Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read.
The stunning national bestseller now features an illuminating discussion with Sister Souljah her secret thoughts on creating the story that has sold more than one million copies worldwide and introduced readers everywhere to the real ghetto experience. Here are answers to the questions fans everywhere have been asking; the meanings and inspirations behind such memorable characters as Winter, Midnight, and Santiaga; and insights into why and how Souljah conceived of one of the most powerful novels of our time.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Coldest Winter Ever
I never liked Sister Souljah, straight up. She the type of female I’d like to cut in the face with my razor. Before I get heated just talking about her, let me make it clear who I am and where I stand. Don’t go jumping to any conclusions either. All of y’all are too quick to jump to her defense without knowing what somebody up close and personal thinks. When it comes right down to it, those are the ones who really count, the people who was there, who seen it all. Hell, you can’t smell nobody’s breath through a camera. You almost can’t even see their pimples. So you know that TV shit ain’t real. Don’t run ahead of me. Let me take my time and tell my story.
• • •
Brooklyn-born I don’t have no sob stories for you about rats and roaches and pissy-pew hallways. I came busting out of my momma’s big coochie on January 28, 1977, during one of New York’s worst snowstorms. So my mother named me Winter. My father, Ricky Santiaga, was so proud of his new baby girl that he had a limo waiting to pick my moms up from the hospital. The same night I got home my pops gave me a diamond ring set in 24-karat gold. My moms said that my fingers were too small and soft to even hold a ring in place, but he insisted that he had a guy who would have it adjusted just right. It was important for me to know I deserved the best, no slum jewelry, cheap shoes, or knock-off designer stuff, only the real thing.
We lived in the projects but we were cool with that. We weren’t wanting for a damn thing. I had three aunts, four uncles, and a whole slew of cousins. As far as we were concerned it was live for all of us to be chilling in the same building, or at least the next building over. We never had to worry about getting into fights because around our way we had reputation. Plus it was plain and simple common sense. If you put your hands on anybody in the family you would get jumped by the next oldest person in our family, and so on and so on. Sooner than later we didn’t even have to say a word. Everybody understood that our family had the neighborhood locked down, it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Our apartment in the projects was dipped. We had royal red carpets on the floors, top-of-the-line furniture, a fully loaded entertainment center, equipment, and all that good stuff. I loved my pops with a passion. He was the smoothest nigga in the world. When he came into a room he made a difference. His cologne came around the corner introducing him before you could even see him. He spoke softly, with deep seriousness. He was light-skinned, tall, with curly black hair and a fine thin mustache to match. He was medium build, definitely in shape. The thing that stood out about him was his style. His clothes were crisp-expensive. He never wore the same shirt twice. He could do it like that ’cause he was smart. He never used the drugs he sold. He collected his money on time and made examples of any fool who tried to cheat him. He had a saying: One copper penny, one finger.
All the ladies loved him but he wasn’t what I would call a ladies’ man. He never had no girlfriend, at least no female ever called the house trying to front on my moms. I can’t recall any incidents involving other women, accusations or any uncomfortableness. He was a family man. Everybody in the whole world knew my moms was his wife, his one and only, his soft spot even. Moms and Pops had been young lovers and, unlike a whole lot of niggas, they stayed together. She was fourteen when she had me. Folks said she looked great during pregnancy and would switch her ass around the neighborhood flowing easy, like water. She would wear her fine Italian leather stiletto heels even in her seventh month. Moms had everything by the way of clothes and anything else you could think of. Her mahogany skin was smooth as a Hershey’s chocolate bar. When she went anywhere she was well coordinated. If she had on a zebra skin hat, she’d sport the zebra skin pants and would have a zebra skin pattern on all ten nails. She’d even have the Victoria’s Secret zebra pattern panties and camisole. What separated her from every other woman any of us knew was she just had so much class. While the others were putting their imitation leather and zebra skins on layaway, piece by piece, Momma wouldn’t be caught dead without her shit perfectly arranged. By the time hoes sported their outfits all their shit was played out, straight out of style. When it came to shopping Momma had no mercy and that’s the way Santiaga liked it. His woman was supposed to be the showstopper. Momma didn’t work ’cause beauty, she said, was a full-time occupation that left no room for anything else. She’d sit at her vanity table for three hours making sure she positioned each extra long lash on just right. She’d argue with anyone who said she wasn’t born with those lashes that framed her big, wide brown eyes that were gorgeous with or without falsies. She made it clear to me that beautiful women are supposed to be taken care of. She would whisper in my ear, “I’m just a bad bitch!”
