According to Ayana Contreras, Black people are grapefruits. In the opening of the second essay in her new book, Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism & Creativity in Chicago, Contreras uses the metaphor of the grapefruit to articulate the inherent hybridity of Black American cultural identity. 

Contreras makes the case that Black Americans, like grapefruits, are “creole fruit found in the New World.” She also argues that Black Americans exist as a commodified class with the juice of our culture “constantly harvested.”

This opening is representative of the best moments in Energy Never Dies, where the writer introduces an odd and even humorous thread to the reader and then follows the line of thought across a wide and surprising rhetorical landscape. If one were to simply read the opening and closing paragraphs of each of the 10 essays that compose this book, they would not even scratch the surface of the expanse that Contreras deftly navigates across the space of a few pages. 

The book, in many ways, feels akin to Contreras’ background as a DJ. Thinking of each essay as a mix where we move easily, though at times abruptly, from the silly to the serious to the historical to the personal and beyond.

Contreras breezily weaves together memoir, political history, oral history and a deep musical knowledge that defies easy categorization. While the book does hold Black Chicago as a central concern, we still see a wide discussion of topics that fall outside of that primary focus, from the history of a popular game of chance in Cuba to prominent discussion of white Chicago artists such as trumpet player and Chance The Rapper collaborator Nico Segal.

Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism & Creativity in Chicago drops on Dec. 14, 2021.

Paperback: $19.95; eBook: $14.95

These seeming diversions showcase the brilliance of Contreras’ thesis of Black American hybridity. What seems to be Black Chicagoan by provenance also has roots in the American South and far across the diaspora. The musical spaces and cultures that we cherish as central to Black cultural identity often have non-Black participants without whom the landscape would be radically different (one prominent example Contreras explores is the legendary white-owned Black music record label Chess Records). 

The book’s storytelling moves across decades and modes of engagement, but remains well rooted in Contreras’ personal experiences and in her impeccable ear for music. At times the historical readings falter a bit or there is a lapse that might take a reader out of the piece. One such falter is the inclusion of a quote from a child’s poem from a children’s poetry anthology that seems to plagiarize Gwendolyn Brooks’ well-known poem “The Blackstone Rangers.”

Still, these kinds of human lapses are perhaps also the strength of the text. Reading it, we get a sense that Contreras is an artist in conscious community and lineage with other artists and thinkers and it is a joy to sit on her shoulder in the moments she documents. 

This reviewer did cringe when the writer euphemized some Black Chicagoans’ suspicions of the University of Chicago as “due to various university-funded urban renewal projects.” This rhetorical softening glossed over a long history of the university funding efforts to entrench segregation of its surrounding neighborhoods in the early 20th century and the university’s continued maintenance of a large and unaccountable private police force that patrols many of the Black communities adjacent to the campus.


Despite the book’s imperfections, a genuine warmth shines through and it is a joy to follow Contreras as a selector and storyteller. The connections she makes between contemporary culture, history, and her personal journey are at their best surprising and insightful. 

It is fitting for a DJ and cultural worker such as Contreras, who is in the tradition of Chicago tastemakers such as Don Cornelius and Herb Kent, that she produced a book such as this one. This book reads like an excellent DJ’s set on a night out: filled with hits and some satisfying B-sides and a unique blend that only a real master could muster.

is an award-winning writer, editor, educator, and MC. His most recent book, Finna, was recognized as one of the best books of 2020 by NPR and The New York Public Library.