Fundamentally, I agree with the notion that people are so reluctant to talk about race that you have to push them hard on it," author Adam Mansbach says. "You gotta kick 'em in the ass. You can't really be too subtle. You gotta really just come with it."
Mansbach's new novel, Angry Black White Boy (Crown/Three Rivers Press), is just that: a ferocious punt to the backside that leaves a Timberland print on your consciousness. He skillfully applies almost every cliché about hip-hop and race known to man, using the familiar to bring life to the absurd, and forcing the reader to reexamine their notions of cultural identity.
The book's protagonist, Macon Detornay, is a Bigger Thomas for the hip-hop generation: a confused yet proud individual searching for his own place within the larger confines of American society. Here's the twist: Unlike Richard Wright's famous Native Son character, Detornay is white. (Call him Wigger Thomas, if you absolutely must.) He is a suburban New Englander who, after prolonged exposure to black culture and hip-hop music, has renounced his privileged birthright in favor of what he perceives as a more conscious, self-aware approach. Guilt on a genetic level -- Detornay is related to racist Hall of Fame baseball player Cap Anson -- initially drives his transformation into the downest white boy who ever lived, a process helped along by copious amounts of weed-laced blunts and immersion into the pro-black world of Afrocentric rap.
The Rodney King trial becomes a flashpoint for Detornay, who eventually has the date of the verdict and its subsequent riotous aftermath (April 29, 1992) inked onto his arm -- a particularly fascinating instance of irony, as Detornay is also Jewish. The numbers, meant to symbolize his burgeoning martyr mentality, also illustrate his considerable ignorance, paralleling the numbers tattooed on Jewish concentration-camp internees during the Holocaust.
Detornay's unstable personality and low self-esteem lead him to commit a series of robberies while driving a taxicab, crimes typically blamed on a black man. When the deception is discovered, his homies transform him into an overnight media celebrity by founding the Race Traitor Project and issuing calls for a National Day of Apology, whereby whites are directed to approach blacks at random and say they're sorry for four-hundred-plus years of racial inequity. Ultimately, Detornay's convictions are called into question, and he must face a day of judgment and decide, once and for all, on which side of the racial divide he stands. It's a brilliant character study -- by turns hilarious, violent, and tragic -- that is sure to inspire heated debates over just what it means to be white or black in this day and age.
Sitting down with Mansbach at Oakland's Nomad Cafe, I'm struck by how little he resembles the image he created for Detornay (baggy pants, hoodie, baseball cap, work boots). Rather unassuming in a brown button-down shirt and regular-fit jeans, the low-key Mansbach doesn't look like a subversive genius trying to start a literary riot. He also doesn't walk with the swagger of a dude trying too hard to be too cool, and although he speaks with an East Coast-ish inflection, he doesn't get all Raekwon-esque with nearly indecipherable slang. All the same, he clearly knows his hip-hop history -- the book's cultural references are all spot-on, and he is in his element discussing everything from hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc to nouveau black Nationalist Professor X to the first white rapper who matters, Eminem. (In fact, Mansbach notes that Em is his ideal choice to play Detornay in the film version of Angry Black White Boy, which has already been optioned as a screenplay).
Interestingly, though the book is set in 1998, Detornay mainly listens to hip-hop artists popular during the early '90s such as Brand Nubian, X-Clan, and KRS-One. His preference for Afrocentric ideologues over bitch-and-ho-happy gangstas just adds to his fish outta water sensibility. "He's more influenced by Five-Percent rappers and conscious MCs," Mansbach explains, adding that both he and the character "came up at a time when there weren't that many white people in hip-hop, and the ones that were had a lot of explaining to do."
It seems fair, therefore, to ask the author how much of him is in Macon -- how much his own personal experiences paralleled those of his fictional creation. "Practically speaking, very little, in the sense that I've never driven a cab or robbed anybody," he replies. "I'm not, to my knowledge, affiliated with any dead ancestors who did anything particularly tainted."
However, he adds, "On a developmental tip, I drew a lot from personal experience in writing his character. I was a white kid who at a young age was involved in hip-hop." Furthermore, "I had Macon grow up in Newton, Massachusetts, where I grew up. I didn't want to place him in some anonymous suburb when I could place him in a context that existed, that I knew." The social environment around Boston -- "being particularly fucked-up and racist," Mansbach notes -- made for good material, allowing him to exquisitely frame Detornay's moment of cathartic inspiration, when he tosses a trash can through a police car window following the announcement of the Rodney King verdict.
Although the ironic, dark humor of Detornay's various adventures often flies over his head, it isn't lost on Mansbach, who wrings every drop of juice out of the juxtaposition of a pale male soaked in hip-hop's chocolate buttermilk, revealing not only black-held stereotypes about whites (and vice versa), but also suggesting that whites will never be black, even if they want to be. Such blasphemy (even if it's true) might lead to a backlash from the overly race-conscious individuals out there -- Mansbach says he fully expects, as he puts it, "some wild shit" to jump off. The author explains that he purposely tried to be as "confrontational and provocative" as possible, to force readers to address their own racial stereotypes the same way Detornay does -- head-on, and often by the seat of his pants.
Even if wild shit happens as a result, Mansbach says he's "not afraid to be branded" as a race traitor himself. "I'm very invested in trying to critique whiteness and talk about what it means," he concludes. And if that means creating the literary persona of the Wigger We Love to Hate, so be it.
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