Saturday, May 3, 2008

saturday book rec : angry black white boy

UPDATE (10/29/08): Angry Black White Boy is now a play--it's been adapted for a run in San Francisco by Dan Wolf, "an extraordinary actor, playwright, MC and rapper behind the live hip-hop group Felonious." Here's a feature article on Wolf and on the play (and here's another), which runs from October 27 to November 16 at at the San Francisco Intersection for the Arts.

Adam Mansbach’s 2005 novel, Angry Black White Boy (Or, The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay) is an extremely rare breed of fiction -- a book by a white author with a white protagonist that focuses extensively and insightfully on the significance of the central character’s whiteness.

Unlike most white authors, Mansbach doesn’t only focus on racial issues when non-white characters enter the scene. Like his protagonist, Macon Detornay, Mansbach is probably as genuinely down with blackness as any sincerely studious white wannabe can ever be. However, he’s also determined to turn the racial lens around for a sustained stare at whiteness.

Both Mansbach and Macon foreground their own whiteness -- instead of merely trying to paint it black--because they realize that America’s refusal to get beyond its racial obsessions is not a black problem, nor a brown, red, or yellow one. The reality of racism is a white problem, and it has, or should have, a name -- white supremacy.

As a freshman at Columbia University, Macon also works as a cab driver. Many of his customers are the sort of well-off white folks who take taxis regularly, instead of buses or the subway. After eavesdropping on too many of their conversations, Macon gets fed up with what strikes him as a whiny, pampered, oblivious attitude:

The vapors of entitlement that steamed from these yuppies irked him; they were so fucking sure the cab would stop for them. They’d never been snubbed in their lives, sized up and passed by because the driver thought they wouldn’t pay or that they wanted to be taken somewhere ghetto. Macon had flagged down cabs while [black friends] Lajuan and Aura stood discreetly down the block, pretending not to be with him, approaching only when Macon had the door open. It was another way, he thought with pride, that they had cheated racism.

Macon soon becomes a full-blown Race Traitor by robbing such folks, taking their money and, as a parting insult, their overpriced neckties. As these events hit the news, all of New York City rises up in fear of a marauding, gun-waving, white-folk-abusing, and so of course black, cab driver. Shocked by the counterproductive results of his armed resistance to white privilege, Macon responds by turning himself in.

Suddenly thrust into the media spotlight, he seizes the moment by calling for a "National Day of Apology," by white people, to black people, on a person-to-person basis. Since most white Americans have so little idea of what there is to apologize or atone for, it's not surprising that the mass reconciliation effort doesn’t go very well.

By having his eighteen-year old protagonist proclaim himself even more genuinely hip to hip hop than most black people are, with moves that include tagging, hand-pumping, ball-grabbing, pimp-strutting, and all other things supposedly “black” (and supposedly, black male), Mansbach runs the risk himself of being labeled and denigrated as an embarrassing white wannabe -- a "wigger." He also runs this risk by having his third-person narrator slip in and out of a rapid-fire patois that alternates between old-style be bop and contemporary slam:

Hip hop’s a superpower worn incognito by cats like me, who move with the venom of every rhyme ever spit, cleave courses with the cold-fusion speed-of-sound precision of every turntable cut scratch slice transform and crossfade, and think with the dexterity of every theatric unsolved b-boy battle tactic, from show-stop uprock down to linoleum headspins and impossible whirling-dervish cardboard axis chiropractics.

I chew on gnarled roots, rock grimy sweatpants hoodies and boots, throw cold steel in motherfuckers’ unsuspecting faces and skate away unseen, muttering knockout punchlines in cartoon-bubble frozen breath. Then I dip into a phone booth and emerge jiggified, in tailored clothes with refined flows, my beard trimmed down to elegance, gesturing Shakespearian and quoting Machiavelli in a tone that makes the Western canon bawl.

These stylistic segues usually work very well, as do several extended bouts of open-mic oration by Macon, but Mansbach’s flying fingers must’ve worn out a dozen keyboards writing such prose. At the very least, Jack Kerouac’s Benzedrine-driven be bop riffs in On the Road finally have a worthy successor.

Among the many questions about race that Angry Black White Boy poses is whether both Mansbach and Macon can dodge the charge of being pretentious, culture-nabbing, backstabbing, hopelessly white-souled “wiggers.” Fortunately, what separates both Mansbach and Macon from other dabbling white boy b-boys is the deeply informed sincerity of their efforts.

For one thing, the novel is packed with apt, credentializing allusions to black cultural and political forebearers. For another, the fanatical appreciation of black culture expressed by both author and protagonist includes a desire to fight against the white supremacy that they themselves indelibly embody.

At one point, Macon remembers his thirteen-year-old self, a white kid sporting a Malcolm X t-shirt in order to proclaim his solid knowledge at “the first annual Boston Hip Hop Conference.” His younger self attended that conference with his "heart fluttering with intimidation and delight as scowling bald-headed old schoolers pointed at his chest, demanding, ‘Whatchu know about that man?’ Which was exactly what he’d wanted, why he’d worn it. He ran down Malcolm’s life for them, watched them revise their expressions with inward elation, nodded studiously at their government assassination theories, rhymed when the chance presented itself."

