Pre-Post-Racial?

Adam Mansbach’s “Angry Black White Boy” has been billed as “the first great race novel of the twenty-first century,” and maybe it is. In fact, this novel–the story of a privileged white kid named Macon Detornay, who becomes disgusted with his own white heritage and decides to brand himself a “race traitor” and advocate for mass apologies to African Americans–seems to be a perfect representation of all the strange contradictions of Obama’s so-called “Post-Racial America.”

More on that in a moment.

First, I want to comment on Mansbach’s prose quality, and on the narrative itself. “Angry Black White Boy” seems to pulse with the energy of hip-hop, and it takes only a few pages before you almost start nodding your head to the rhythm of the words. I won’t claim to be a scholar of hip-hop literature, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book which more perfectly captures the cadence and vocabulary of Hip-Hop (and no, I’m not talking about the dialect of “Black America,” but instead the culture and attitude of the music itself). I’ve read novels which seem to exude the spirit of rock music (“Hairstyles of the Damned,” “High Fidelity”) and new wave music (“The Informers”), but never a novel that really feels like hip-hop on the page. “Angry Black White Boy” is, from a prose quality standpoint alone, a remarkable achievement.

The narrative, though, is a bit rockier in quality. The novel begins slowly, allowing us to truly become immersed in the character of Macon Detornay, to see his goals, to see his daily tasks, to see how his mind works, but at perhaps the one-third marker, the book takes a strange turn: Macon is arrested, then winds up on TV, then becomes a sort of black-white prophet, calling for a “Day of Apology” and starting a “Race Traitor Project,” and then there are massive riots, etc.  Essentially, this novel becomes more interested in the highly satirical plot elements (the riots, especially) than in the characters; even though it remains well-written until the very last word, the characters take a backseat to the general craziness that Mansbach has imagined (much in the same way that many summer action films allow their CGI effects to overtake the actors). The novel never fails to engage us, and we’re always interested in what comes next, but we stop caring about the characters after page 150 because…well…quite simply, the author seems to stop caring about them, seems to stop treating them like flesh-and-blood people, seems to see them more as human props amidst the special effects. By the end of the novel, when Mansbach tries to zoom back in on Macony Detornay and his (by now) wildly inconsistently characterized friend ‘Nique, I barely understand the motivations of either character; it’s a disorienting pan-in and pan-out technique that Mansbach has employed, and his frequent use of point-of-view shifts doesn’t necessarily help our emotional detachment.

In short…fun to read? Yes. Highly flawed in character and plot? Without a doubt.

But about that “Post-Racial America” comment I made above…this is interesting stuff. “Angry Black White Boy” presents the irony that the moment of true reconciliation between races will actually lead to greater chasms between races. Reconciliation will always be approached with some motive in mind, whether that motive is guilt (“I’m so sorry for all that we’ve done to you”) or commodification (“I support rap music…because it’s profitable.”), and forgiveness will always be a choice. Some will offer it, and some will refuse it, and some will even retaliate against it. If we say we live in a Post-Racial America, that means we’ve likely avoided reconciliation because we know that reconciliation can cause conflict. It’s as if we’ve constructed a bridge by taking some engineering shortcuts…and sooner or later, those shortcuts will lead to the demise of the bridge anyway.

“Angry Black White Boy” is about five years old by now, and was published long before Obama’s “Post-Racial America” speeches. The book seems to illustrate our unique Millennial ability to willingly ignore problems that do not feel immediate, and the disastrous consequences of actually confronting those problems head-on.

I’ve written a great deal about how the true “Great Millennial Novel” will show us characters who are striving toward some unifying noble purpose (a la the “Greatest Generation” and World War II, and the Baby Boomers and the Social Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s), and “Angry Black White Boy” gives us one imagined purpose: racial reconciliation. Do I think that this will be the cause to unite the Millennial Generation? Probably not (especially considering the collective pat-on-the-back that Millennials have given themselves for getting a black man elected to the presidency). And anyway, the horrifying effects of Macon Detornay’s pursuit of his purpose likely won’t win him any followers in Post-Racial America.

Here’s a quick link to Mansbach’s author site.

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