Now a bad bitch is a woman who handles her business without making it seem like business. Only dumb girls let love get them delirious to the point where they let things that really count go undone. For example, you see a good-looking nigga walking down the avenue, you get excited. You get wet just thinking about him. You step to him, size him up, and you think, Looks good. You slide you eyes down to his zipper, check for the print. Inside you scream, Yes, it’s all there! But then you realize he’s not wearing a watch, ain’t carrying no car keys, no jewels, and he’s sporting last month’s sneakers. He’s broke as hell. A bad bitch realizes that she has two options: (1) She can take him home and get her groove on just to enjoy the sex and don’t get emotionally involved because he can’t afford her; or (2) She can walk away and leave his broke ass standing right there. Having a relationship is out. Getting emotionally involved is out. Taking him seriously is out. If a bad bitch is extra slick she can keep this guy on the side for the good sex. He then becomes a commercial to the money man who is the main program. The money man is the guy who knows how to provide, knows how to bring home the goodness and bless his woman with everything she wants. Now the money man might not be ringing any bells sexually, but if he has ends—if his pockets are heavy—a bad bitch will moan like this nigga is the original Casanova. When he’s sexing her, she’ll shake, pant, and cry out like he’s creating orgasms as strong as ocean waves. Now Moms must have been a bad bitch because she had it both ways. She had the money man with the good looks, loyalty, and I know Pops was laying it down in the bedroom.
Moms got her hair done once every three days. The shop we went to, ’cause she always took me, was for the high rollers’ girls. These were the few women in the neighborhood who are able to hook the big money fish. They all went to this shop to get their hair done, nails did, and, more importantly, to show off and update on shit going on. Earline’s was where we could get our hair done while we collected information on the side.
By the time I was seven I understood the rules perfectly. Keep the family’s business quiet. Most things were better left unsaid. Even though this was the high rollers’ hair shop, we were clear that motherfuckers were jealous of us. My Pops’s operation was steadily building. As a young guy he started off as a lookout but was so sharp that now he has organized his own thing. He has his own workers and whatnot. People knew he was headed to being the next Big Willie by his style. He was respected for his product, which was never watered down, always a fair cut for your money. So me and my moms would catch those jealous glances, but we threw those shits right back. Our attitude toward other females was: “Hey, your man works for my Pops, now bow down to the family who puts food on the table for you and yours.”
Santiaga was the number one businessman in our area by the time I was thirteen, running thangs. Although he taught me never to sweat the small stuff, it seemed like every move he made he thought about carefully. I would hear his key unlocking the first door into our apartment. Then the men he was with, his workers, they would stand in the limited space between the first door and the heavy metal second door that actually led into our place, and talk. After they handled their matters you would hear the first door open, then slam again. Pops would lock it and then unlock the second door to come inside. Whatever pressure he felt, whatever weight or business he had was left in between those two doors because when he came inside he brought his sexy smile, excited eyes, and power along with him.
He would show us all love. He would have whatever any of us had asked him for in his pocket no matter how small the request, down to a Snickers bar. If any of us had a problem of any kind, we could ask him and he’d make the answer so simple that I’d wonder how I couldn’t of figured it out myself.
