Review: Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture

Han Solo, He-Man, my dad, and Jesus Christ. These were my heroes as a kid. I would weave stories about them in my head, filling in the gaps as needed (this was the 80s after all—emotionally available men and endless streaming episodes of Masters of the Universe weren’t yet accessible). The myths and narratives I created stayed with me as I matured, and still hold sway over me now.

I was pulled back to those memories and stories of childhood, and made to ponder what it meant to grow into an adult who learned from, embraced, and sometimes rejected these hallow spaces, through Jordan Calhoun’s Piccolo is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture, an impressive personal journey into his formative years, but also my own—and perhaps yours, too, if you were a child of the 80s or 90s who worshiped both pop culture and the God of your parents.

The title of the work arises from Calhoun’s explanation that African Americans recognize certain characters as black, even if they aren’t represented as such, like Panthro (Thundercats), Worf (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and the titular Piccolo (Dragon Ball Z). Particularly in early chapters, he expresses his passion for and personal connection to these and many other characters and TV series, especially animated ones, explaining how many of their journeys helped shaped his own.

Calhoun’s walk down memory lane is overflowing with nostalgia. Although I refused to watch Captain Planet or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, considering myself “too mature” by the time they became popular, I still know them intimately. They, and other series, are an integral part of the collective childhood for those of us who loved animation and kids TV shows, who rushed home from school to watch our favorite cartoons, the same ones that children all over the country were watching. And so every time Calhoun discusses even series I skipped, I was lit up with emotion. I remember that feeling! Or I felt the same way, but about [insert other 90s series]! Calhoun’s writing is cerebral but accessible, and his memories of pop culture, which could have left me emotionally pleased but brain dead, pushed me to think further about the animated heroes of my own youth and what they meant to me then and now.

The discussion of TV series and characters is dropped within the larger story of Calhoun’s growing up, and unexpectedly, the most compelling portions of Calhoun’s work are not about Gargoyles or Transformers, but rather his remembrances of family and faith. Much of my affinity for Piccolo is Black lies in its discussion of religion and Calhoun’s personal recollections of being a faithful adherent. While many will relate to becoming indoctrinated and later leaving church life or religion, it’s the rarer introspective child—the one who earnestly memorizes scripture, tries to follow the church’s teachings, and attends without fail—who perhaps feels most betrayed by parents, the faith, and even himself at some point in life.

It’s actually the normalcy of this experience rather than the more shocking events (though there are a few) that I think will reach readers most deeply. Thirty- and forty-somethings, particularly, will not be surprised at the bullying, abuse, racism, and illegal activity happening to and around the author. The mundane difficulties of youth at that time are likely to speak to those of us who have experienced or partaken in them to lesser or greater degrees. Calhoun’s models for church life were individuals who left scars upon him through harsh judgment, teachings that caused him guilt, active and indirect bullying, and perhaps most of all, by pings of hypocrisy.

And true to his experience, Jordan is seething. I don’t mean to say this is an angry work though. Tonally, the writing is friendly and open. But there are indications throughout of resentment at what he experienced. He calls out perpetrators for their transgressions using their full names, and has few positive insights to give about the Seventh Day Adventist church (which I learned a great deal about through this memoir, particularly regarding its educational system). His narrative, though it doesn’t stretch to his modern-day position as a writer and columnist for major publications, trends toward a boy who was smart enough and sly enough to use what he learned, relearn what “being good” means, and find his way into adulthood largely on his own (with the help of pop culture, of course).

I appreciate that Calhoun approaches the work this way. It’s a memoir, and should be at once personal and opinionated, but with his excellent writing skills (I encourage you to check out his equally compelling column), he’s able to avoid being heavy-handed while still weaving a tale that will provoke discussion and conjure some internal struggle, if you’re willing to allow it. I’m excited, in fact, about the opportunity for discussion that this book will open up on a range of issues, some heavy—the role of church and faith, racism, neglect, identity—and some that are lighter, but still very meaningful, particularly around how pop culture can shape our lives and selves in a positive manner.

And thus, Piccolo is Black is not a work that you read once and put away on the shelf. The story, the insight, the provocation—these remain with reader, and Calhoun’s words encourage you to think more deeply about your own journey, demanding that you return to the memoir again and again. My copy is full of sticky notes, highlighting passages I was obliged to reconsider, and I typed copious records into my phone as I read as well. I needed to, as this work is more than a memoir: it is a guide, helping me to contemplate my own life story, which though like Calhoun’s in many ways—through racism, discovering my racial and cultural identity, identifying with pop culture icons, as a “good” and “faithful” kid—did not push me away from God, but instead drew me closer to him.

All that is to say that while the journey that Calhoun chronicles is personal to him, it is also more widely accessible to you, should you be an 80s or 90s child who struggled through the troubles that are common to most children (and some uncommon, too). But for those younger or older, Piccolo is Black is compelling enough on its own, and I think will still encourage you to ponder where you’ve been and where you’re going, which after all, is quite possibly the entire point of faith, religion, and yes, pop culture, too.

Piccolo is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture can be pre-ordered through Amazon and other retailers. It releases on April 26, 2022.


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