How Sister Souljah Went From Radical Activist to Scapegoat to Blockbuster Novelist

How Sister Souljah Went From Radical Activist to Scapegoat to Blockbuster Novelist

How Sister Souljah Went From Radical Activist to Scapegoat to Blockbuster Novelist

After Bill Clinton used her to catapult himself to the presidency, the activist Souljah was sidelined. But the novelist Souljah continued to produce work that spoke to millions.


To many, the cover is recognizable even at a distance: The lower half of a youthful, feminine face is darkened on one side by a purple shadow. The other cheek and jawline are lit up in neon pink. We don’t see the woman’s eyes, but her lips are pursed and painted red. They’re seductive—the focal point—but still more subtly set than any performative facial expression we see on social media these days. Those who have read and reread The Coldest Winter Ever know that this partly obscured face beckons readers into the story of Winter Santiaga, the teenage daughter of a Brooklyn drug kingpin and the character at the heart of Sister Souljah’s 1999 novel, a runaway success that would dramatize the hard-knock lives of New Yorkers immersed in the city’s drug culture for readers all over the world.

The book was published in April of that year with an initial print run of 30,000 copies, an optimistic bet on a debut novel from a Black author. But Souljah’s foray into fiction—she’d written a memoir in 1994—was an immediate success. The Black-owned bookstores, street vendors, and Barnes & Noble outposts where people flocked to buy their copies couldn’t keep up with the demand. My aunt, then an administrator at a Cincinnati social service agency, gave me a copy with her strong endorsement. The book was all the rage among her group of friends, other middle-aged, middle- and working-class Black women. More than two decades later, The Coldest Winter Ever has sold more than 1 million copies—and it’s easy to see why. The book is soapy and sexy, bringing readers deep into Winter’s world, carrying them along on her descent from pampered princess to inmate, yet another casualty of the War on Drugs. Mixed in with the trashy plot twists is a good dose of social and emotional realism. Readers get every designer brand and luxury car (down to the make and model) that Winter believes is her birthright. But we also get a critique of mandatory minimum sentencing, foster care, and the various institutions the girl must navigate once she’s forced to fend for herself.

Coldest is a cautionary tale about hustling, a novel that Black readers—particularly Black women and girls—hailed as an instant classic and propelled to the top of bestseller lists. It tells the story of a family at the top of the hierarchy in the Brooklyn projects where Winter’s parents, Ricky and Lana Santiaga, are raising the teenager and her three younger sisters. Ricky moves the family to the suburbs in an effort to stay safe and hide their considerable wealth from the hungry up-and-coming gangsters who aspire to take his place. But a series of tragedies soon befalls the family, beginning with a violent attack on Lana and Ricky’s subsequent arrest and prosecution for drug-related crimes.

Souljah describes Winter’s physical beauty and sexual prowess in detail. The desire she elicits in the boys and men around her becomes Winter’s primary tool to get what she wants and, eventually, as her family falls apart, what she needs. Midnight, a rising star in her father’s organization, is the man Winter hopes to marry someday, but he is repelled by her immaturity and selfishness. The push and pull in their relationship—the imbalance between Winter’s narcissism and shortsightedness and Midnight’s commitment to strategy and foresight—provide much of the novel’s tension. By the book’s end, Winter has been convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

But beyond the engaging story line is the matter of the book’s author. Seven years before the publication of Coldest, Sister Souljah made headlines for her comments about the uprisings following the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the verdict that cleared them of wrongdoing. At the time, Souljah was an activist and hip-hop artist who’d made a name for herself as a youth leader through her anti-apartheid organizing and her efforts in support of unhoused families. She was a member of Public Enemy, the rap group whose political commentary was a soundtrack to the late ’80s and early ’90s. Her solo album 360 Degrees of Power was released in the spring of 1992, just months before the events that would make her a household name. After her comments about the LA riots were blasted by Bill Clinton, who was seeking to distance himself from Black radicalism as he campaigned for the presidency, Souljah was on television screens and magazine covers nationwide. Then, following a period of relative quiet, she burst back onto the scene with Coldest.