If something was on his mind, he’d go in the back to a private room he had Woody the carpenter build and pull out his chessboard. Funny thing was, he wouldn’t play with anybody, just against himself. When I’d ask him why, he’d say, “That’s how I stay on top baby. I look at life from every position. I play from every side. You gotta know what each man on the board is thinking down to the littlest motherfucker like the pawn.”
Now Daddy would explain that other players are quick to sacrifice or ignore the pawn, but he was too smart for that. “The pawns are my soldiers,” he would say. “If I surround myself with strong soldiers, give them all a stake in the game, then they keep the hood strong and tight.” He would look into my eyes as if to ask do I understand. I didn’t want him to know that I dig him so much that I’d listen to him for as long as he wanted to talk, but I didn’t give a fuck about a game of chess. He would break down how around our way there were always some young kids tryna “spread their wings” and test his operation. He said they mostly stupid though ’cause no smart guy is gonna try to kick in the door of the big man unless he got an extra tight, professional, strong, and ruthless crew. But every now and then some dumb-ass young kid who had seen too many Scarface-type movies will try to overtake what can only kill him. “He loses,” Santiaga said, knocking the black king over on the chessboard. “He loses because he never understood the game.”
The up-and-coming dealers on the block was Santiaga’s number two problem. I was his number one. He loved me like crazy but was getting nervous about the way men, young and old, was checking for me. It was amazing how in one year, from age twelve to thirteen, my titties sprouted. I even had the ass to match. I don’t know who was more excited, the men or me. I was walking around poking my stuff out in any direction that looked good to me. But anybody who stared my way for more than a few seconds was in danger of catching a critical beat down. Pops had already made an example of at least two niggas around my way. Santiaga sliced this one dude from his left ear to his right ear. We call that kind of cut a “hospital run.” But this guy never got to go to the hospital. Santiaga let his blood gush out until Doc got to our apartment. Now Doc ain’t really no doctor, he just had some medical training in the army. Santiaga calls him when he don’t need the police and hospital buttin’ around in his business. Well when Doc got finished with dude his cut just bubbled up all the way across his face. Everybody in the neighborhood started calling him Bubbles for that ugly scar. Bubbles’s crime was looking at me with lust in his eyes while he was supposed to be installing the safe in our apartment. Now Bubbles was a walking billboard that no one is allowed to fuck with Santiaga’s daughter. After that we got the second metal door installed in our apartment and none of Daddy’s “workers” were ever allowed past that door again.
Now Moms thought Santiaga’s ways was overboard. She told him she was just gonna get me some birth control pills and let me go, ’cause “When a woman wants to get fucked, she gets fucked. She gets fucked whether it’s in a car or a closet.”
Suggestions like this just got Santiaga more crazy. He made it clear to Moms, “Winter is not a woman yet. None of these lowlifes are gonna make a trick outta my flesh and blood.” Pops would pull me to the side, grab my shoulders with his strong hands and firm grip, stare into my eyes, and tell me slowly, “Only a hardworking man, a sharp thinker who doesn’t hesitate to do what he gotta do, to get you what you need to have, deserves you.”
He repeated that lesson often. I would think to myself, Hmm, only Poppa fits that description. Now I loved Poppa but I hated the way he cock-blocked. Every teenage girl wants to cut loose and get close to the fire, but I was like a pot of boiling milk with the lid on. You know that’s ready to explode and slide down the side of the pan.
So my peeps kept me busy by giving me things to do all the time. I had to watch my baby sisters Mercedes and Lexus, the twins. They was a real pain in the ass at eight months old. Then I had to look out for my other little sister Porsche, who was four. She wasn’t half bad since she didn’t shit all over all the time. Sometimes the three of them kids together got on my nerves so bad they almost made me want to go to school. But my policy was to go to school just enough so the authorities wouldn’t kick me out. If I had a new outfit to show off or some new jewels I knew I’d get sweated for, fine, but I wasn’t gonna report to school every day like it was some type of job when they weren’t even paying me for it. School was like a hustle. Teachers wanted me to come to school so they could get paid to control me. What do I get out of the deal? Enough said, I just wasn’t having it.
