a position as butler to the infamous Madame Ida, who ran the highest-class brothel in all of New York City. Here, he finally felt able to fulfill his destiny as a man who was respected and was able to comfortably rub shoulders with all the hoi-polloi of New York society. Junius had achieved his dream but could there be more still to come?
Forbidden Brownstones is more than a tale of one man’s journey through life; it is a social exposition of the black man’s place in a world where half the nation considered them to be nothing more than animals and the other half considered them deserving of nothing more than the lowest rank on the totem pole of humanity. Author Clifford Browder created a character in Junius who was able to see beyond the expectations of his birth and see the possibilities that existed in this city, even for one whose skin color was black. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see New York society and its doyens from a different perspective, from an outsider trying desperately to find a place in that world, where he felt he belonged and fitted. I loved Junius’ testing of his boundaries, especially with Madame Ida and also with his relationships with women. This is a wonderfully, flowing and descriptive narrative that drags you into Junius’ world and gets you excited about the things that make Junius tick, like the furnishings of the houses; real kudos to the author for achieving that feat. If you love historical fiction, as I do, and the opportunity to learn more about a different time period, different social mores, and the struggle for acceptance when you are different, you will absolutely adore this story. I learned so much reading this and enjoyed the plot and its characters immensely. I can highly recommend this read.