In the novel, she appears as herself, a minor character who offers commentary on the greed and consumerism that permeate Winter’s world and fuel her reckless actions. As a character, Souljah is a foil to Winter, a public figure whose rhetoric the teenager intermittently encounters and rejects. In a 2021 interview with the writer Demetria L. Lucas, Souljah said of writing herself into the novel, “The reason why The Coldest Winter Ever started off with Winter Santiaga saying she hates Sister Souljah was so that I could distinguish her voice, her life, her experiences, from my own. I thought that that was a metaphor for real life anyway, because the popular people are like pop culture, they’re like mainstream. And then the activist person is like, somebody who either gets ignored or who aggravates people because she reminds them of what we all should be responsible for.”

Today, Coldest is among the 100 “most-loved” books featured as part of PBS’s The Great American Read series and “a Bible for a generation of Black women,” said Joan Morgan, the program director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs. At the time it was published, Morgan said, books that realistically portrayed the lives of members of the hip-hop generation were “being dismissed as street lit.” Traditionally, the publishing world had used this phrase to describe popular fiction from Black authors who wrote about crime, drugs, and violence. The first major success in this category was Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novel Pimp. But those books rarely had the focus on values and profound questions of morality that were central to Souljah’s work. With Coldest, Morgan said, “Souljah gave an elevated version [of that genre] on a legitimate press. It’s become part of the Black girl canon for the 1990s.”

By the time Coldest came out, the country had a decade’s worth of experience with hip-hop as a mainstream cultural force. The genre had cemented itself as the primary way Black and brown youth communicated their politics and perspectives to the wider world. Throughout much of the 1980s, white liberals and the Democratic establishment had largely turned a blind eye to incisive, leftist political critique from young Black messengers. By the early 1990s, with hip-hop moving into heavy rotation on radio and television (Yo! MTV Raps debuted in 1988), this had become impossible. Groups such as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy addressed the ways that crack cocaine was ravaging Black communities and took up the pressing and infuriating issues of the day: In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers had been convicted of raping a white woman while she jogged in Central Park. (All would later be exonerated after it was revealed that the police had forced them to make false confessions.) That same year, an unarmed Black 16-year-old named Yusuf Hawkins was killed in Brooklyn by a white mob. In 1991, a Korean shop owner shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in South Central LA over a bottle of juice and, though convicted of the crime, served no jail time. Hip-hop became “Black America’s CNN,” as Public Enemy front man Chuck D put it, and artists quoted and sampled the voices of Black activists and thinkers like Frances Cress Welsing, Dick Gregory, Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson in their songs. The message often called for self-reliance (Black separatism in the eyes of critics), indicted structural racism rather than focusing on white Americans’ stated good intentions, and represented a departure from the assimilationist goals of an earlier era. Major civil rights legislation had passed three decades earlier, and yet access to good schools, good jobs, and full democratic participation still felt out of reach for many Black people. And hip-hop had something to say about it.

Few people at the time had Souljah’s rhetorical skills, but in 1992, after she found herself in the crosshairs of Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas and the Democratic Party’s rising star, she looked to new avenues of intellectual expression that would enable her to avoid censure and reach her intended audiences. The biography she includes on her website indicates the urgency she felt: “Before the political shutdown and attack on American 1st amendment rights, she was the young voice in NY radio that spoke to the hip-hop audience about politics, culture, business, and social organization. Many people attempt to silence, isolate, interrupt or alter Sister Souljah’s powerful voice.” After Clinton made an example of her to advance his political career, Souljah gave the world Coldest as well as five subsequent novels built around the first book’s cast of characters. But the highly sought-after political commentator who had so unsettled the Democratic mainstream in the early ’90s had been sidelined.

The woman who became Sister Souljah was born Lisa Williamson in the Bronx in 1964, to parents who divorced when she was a child. In her 1994 memoir No Disrespect, she writes of moving to the projects with her mother and siblings and having to navigate a world filled with drugs, sexual harassment and assault, joblessness, and returning Vietnam veterans who struggled with mental health crises. The family eventually moved to Teaneck, N.J., where Souljah showed extraordinary academic talent. In high school, she excelled in “the skillful running of [her] mouth,” she writes. She was identified as gifted and attended a preparatory program at Cornell University before enrolling at Rutgers, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. Her organizing work put her in front of crowds, delivering keynotes at community groups’ events and offering analyses of education, police brutality, and Black—or “African,” as she would say—culture.