As busy as they kept me, there was Midnight. I guess he got that name because midnight was about the only thing blacker than him. He was one of my father’s workers. He was real serious like my father. He always looked like he was thinking deep thoughts and had a lot on his mind. I figured maybe he had a plan to take over the world. I liked that because he would need to own the world to win me. He never smiled. He didn’t joke around like other niggas in our age group. He did his pickups and deliveries like clockwork. My father once referred to him as a strong young lieutenant. Santiaga liked him because he said he never tried to test or flex. He knew Santiaga was the boss and he was comfortable and cool with that. Midnight never attempted to skim, pay late, or run games, like some guys did when they first started out.
I liked Midnight for other reasons too. In the summertime he wore white when he played basketball. His mother, or whoever washed his clothes, must have been more handy than them happy homemakers on the TV commercials ’cause his shit was crisp. But what really got me was that black skin. It was smooth and perfect. It laid on top of his bone structure tight like Saran Wrap. His arms were cut. I could tell he lifted weights. But he wasn’t all big and swollen like those little-dick assholes in the magazines. He was tall, yet medium-sized, and perfect. His muscles were defined, his veins stuck out, emphasizing his strengths. His neck was slim and strong. He would come to the park only on Sundays. I know because I was clocking him like that. He would be wearing a new sweat suit everytime. He held his money in a gold money clip. He would take the money clip, with the money neatly stacked, out of his sweat pants pocket. He’d take off his pants, stripping down to the basketball shorts he had on underneath. His powerful legs were as cut as his upper body. For this I gave him mad respect. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve seen with strong upper bodies and legs like a chicken. He would put that money clip on the inside of his basketball shorts and play ball. My eyes would move in and out of his structure. I couldn’t wait to put my lips against his skin and maybe even suck his collarbone or something. To make the package complete, Midnight’s kicks were always new and clean.
Now Midnight never paid me no mind. I wasn’t worried about it though, ’cause one thing I learned from my mother is a bad bitch gets what she wants if she works her shit right. Pops also taught me something useful about patience. He said sometimes a victory is sweeter when it takes a long time to carry out the plan, and you catch the person completely off guard. What I was up against was the fact that Midnight worked for my pops. So, even if he had ever considered me, he probably ruled me out. He was five years older than me. So, he might have also considered me jailbait. The worst thing about it was that I couldn’t tell either way. You know how they say a person’s face is a dead giveaway? Well Midnight was the opposite. His face seems serious all the time. His reactions just didn’t show up. Even when he plays ball, he didn’t talk trash like the other niggas. He didn’t even react when they try to mess with him. He just seemed focused on the basket, made his moves, scored his jumpers, and didn’t even smile when he won. At first, to get his attention I did the regular things like rocking my skirts extra mini, shortening my already short shorts, sporting halter tops and cute little metallic bras. As I got sexier, he went from looking at me almost never to never looking at me at all. While in his presence, or at least when I was in the same park he was in watching him play ball, I would try to get his attention by acting mad. I’d suck my teeth, roll my eyes at him, still nothing. So I decided to make him a long-shot project.
Meanwhile I had my own fun stuff going on. I would let niggas take me to the movies, or should I say I went to the movies with my girlfriends and met niggas there, not wanting to ruffle Santiaga’s feathers by bringing a “worthless nigga” home. Sometimes we would just chill at my girl Natalie’s apartment. Her moms was never home so we had free run of the place.
Getting my first sugar daddy was no problem. His name was Sterling. I met him in lower Manhattan at a grocery market when I ran in to get some Chap Stick on a fickle autumn morning. I guess my style just overwhelmed him ’cause instead of reaching into the cash register and giving me my damn change his eyes were sliding in between my breasts like he wished he could be one of my gold chains. I recognized him immediately as a sucker, somebody I could take for all he had. All his thoughts showed on his face. It was clear that I had his full attention as I gave him a blast of ghetto attitude. I put my hands on my hips, saying, “My money or your life?” He looked startled, stopped staring, and counted out my change. I laughed.
