Ojikutu, Bayo 1971-
Ojikutu, Bayo 1971-
Born August 27, 1971, in IL; son of Owolabi and Sylvia Ojikutu; married July 10, 1999; wife's name, Carolyn. Education: University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, B.A., 1995; DePaul University, M.A., 1999. Hobbies and other interests: Basketball, jazz.
Washington Prize for Fiction and Great American Book Contest winner, both for 47th Street Black.
47th Street Black: A Novel, Three Rivers Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Free Burning: A Novel, Three Rivers Press (New York, NY), 2006.
Bayo Ojikutu grew up on Chicago's South Side, the setting of his debut title, 47th Street Black: A Novel, described by a Kirkus Reviews contributor as "surprisingly rich and nuanced for a gangster story: a fine exposition of a hellish and utterly fascinating world, narrated in a colloquial style both vivid and credible."
The time is the 1960s, and the two principal characters, high school athlete Mookie King and best friend J.C. Rose, are black teens who quit school to hang out on the streets of Chicago, where there is plenty of opportunity to hustle in a time before drugs became the crime of choice. When they find the corpse of local thug "Johnny the Baptist" and take his gold jewelry, they also take the first step to becoming involved with real criminals like Tommy Ricci, who owns the pawn shop where they attempt to sell the jewelry. Ricci and mob boss Salvie Fuoco begin to use Mookie and J.C. to run numbers, collect debts, and generally act on their behalf in the heart of black Chicago. Mookie and J.C. tell the story from their individual points of view.
Within a year, Mookie and J.C. have become powerful figures, sporting fancy clothes, driving expensive cars, and attracting fast women. Mookie becomes the smooth leader of the pair, while the more volatile J.C. acts as the enforcer. When they are involved in a murder, Mookie lets J.C. take the fall, and he is sentenced to fifteen years in prison. At his release, J.C. finds that Mookie has become the top boss of the organization and controls the entire South Side.
Lisa Lenoir remarked in a review for the Chicago Sun-Times Online that "using this main South Side artery and even a street-savvy character named ‘47th Street Black’ allowed Ojikutu to illustrate the deterioration of this once-thriving neighborhood, a mecca for those migrating from the South—a demise attributed to integration of the late 1960s and 1970s that caused black businesses and customers to move up and out." The title character is an old man with roots in the Deep South, a sage who oversees the action from a street corner.
A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "threats, bloodshed, and murder are rife in this first novel, but Ojikutu keeps the mayhem tightly focused, offering up an accomplished and engaging story." John Hood reviewed 47th Street Black for Bully online, saying that "in the lowbrow tradition of such high-minded ghetto fabulists as Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim comes one Bayo Ojikutu, a wordslinger cool enough to check his blink as he chronicles the cold core of the crime and its inner-city resolution. Call his kickass debut, 47th Street Black, the meaty, beaty grit of resolve. One raw thump for the underclass."
In Free Burning: A Novel, Ojikutu revisits the South Side of Chicago, focusing on Tommie Simms and his encounters with police, loan sharks, drug dealers, and other rough elements in the Four Corners neighborhood after being laid off from his downtown insurance job. Simms discovers how easy it is to fall on hard times, and how difficult it is to escape from certain traps. Mike Moreci, in a review for the Identity Theory Web site, remarked that the book did not reach the same depths of emotion and grit found in Ojikutu's debut novel, finding it "a well-intentioned enough novel, but … not one that grabs the reader by the lapels with the depths it uncovers. One gets the impression that Tommie, and Ojikutu, have more to offer." However, Denolyn Carroll, writing for the Black Issues Book Review, called the book a powerful work of urban fiction, a searing portrayal of one of the shameful realities within an unjust society." A Kirkus Reviews writer concluded: "What truly dazzles … is the language, a cross between James Baldwin's soulful song and the nightmare poetry of Louis-Ferdinand Celine."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, January 1, 2007, Denolyn Carroll, review of Free Burning: A Novel, p. 44.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of 47th Street Black: A Novel, p. 1649; August 1, 2006, review of Free Burning, p. 747.
Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2003, review of 47th Street Black, p. 39.
Bully,http://www.bullymag.com/ (July 1, 2003), John Hood, review of 47th Street Black.
Chicago Sun-Times Online,http://www.chicagosuntimes.com/ (February 2, 2003), Lisa Lenoir, review of 47th Street Black, and interview with Ojikutu.
Identity Theory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (May 14, 2007), Mike Moreci, review of Free Burning.