The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although the young African American girls in “Brownies” are hard to resist with their childlike streetwise talk, they are really middle-class kids, posturing the way they have seen others do. The story succeeds because it allows African American girls to make fun of white girls and talk tough about beating them up for using racial slurs, but since they are only small children at summer camp, it is all within a harmless, comic context.

Dina, in the title story, comes from a middle-class background in which she was an honor-roll student. However, at Yale she finds herself instantly transformed into a hard-bitten, recalcitrant kid. Dina insists that she likes being outcast and alone, but when an overweight white girl named Heidi seeks her advice and friendship, they become such constant companions that people being to think they are lovers. Like “Brownies,” “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” succeeds because it presents a rebellious African American who is not a streetwise tough but a middle-class good girl. Dina does not want to be a compliant African American, but she is not sure how to find a place for herself.

The Stories

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a collection of eight stories that are less about people who have been disenfranchised because of race or economic status than they are about a new generation of middle-class African Americans who have previously been ignored because of attention paid to the children of the ghetto. Like immigrants, ZZ Packer’s characters are caught between an old world to which they feel they no longer belong and a new world that has not yet arrived.

For example, “Brownies,” whose narrator, nicknamed Snot, is a young African American girl at summer camp with her Brownie troop, begins as a typical race prejudice story. Snot’s friends vow to fight a troop of little white girls who have come to camp with complexions like a blend of strawberry and vanilla ice cream. When one of them hears a white girl use the hated “N word,” they talk tough about retaliation.

The title story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” focuses on a middle-class young African American woman named Dina who has entered her freshman year at Yale University. Impatient with politically correct counselors, she reluctantly plays a get-acquainted orientation game in which participants must say what inanimate object they would like to be. Just to fulfill white expectations, Dina says she would like to be a revolver.

“The Ant of the Self” is about a young African American named Spurgeon who is caught in the gap between the stereotypical African American world of an older generation and a new middle-class African American image in which racial identity seems less important. He has just bailed his father, an ex-Black Panther, out of jail after yet another drunk-driving arrest and wants to take him home. However, his...

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The narrator of “Brownies” says that the desire for revenge was no longer about one of her troop being called a derogatory name, for the word that started it all now seems to have turned into something deeper and unnameable. However, Packer does not suggest what this ominous unnameable thing is, except perhaps the inevitable tension that results from “difference.” When the little white girls are actually confronted, the African American girls discover that they are mentally handicapped, evoking the derogatory epithet “retarded” and suggesting an easy sort of turning-the-tables discrimination. Furthermore, the African American girls are told that the white children are echolalic, which means they say whatever they hear, like an echo. The story thus ends as a sort of cautionary fable about prejudice and about how older generations pass down racial intolerance to younger ones.

In the climactic thematic scene of the title story, Dina’s psychiatrist tells her that she spends her life pretending and lying, concluding that perhaps it is her survival mechanism in response to being African American in a white world. Dina knows it cuts deeper than that, although Packer does not provide any clear indication of what this “deeper” meaning really is. The story is not really about sexual or racial identity; race and sexual preference serve, rather, as metaphors for the general problem of discovering an authentic, acceptable self.

Once Spurgeon and his father are at the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self,” Spurgeon is unimpressed with the clichés and rhetoric of the speakers and rejects the advice of a man he meets there who urges him to atone for his split with his father. Packer emphasizes the basic irony that the public march is supposed to heal the very kind of split between father and son, brother and brother, that Spurgeon feels so personally with his father.