“Do you need your receipt?” he asked with his enthusiastic corny ass trying to prolong the conversation.
“If that’s all you have to offer,” I said with a serious look sprinkled with sexiness. He gave me my money, and cleared his throat, turned from the register with his cheap white dress shirt and two-dollar tie, and followed me as I walked toward the door. I guess he had it like that. He could walk away from the register because he was the store manager.
“So what’s your name?” he asked, looking like he thought he could actually make some progress with me.
“Winter,” I said, rolling my eyes with disinterest.
“You live around here?”
“Brooklyn baby!! No doubt.”
The rest is history. He got paid every two weeks and so did I. He worked at the store and I worked on him. I had him buying me shit he couldn’t afford. We ate at places he never knew existed. Whatever little money he took home in pay, I took my 25 percent like I was his freakin’ agent or something. It worked out smooth, him living in Manhattan out of Santiaga’s eyesight. Besides, the little piece of cash he provided meant a new outfit, an extra gold bangle to my collection, whatever—like mom says, you can never have too much.
• • •
Santiaga shook up what was supposed to be my sweet sixteenth with shocking news. We were all around the table. My chocolate Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cake was bombarded with small nuts and sixteen carefully placed maraschino cherries. Daddy handed me a long slim box, the kind I like because it almost always means jewelry. I tore off the gold wrapping paper and smiled wildly as I lifted my new diamond tennis bracelet off of the clean white cotton. My mother’s mouth hung open as she inspected my diamonds from across the table. Even though she knew better, she was confirming that they were white, clear, and sparkled like diamonds, not cubic zirconias.
As I put the bracelet on, Santiaga handed me a birthday card. This was unusual because we weren’t big on cards and poetry and shit like that in my family. As I fumbled with the catch on my bracelet, my mom opened the card, suspecting I guess that there must be some birthday money in it or something. She probably figured that if I got cash in addition to this bracelet Santiaga had gone overboard again, and would need a talking to later on. As she opened the card two Polaroid snapshots fell out and onto the table. She picked it up, twisted up her face with curiosity and said, “Baby, what is this?”
“It’s our new house in Long Island,” Daddy said coolly with pride and confidence. “I wanted to surprise everybody and I figured today was as good as any day. We’re moving! First class baby! Only the best, top shelf for the ladies in my life.” I was feeling crazy. The gold candles on my cake melted away and so did my dreams under the pressure of the flickering fire.
All I knew was the projects. It was where my friends, family, and all my great adventures were. I knew these streets like I knew the curves of my own body. I was like the princess of these alleyways, back staircases, and whatnot. What was the point of moving? Santiaga always said you gotta live where business is to avoid a hostile takeover. He said that a man gotta carry a powerful presence in his neighborhood so the small-timers didn’t start itching with takeover fever. Now it was like we was cutting out. So I did something that I normally would not do. I questioned Santiaga.
“Why? What’s the point? Why are we about to do something that you said we would never do?”
Santiaga simply said, “Baby girl, things is on a new level. It was cool to rest my head here in the past. But my business is bigger and better than ever. I can’t let them get too familiar with the routine. I gotta switch up, keep ’em guessing.” Me, Momma, and Porsche were all seated stiff and silent. The babies didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Surprise swirled around, strangling us. He continued, “Everyone can’t handle my success. Eventually some fool will snap out of order and try to bring it to me by hurting one of my girls.” His long finger pointed at us. His eyes locked into each of our eyes individually. He was making good sense but I was still vexed. I figured, yeah sounds good and all but I’m not down with the idea of running from a fight. It’s just straight up not Santiaga style.