In May 1992, Souljah was quoted in The Washington Post describing the mentality of the people who rioted in LA: “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton, then campaigning in the Democratic primaries, seized on these words (which Souljah said had been taken out of context) during a speech at an event hosted by the Rainbow Coalition, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s civil rights organization, which had featured Souljah as a speaker at an earlier event. Attempting to distance himself from a liberatory Black politics that he felt might endanger him at the polls, Clinton compared her to David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. With this false equivalence, Clinton helped propel himself to victory as a centrist by attempting to throw the 28-year-old Souljah into the dustbin of history.

By the time Souljah and her agent began looking for a home for her novel, something was shifting in the publishing industry. Prior to this period, writers of Black popular fiction either self-published or joined the roster at an independent Black-owned press. But the ’90s marked the first time that four Black women appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at once, when Terry McMillan, the author of the enormously successful Waiting to Exhale and other romance novels, joined Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou on the list. “Trade publishers jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to publish into this niche,” the industry veteran Tracy Sherrod wrote in a recent article in Publishers Weekly. Sherrod was an editor at Henry Holt & Company in 1998 when Souljah brought her an early draft of The Coldest Winter Ever. “The first time I read the manuscript, it made my heart race and the hairs on my body stand up,” Sherrod remembers. “The voice was so incredibly honest.” Sherrod wanted to acquire the book, but she immediately ran into problems.

Herself a young Black woman near the start of her career, Sherrod would witness the lasting effects of what came to be known as the “Sister Souljah moment.” “My publisher wouldn’t read the manuscript, because the head of publicity said that Souljah was racist. Apparently she believed that because of what Bill Clinton had done,” Sherrod told me. In response, she resigned and let the higher-ups know exactly why. “I felt like the only people who were being called ‘racist’ at that time were people of color, and I found that problematic.” Sherrod took a job at Pocket Books, then an imprint of Simon & Schuster, where editor Emily Bestler had recently acquired Souljah’s novel. There, she got to see The Coldest Winter Ever become the sensation she’d expected.

“Souljah changed the landscape of Black women’s fiction, because the characters that she put on the page were people that city centers were definitely starting to see, and households were experiencing the repercussions of the drug culture,” Sherrod said. “Souljah took us right into the mentality, the consumerism, [straight through] to incarceration and how this culture was destroying our families.”

While some readers focused on Coldest’s value as a cautionary tale, others reveled in the pleasure of reading about a complex Black girl antihero, a relatable protagonist who prioritizes her own pleasure and isn’t afraid to seduce and scheme, as Mia and Shawna of the HBO series Rap Sh!t would put it today.

The year Coldest was published, Simon & Schuster put out another book that would become an essential read of the late ’90s and early aughts: Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, a collection of essays in which Morgan explores gender, race, and the culture in which she came of age. Explaining why Coldest affected her deeply, Morgan echoes what many Black women say about their devotion to the novel: “There’s a lot of Winter Santiaga in a lot of us.” She credits Souljah with creating a high-stakes world that felt to many readers like real life and creating a protagonist of great complexity and vulnerability. “I have known and loved many a dude who is a drug dealer. I have loved many a dude who has done time,” Morgan said of the parallels between her life and the protagonist’s. “What [Souljah] captures really well in the book is what the seductions of that life are and why you might choose it even if you might have other options.”

