Forty Acres: A Thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith, 384 pp. Atria Books, 2015, $10.00 paperback
Several years ago I fell in love with Rod Serling. Yes, the very same Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame. At the time I was in the throes of graduate school and willfully following the path of anything that remotely looked like a worthy distraction. The Twilight Zone and its eccentric creator fit the bill.
For many years, Mr. Serling had held a special place in my heart—as a young adult, I’d strained to stay awake for the New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon. Inevitably, every year I’d end up watching pretty much the same 20 or so episodes, tuckering out at around the 2am mark.
I had several favorites; for example, the one cleverly entitled “People are the Same All Over” in which two white male astronauts land on a distant planet. One dies and the one left alive is turned into a zoo exhibit by the planet’s inhabitants. Or the one in which the audience is led to believe that the two white men fighting for their lives are saving all humanity from an invasion of giants from outer space. Only in the last couple of seconds of the episode do we learn that the two “heroes” are, in fact, the invaders. And “The Gift,” a heartbreaking story of a stranger who wanders into an isolated Mexican village and is murdered, with the urging of the villagers, by the local army. Only after he is dead do they learn that the stranger had brought them the cure for cancer.
Which brings me to my review of Forty Acres: A Thriller (2015) by Dwayne Alexander Smith, mostly because it seems odd to me that despite Serling’s liberal leanings and his relentless challenging of the status quo, he could not seem to bring himself to cross one threshold of possibility; that is, what would it be like if the racial tables of the United States were turned? After all, Serling was a white American man with all the advantages of the label. For all of his ruminations about alternate realities and future possibilities the thought must have occurred to him that the privileges he enjoyed—at the very least, his having his own TV show despite his “out-there” theories—were largely afforded by his skin color.
In my more generous moments I think, “Well, perhaps he did pitch an episode that proposed an alternate racial reality and was shot down by the executives at whatever TV channel he’d signed on with (CBS, I believe). They were the ones who couldn’t handle it, not my man, Serling.”
Leave me to my generosity.
Forty Acres: A Thriller, yet another recommendation from Amazon (gotta love algorithms and big business’ desire to sell, sell, sell!) dares to imagine a world nestled within our own reality in which blacks hold whites as slaves! Set in contemporary United States in which Barack Obama is indeed president, a Dr. Kasim presides over a secret society of high-powered black men who capture and keep the white descendants of former slave owners as slaves.
There are many things to love about the novel. It was written by a screenwriter, so the imagery jumps off the page. Smith keeps the narrative moving, so there is never a dull moment—indeed, to call the book a “thriller” is an understatement. Smith seems to have anticipated his audience’s misgivings, questions, skepticisms, etc. and walks the reader logically through his reasonings, methodologies, and possible outcomes, without making her or him feel as if that is what he is doing.
I actually found myself at certain moments wondering how this story made it past the gatekeepers (i.e. those whom I presume shut down Mr. Serling’s truly speculative work). But then I was reminded of another novel that I read several years ago: Lion’s Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate World (2003) by Steven Barnes. At the time that I read Barnes’ novel I don’t recall thinking that he was doing anything all that revolutionary; it was science fiction set in an alternate time in an alternate place after all. I may have to go back and read it.
But Forty Acres is different. It references the numerous broken promises to people of African descent in this country, the countless injustices endured by men and women who were chosen to live lives of servitude simply because of the color of their skin, and more recently wrongs perpetuated by bigots like George Zimmerman against 16–year old Trayvon Martin. There are noted famous figures, geographical locations, and historical events that the reader can easily identify and identify with. These facts up the stakes for all involved, I think: the author, the editor, the publisher, the booksellers, the readers, especially at a time when certain white folks are convinced that they need to “take back” the county. And yet, it found its way into print and e-book. Bravo, U.S.!
The novel left me wondering what would happen if “the wrong/right” people got a hold of it. After all, the novel explores what many whites have feared since they embarked on the dastardly business of, not only kidnapping and enslaving, but dehumanizing, murdering, and raping millions of people. For some people of color, “Forty Acres” and what it stands for would be viewed as a form of divine retribution. Moreover, it would mean freedom from what Dr. Kasim calls black noise, a condition which keeps, specifically, black men from realizing their full potential. According to Dr. Kasim, the only way to quiet black noise is to enslave whites. He successfully does so with the support of, not only his black employees, cronies, and beneficiaries, but several white people as well. In the end, as was true during the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, the success of the system depends on the accrual of wealth. In short, people will sell their sister for a dollar.
I use “sister” here deliberately, as that is one aspect of the novel that left me wanting an explanation. Dr. Kasim is, simply put, a misogynist. I expected to learn that the wife of his youth had betrayed him with a white man or something. However, all we learn is that he abandoned her when he made his decision to avenge “the race”—hardly a reason to hate and devalue all women even as he claims to be doing what he does as retribution for the violations that his female ancestors endured under slavery. Odd.
Smith tries valiantly at the end of the narrative to make a grand statement about the greater good winning out over the selfish preoccupations of the individual when the novel’s protagonist, Martin Grey, tries to save the slaves. Tellingly perhaps, that is the one bit of the story that I found hardest to swallow.