Santiaga picked up on my expression quickly and said, “Now you know I don’t run from no war. I’ll take on anybody who wants to bring it to me! But what I’m not having is nobody fucking with my ladies. If they want war, let it be man to man, and only the men.” It seemed like Santiaga knew something he wasn’t telling us. He was dead serious and I knew that his statements were coming from somewhere. “This place,” he added, holding up the picture, his finger pointing out the mansion, “this is a safe place. Man, wait till you see it. Shit, is laid out so nice it’s like heaven.”
• • •
The rules for our move out of Brooklyn were clear and nonnegotiable. Don’t talk about it. We knew no matter how silent we were, there would still be chatter. My mother’s brothers and sisters, and their husbands and boyfriends, who all worked for Poppa, would definitely have something to say. That didn’t matter, Santiaga said, “I’ll take care of everything. Just don’t add to it.”
In my last few days everything was moving like in a slow-motion film. Shit that stank, stank more. Anything sweet seemed even sweeter. I spent all my extra time with my girls. We were mad tight, many of us born and raised in this same spot. Take me and Natalie for instance, we did everything together. We even got our cherries busted together and lied to each other about how good the first time felt, when the truth was those big dicks ripped our tight little twelve-year-old tunnels apart. We fought over whose date was finer, even though Jamal and Jacob were twins! But I knew Jamal was cuter ’cause he had a fine black mole on his right cheek and that shit was sexy. Natalie said Jamal was the one who made my titties grow, ’cause after me and him started “getting down” I went from flat-chested to all eyes on me!
When my girl Toshi had beef with these chicks from around the corner, me, Nat, Zakia, Simone, Monique, Reese, all of us took off our jewels, greased up our faces, braided down our hair, and had our razors under our tongues ready to go to war. Before blows could be thrown or razors spitted out the big doofy girl from the other crew, who was s’pose to scare us, shouted out, “Yo, that’s Santiaga’s daughter. You crazy, I ain’t fucking with her.” Then the chicks we was supposed to be fighting started fighting each other ’cause some of them wanted to fight and some of them didn’t. So we started running toward them. We charged those bitches and they flew. We ran till we got tired and cracked up laughing at how stupid they were. I know one thing, they never fucked with Toshi again.
We blew trees together then got so hungry we ate four family-size bags of nacho cheese Doritos and watched our girl Asia, the only chubby one in our crew, throw up from the bellyache. Hell, we went from patent leather shoes at five-year-old birthday parties, to matching tomboy outfits and brawls, to fighting over whose titties were bigger.
Chanté, who was older than us, taught us all the sexual positions. She let us watch while she got down with boys when her mother was at work. She liked the idea of being our “teacher.” She even taught us how to suck a dick.
We had our first beef patties and coco bread, bun’n cheese and ginger beer together ’cause our girl Carmen was from Jamaica and used to take us to the spot where the dreds chilled out. She taught us how to dance like the Jamaican winders by moving our bodies slow and sexy like caterpillars. But none of us took fashion tips from her ’cause her gear was out of this world.
There wasn’t nothing that we hadn’t been through, including going to the funeral for Nique whose mother pushed her off the roof after she found out her man had been fucking her daughter. I was gonna miss BK, the music, the vibe, the hot dogs, and mostly the streets. It didn’t matter what no one said, Brooklyn is the shit, number one in my heart.
No one was supposed to know we were leaving. But on our last day there, Natalie, who had a way of finding out all and any dirt on anybody, said to me out of the blue, “I’m tryna get my mother to get our long distance turned back on so I can make long-distance calls.” When we parted, she said, “Stay real, don’t switch up on us, bitch.”
We left in the evening. The whole thing was casual like we were going out to dinner or some shit like that. We didn’t take nothing with us ’cause Santiaga said we didn’t need it.
What People are Saying About This
"Sister Souljah is the #1 author of the hip-hop generation."
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs
"Compelling...tugs at the emotions."
"Real and raw.... If a rap song could be a novel, it might resemble the coldest winter ever."
"Real and raw."