Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, 256 pp.Graywolf Press, 2016, $9.52 paperback
On a most basic level, Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett is about identity and its fluidity. But it’s also about how slavery, colonialism, and one of my favorite misnomers, “postcolonialism,” has screwed with people’s self-perception.
I think that there persists a false belief that only members of the African diaspora have to deal with the fall-out of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, which include, but is not limited to issues of alienation, self-loathing, and inferiority complexes.
We forget, or at least, give less weight to the fact that Europeans did not simply leave those who remained on the continent and their descendants alone, dealing and trading with them as equals.
Rather, with the help of “leaders” who would sell their mother for a pound (i.e. Sani Abacha), those who were left behind endured centuries of colonization and the rape of their people and lands that continue into the present day (see the story of the Ogoni, Shell Oil, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, for example).
One key decision that the colonizer made for the African subject was who got to rule, whether “directly” or “indirectly.” While those who were colonized by the British are considered “lucky” by many because the British undertook “indirect” rather than “direct” rule, preferred by the French, the effect was largely the same: Africans were stripped of their power of self-determination, made to feel inherently inferior to whites, and learned quickly, under threat of death (whether slowly through starvation or quickly through the wrong end of a gun) who held real power. The best jobs and positions of real power were given to whites, whether they knew what they were doing or not. In the colonizers’ colonies, no matter who looked like they held power, ultimately “white was right.”
It is this legacy that the reader sees played out in Barrett’s Blackass, which chronicles the adventures of a thirty-year old unemployed Kalabari man, Furo Wariboko, who wakes up one morning to find that he has turned white—all except for his ass. The novel begins tellingly with wonderful words of advice to travelers from a statue at the entrance to Lagos, a city known as the birthplace of 411 scammers:
“Don’t be stupid”
“Don’t be slow”
“Don’t allow yourself to be taken for a fool”
This sage advice is followed by a quote from the gorgeous short story, “The Metamorphosis,” by Frantz Kafka in which a young man, Gregor, wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant cockroach: “‘And now?’ Gregor asked himself, looking around in the darkness.”
But unlike Gregor who wakes to find himself the physical manifestation of his ideological, social, economic, and political positioning as an underling, Furo wakes to find himself the exact opposite: the pinnacle of power. Although he never states it directly, he instinctively understands that still today, in 21st century Nigeria, “white is right.” This unspoken truth is quickly verified, first, when he manages to borrow money from a perfect stranger in order to make his way to a job interview that, when he arrives, he finds to be overflowing with numerous other probably over qualified (black) Nigerian applicants for one position. His “whiteness” gives him not only immediate access to the office building and the company to which he has sent his application, but a meeting with the company owner and an offer of a better job!!
For much of the novel Furo drifts along, benefiting from his newly acquired skin color, forsaking his black family, and using others who value his whiteness, finally believing the lie that he is told both directly and indirectly; that he “deserves” better and more because of his white skin.
It is only when he is confronted with his “real” self with the help of someone who has undergone a similar bizarre outward transformation that he begins to question the “decisions” he’s made. With that, the novel ends on a note of expectation, and perhaps, even hope.
This is another one of those books that Amazon recommended to me. I got it for no other reason than the title, which reminded me of several American publications that explore the “postslavery” American obsession with race and color. These include George S. Schuyler’s brilliant satire, Black No More (1931), or the journalist John Howard Griffin’s, foray into the black world in Black Like Me (1961). More recently, Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay (2005) has offered smart commentary on the white middle class teenage obsession with black culture among other things. But in its appeal to the African absurd, Blackass really reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho (2003) or his Memoirs of a Porcupine (2012) and seems to very much follow in that tradition.
Two things that I found funny, as in odd, not ha-ha, about the novel was Barrett’s usage of what an anthropology professor of mine used to call “thousand-dollar words” when “ten-dollar words” would have sufficed. While “thousand-dollar words” have their place I don’t necessarily want to work so hard when I’m reading a novel for fun (admittedly, probably more of a comment about me that Barrett). Perhaps since the protagonist is a university graduate Barrett means to align the language with his educational background? But then that brings me to the question of audience: Barrett lives in Nigeria. But I wonder how many people, faced with the kind of unemployment and lack of resources that the author depicts will have the luxury of reading his insightful text? Who’s it for, then?
The other thing that I am not able to reconcile is Barrett’s introduction of the other character, Igoni, who undergoes a transformation similar to Furo’s. Unless I missed the introduction/transition, there is none. S/he just appears. After being a bit confused and flipping back to when the character is first introduced and remembering that the author shares the same name, I kind of got my bearings, but never fully—not sure what that’s about.
I feel like I should offer some summarizing thoughts; something to wrap this up. But I don’t really have anything. The book was endorsed by Marlon James whose The Book of Night Women is a favorite of mine (although I could only read it once, because it jarred my senses in a way that few works of fiction have), so that’s saying something. It’s a smart novel. But I think that what unsettles me is that it seems to try really hard to be smart—which is fine for a read every couple of years or so, but I fear it would quickly exhaust me. I think I prefer Schuyler, Mansbach, and Mabanckou’s obviously really smart works that make their brilliance and insight look effortless.
As an aside, I took Blackass everywhere with me for the couple of days that I was reading it. One of those places was a lovely open spot on a bench in my nearby botanical gardens where a couple of elderly white ladies happened upon me. One asked what I was reading. The look on her face when I showed her the book cover was priceless. Her response, “Well, it’s a lovely spot for reading,” says it all.