As Mansbach’s online bio demonstrates, he too has done his homework, as well as made a contribution to The Struggle. He’s written two other racially incisive novels, Shackling Water and the recently released The End of the Jews, as well as a book of poetry with a title that suggests his work’s overall urbanized tone, content, and metaphorical finesse: genius b-boy cynics getting weeded in the garden of delights.

Like Macon, Mansbach also resuscitates printed poetry into the spoken art it used to be, and he’s released a CD of this sort under a stage-name, Kodiak Brinks. Mansbach also describes himself as “the founding editor of the pioneering '90s hip hop journal Elementary, and a former Artistic Consultant to Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies.” Currently, he writes a weekly political column for, an online news source “for black America,” and for his day-time gig, he teaches writing at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Asked in an interview about the novel’s own street-cred and lit-crit bona fides, Mansbach described its allusive debt to black cultural production: “Invisible Man, Native Son, Flight to Canada, Another Country, a lot of Baraka’s poetry, ten or twenty different rappers, Gil Scott Heron’s work, The Last Poets, the career of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I wanted it to have that kind of layering. And Paul Beatty also, I should say.” (Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle does seem like a precursor to Angry Black White Boy, and a challenging one at that.)

As it was for Mansbach, Macon’s adolescent rebellion fermented in a largely white Boston suburb, where he found no one interested in joining his disgust over the Rodney King verdict. Mansbach says that for him, as for Macon, the white jury’s sweeping absolution of L.A.’s abusive, racist police force was an infuriating travesty, and thus a catalyzing event in the budding rejection of his own whiteness:

Looking around at my community I saw a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of people pretending to care about things that they actually didn’t, a lot of malignant neglect going on, a lot of bullshit. I'd already made the decision that I wasn’t trying to be down with the dominant culture, instead I had found hip-hop, the thing that was most vibrantly critiquing that dominant culture.

Feeling compelled to do something, Mansbach led a high school walkout, “just to disrupt business as usual and say we’re too upset to do anything. This led to a rally at city hall.” As with the other parallels to Mansbach’s own life and self, his protagonist's reaction is more extreme -- Macon finds (perhaps too conveniently) an empty police car, which he smashes and burns.

Perhaps in recognition of the absurdity that is the concept of “race” itself, Angry Black White Boy eventually devolves into farce, with Macon running away from the riots ignited by his grand "Day of Apology" idea to the American South. There he meets up with some rather cartoonishly racist characters, who threaten to snuff out him and his race-traitor ways. Macon is then rescued by a deus ex machina, a millionaire who wants to save and commodify him, by spiriting him away in a helicopter named, yes, the Deus Ex Machina.

Like the characterization of Macon, most of Angry Black White Boy makes its incisive satiric points with exaggeration, veering at times into hilarious slapstick farce. Taken on these terms, instead of those of conventional realism, the novel succeeds in illuminating the current state of American race relations, particularly the infantilized state of current white self-awareness.

Instead of trying to end this recommendation with pithy closing words of my own, I’ll leave that to Adam Mansbach below. I'll only add that this novel is also an especially impressive work of literature because it’s so artfully, intelligently informed by a recent area of academic inquiry (which also, of course, informs me), “critical whiteness studies.” And, in case you haven't figured it out by now, the Macon Detornary in this book is a primary inspiration for this blog, and for the "me" who writes it as "Macon D."

At one point, Macon lands on what amounts to a personal race traitor’s slogan. It’s not quite as catchy as “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” the slogan of an apparently defunct academic journal, which took as its title the incendiary slur, Race Traitor. Macon's slogan is in the same vein, though: “White people are not evil but evil is white people.”

An interviewer asked Mansbach about this slogan, “How much of that is true to you?”

Mansbach replied:

I would probably amend it to evil is whiteness, because I don’t want to implicate individuals as much as a concept. The concept of whiteness goes un-interrogated, unanalyzed, and in the absence of definition it has often been a horrific thing. That is to say, whiteness being the top of the socio-economic pyramid. Basically it is mostly defined by what it is not.

Whiteness is a state of not ever really having to think about racial identity because whiteness is seen as normative in this society. I think there is a tremendous level of disengagement on the part of most white people when it comes to race. I don’t think it’s something that white people want to think about unless something forces us to think about it. The legacy of whiteness in this country has been of oppression and co-option while maintaining a cavalier attitude.


  1. I haven't been hip to your blog too long, but based on your name, I would've thought this to be one of your first posts. :-) (I was the one who asked--back in the Robert Jensen post--if the "D" stood for Detornay.)

    I read this book last year (or was it the year before?). I liked it. I thought it was interesting that Macon thought that John Brown had alterior motives for the insurrections, that he was not quite down for the cause. There was also a little bit of magical realism. (I'm thinking about the part in which a gun is fired an the bullet hits an unexpected target -- if I remember correctly.)

    I'm not sure what to say about the ending (a little magical realism going on their too?), except that I didn't expect it to end the way it did.

  2. Hi deb, and welcome back. yes, i remember your remarkable and accurate guess about my nom de blog.

    I'm glad you liked Mansbach's book--have you tried any of his others?

    I'm not quite sure what to say about the ending, but I will say that it reminds me of the ending of the Todd Haynes film, Safe, as well as that of E A Poe's strange story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. All three end with a sort of blankness, a white blankness. As if there's an endgame to whiteness that each work's creator finally found himself driven to by a story about racial whiteness . . .


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