Morgan remembers sitting on panels with Souljah in the ’90s, each sharing her take on what it was like to be a young Black woman and part of the hip-hop generation, and she witnessed Souljah’s transition from political firebrand to novelist. “This person who has been talking about structural racism and is so incredibly versed in American capitalism and these systems of oppression also had this very observant, artistic eye,” she said. That commitment to interrogating oppressive social forces remained consistent from Souljah’s early ’90s message to her debut novel later in the decade, but at least one thing had changed. Because she’d built Coldest around a young Black woman, and because the experiences of other Black women and girls are central to the book, Souljah was now seen as part of the canon of contemporary Black feminist thought. Previously, she had often been the sole woman in a sea of men advancing Black nationalist and Afrocentric ideas. She had indicated a change in her focus in her 1994 memoir. “I am especially concerned with the African female in America, the ghetto girl whom nobody ever tells the definition of womanhood, or manhood for that matter,” she writes in No Disrespect. “So she slips in and out of relationships, getting chopped up psychologically, spiritually, and sometimes even physically.”

In 2010, the scholar Salamishah Tillet taught The Coldest Winter Ever as part of an English course at the University of Pennsylvania called “The Black Woman: Post–Civil Rights African-American Women’s Literature.” Souljah’s novel appeared on the syllabus alongside work by Black feminist writers like Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, and Audre Lorde. More than a decade after the book’s publication, Tillet’s students recognized Winter. Coldest offers a Black girl’s coming-of-age story that puts Winter in the same category as Celie in Walker’s The Color Purple or Pecola Breedlove in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but whether Souljah’s novel is a feminist text is debatable, Tillet said. Winter is shallow, fickle, and brash and pays serious consequences for the choices she makes. Souljah doesn’t celebrate her character’s desire for sexual freedom and exploration. Instead, the author holds Winter up against a standard of respectability and illustrates all the ways she’s fallen short.

Like all the Black women I spoke to for this story, Tillet came to know of Sister Souljah before Coldest was published. She remembers the steady stream of events that put race and gender in the headlines during her senior year in high school: In October 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee after Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court. In the spring of 1992, Los Angeles residents rebelled after a jury acquitted the officers who’d attacked Rodney King. In June, Clinton would pillory Souljah and then go on to win the presidency. The following year, he would nominate Lani Guinier, a Black University of Pennsylvania law professor, to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, only to withdraw his support when her scholarship drew criticism from the right.

“Sister Souljah and Lani Guinier were both Black women who were sacrificed for him to put forth a more centrist, more moderate Democratic political agenda,” Tillet told me. “I remember thinking of these two figures in tandem, even though we know their legacies and politics are really quite different. They both represented a politicized Black womanhood that was a threat to a centrist position.”

Clinton and other liberal Democrats were distancing themselves from Black radical politics at the very moment that Souljah’s contemporaries—especially other young people in and around New York City—were building strong activist networks to fight for racial justice. Rosa Clemente entered SUNY Albany in 1990 and was a leader in the campus’s Black Student Union. Among the adults Clemente and other Black youth looked to for leadership were Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael); Leonard Jeffries, then the chair of the Black studies department at the City College of New York; and the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. Souljah was also a sought-after speaker. Like these men, she refused to appeal to Black liberal leadership and disavowed the idea that white America would ever accept Black people as equals. And like many young Black activists of the time, Souljah had a relationship with the Nation of Islam. In the late ’80s, she had hired the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security force, to handle crowd control at a hip-hop show she produced at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In a reader’s guide to Coldest, she describes the FOI as “an army of big, beautiful, strong black men respected by and respectful of the black community…. They were under the direction of Farrakhan…who was on fire in the ’80s, and I knew that they respected me as well and would hold me down, making sure that everything was at peace.” The Nation was known by many in Black communities as a champion “of the black underclass: black people, especially men, who have been written off or abandoned by white society,” as Adam Serwer wrote in a 2018 Atlantic article about the organization’s complex legacy. In the ’90s, Farrakhan was denounced after making anti-Semitic comments, as were Ture and Jeffries. Souljah also had to answer to accusations of negatively characterizing Jewish people after she was reported to have used two stereotypically Jewish last names as a shorthand for her white critics during a 1990 talk at Columbia. Leaders whose organizing efforts were steeped in messages of Black self-reliance and Afrocentrism frequently faced accusations, sometimes valid, of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. However, unlike Farrakhan or Jeffries, the 1990 incident was the only such accusation I found aimed at Souljah.

Like Sherrod, Clemente saw a pattern in who got called “racist” by mainstream institutions. For her, Souljah was a truth teller who was not inclined to mince words. When Clemente, now a PhD candidate in Afro-American studies at UMass Amherst, read Souljah’s notorious quote in The Washington Post, she heard her asking a different question altogether: “Why do we keep dealing with the symptom and not what created the symptom?” Clemente asked rhetorically when we spoke. “That’s what she was saying. Some of us were saying it.”

In 1992, Clemente had been disgusted by a sunglasses-clad Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and by the media’s breathlessness over his popularity with Black voters. By 1996, she was well aware of the 1994 crime bill Clinton had signed into law and had no interest in supporting his reelection. “He said that shit about Sister Souljah,” she told me, describing her thought process at the time. “I’m not voting ever for the Democrats [for president].” In 2008, Clemente became Cynthia McKinney’s running mate on the Green Party ticket.

Of course, Barack Obama would be elected president that year, and his campaign would usher in a vision of the United States that many would label “post-racial” for its attempt to paint a picture of this country’s history in which people who do bad things are only ever misguided, not malicious. Souljah spoke of structural racism and white supremacy long before the 21st century’s Movement for Black Lives made such phrases part of the common culture, and yet it feels as though the directness with which she communicated belongs to the period in which she had the most visibility. It’s hard to imagine where Souljah would fit into the discourse these days. Although she responded to my e-mail requesting an interview, she didn’t make herself available. I imagine this reflects a desire to put certain parts of the past behind her. In a March 2021 interview in The Atlantic, she expressed a need to move on from Clinton’s misrepresentation of her position. “If you obsess over that…you’re losing your ability to build, to connect and do things with other people,” she said. “I try not to live my life…in reaction to racism.” But people I interviewed expressed nostalgia for the ’90s icon’s presence in public life. “I miss her grace. I miss her strength. I miss her passion. I miss that commanding-ass voice,” Joan Morgan said. “I just miss her.”

Sister Souljah is no longer the incisive orator who had Americans glued to their TV screens 30 years ago, but she hasn’t disappeared. She’s been writing a series of books related to Coldest at a steady pace since 1999. In 2021, she published Life After Death, her sixth novel, which picks up Winter’s story as her prison sentence comes to a close.

Kierna Mayo, executive editor at One World, an imprint of Random House, understands the yearning that many who experienced Souljah in the early ’90s still feel. Mayo’s own introduction to Souljah came in the late 1980s, when she attended a Harlem event where the activist was a featured speaker. “I don’t recall a time before and maybe not since seeing a young girl take to a podium and shut shit down,” Mayo said. “I get goose bumps even now thinking about it.” Souljah would have been in her 20s at the time. “With that baby face and the ponytail and the perfect skin and the total hip-hop gear, she was giving Black youth all day,” Mayo recalled. But it wasn’t just the look that was captivating. Souljah’s demand for Black self-determination energized the crowd. Mayo remembers the event being at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which meant that Souljah’s presence as a young woman on the dais was even more unusual. In so many Black institutions, women were not often the ones on the mic. But there, even Black men and elders who were standard-bearers of the old guard honored her wisdom. Souljah spoke truth not just to power, Mayo told me, “but to us.”

When Clinton came for Souljah in 1992, Mayo rushed to her defense. For the new hip-hop magazine The Source, she wrote an editorial emphasizing Souljah’s ardent love for Black people and arguing that Clinton had tried to turn a legitimate grassroots leader into a bogeyman. “Clinton was looking for his moment, so he really Willie Hortoned her,” Mayo said. She remembers being incensed that mainstream America would come to know Souljah through Clinton’s misrepresentation of her ideas. Mayo felt a similar disconnect in 1999, when Coldest hit the shelves to rave reviews. Even the complex world Souljah had created around Winter wasn’t a sufficient stand-in for the righteous anger the author herself had displayed just years before. “It was hard for me to make space for what I saw as two Souljahs,” Mayo said, noting that this was in a time before the framework of intersectionality had fully seeped into the consciousness of Gen-X women, allowing them to claim all aspects of their identities. “It felt not right that this is the way you’re coming to know her, just through Coldest Winter. It was still a fraction of the full.”

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