In June 1992, a black woman named Florence Washington went to her boss at Carol Publishing House, where she worked as an administrative assistant, to request that he change the cover of a buzzy book they were about to release. He refused, and the original cover went to print: a young blond woman standing on a nondescript street corner at night, her shadow a massive, looming Sambo silhouette cast by an unseen streetlight on the building behind her. “I was enraged,” Washington told The New York Times. “African-Americans have fought so many years to get rid of images like this that to me it is derogatory to bring it back in any context.”
The book in question was still being copy-edited when Washington raised her objection, so she hadn’t been able to read the work. The debut novel by a young writer named Darius James, Negrophobia: An Urban Parable, follows the spoiled white teenager Bubbles Brazil on a journey into her racist subconscious, catalyzed by a voodoo spell cast by her black maid. The book is as violent and ridiculous as its name suggests, and, though marketed as a novel, it is written in the more visceral form of a screenplay. (James supported himself during the writing of Negrophobia by doing research for movie projects, and the only other book he’s published in America was a collection of essays on blaxploitation films.)
The reader picking up Negrophobia will need a strong stomach for the unsavory. Over the course of the book, hundreds of characters tumble into the scenes and are promptly dismembered and hurled back out, among them a zombified Walt Disney, a perverted Uncle Remus, a vivified Aunt Jemima, and a band called the Talking Dreads. (Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist who described the close connection between negrophobia and negrophilia, also makes a brief and unnamed appearance.) Intestines dangle, turds are swallowed, and nipples erupt into penises. A personal pathology—my own earnest Anglican prudishness—prevents me from fully enjoying sentences describing how “Uncle H. Rap Remus’s eye is caught by Bubbles’ bobbing boobs,” but the more wicked-minded might delight in similar lines on almost every page.
This month, the NYRB Classics series has released a new edition of Negrophobia. In most other years, this would have been a provocation: inserting the perverted and the grotesque into the four weeks of the year reserved for solemn quotations of Langston Hughes and committed misreadings of Martin Luther King Jr. But this year, the release seems more like an echo. February began with a famous actor confessing that he’d once walked the streets hoping to kill a black stranger (believing all black men to be implicated in his friend’s rape); a few weeks later, we had to imagine how and why a different actor might have staged his own lynching; and then there was Gucci, and Green Book, and… Virginia. The shadow of Sambo behind Bubbles on the cover isn’t a faded image from the past; it’s a projection in the back of her mind. Darius James asks: Is that funny?
The controversy around the 1992 cover became part of the book’s promotional strategy, with the Times and The Village Voice weighing in, all highlighting Washington’s complaint after being tipped off by the publisher’s PR department. It was also a kind of induction ceremony for James into the institutional irreverence of the Lower East Side writers and artists whose company he kept, writing screenplays for their movies and short stories for their magazines. As he hopped between the bohemian scenes in New York City, his native New Haven, and Berlin, his fellow provocateurs included Kathy Acker, who read the first few pages of the book and insisted that he finish it, and Paul Beatty, who fell into a now-familiar fracas over the cover of his humor collection Hokum (in which selections from Negrophobia appeared). Later that decade, another of James’s friends, the artist Kara Walker, won the MacArthur “genius” grant for her graphic silhouettes of plantation scenes. Almost immediately, Walker became the object of fierce criticism and more than one letter-writing campaign by a group of older black feminist artists who, like Florence Washington, believed in the principles of black uplift. Walker’s output was “revolting and negative,” these critics proclaimed; in her works, they saw “African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art.”
Beatty and Walker in particular produced—and continue to produce, to increasing popularity and acclaim—work that, in style and politics, remains close to James’s. All three artists emerged from the confluence of a mainstream consensus around conditional integration, state attacks on black neighborhoods, the birth of cultural studies, and the ascendant language of “multiculturalism”—all of which led them, along with many of their contemporaries, to reject the virtues of the upwardly mobile black bourgeoisie.
In James’s case, he also dismissed that group’s cultural form: the novel. From the slave narrative on, some black artists have maintained that narrative prose—with a few notable exceptions, such as Beatty’s novels—was locked in an implicit appeal to the white liberal reader. James and his friends were more interested in exposing the hypocrisies of their audience, black and white. Writing in the genre of film allowed James to make explicit his ideas about blackness being equal parts performance and projection. Bubbles is unable to see the black people around her without the filter of racializing images; the few who do exist outside her psyche are forced into relationships with whiteness of either compliance or rejection (though James remains highly suspicious of the depth of their distaste—as one character recounts, “Minister Louis Farrakhan once remarked, ‘You can make a whyte man out of a black man, but you can’t make a black man out of a whyte man,’ so we made a whyte man out of Louis Farrakhan”).
James later argued that it would have been an entirely different situation if Florence Washington had had “the context of the book.” Bubbles, having come face to face with the fetishizing, disgusting, humiliating images of her unconscious, finally achieves some level of realization about her racism, diagnosing herself with the “disease” of negrophobia. The realization comes without any redemption or acceptance; the reader gets no fonder of Bubbles over the course of the book. James’s voodoo just lets Bubbles finally know what most white people don’t: that she can’t see the black people around her except as hideous caricatures.
Still, context isn’t everything. Take the “UNCLE SAMBO WANTS YOU” poster in Uncle H. Rap Remus’s church. The “you” might mean anyone—not just Remus’s Rastafarian congregation or James’s savviest friends, but maybe the white reader, too. I found it impossible to escape the worry that this excess might be irresponsible, that the image has a life of its own. There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the purpose that the Sambo figure serves in Negrophobia and its meaning in white society, as Ralph Ellison described it: In “a comedy of the grotesque and unacceptable,” blackface was a “comic catharsis,” helping the audience enjoy “the fascination of blackness.”
It seems that black artists can’t avoid being told that their work caters to white sensibilities. Betye Saar, a leader of the campaign against Kara Walker, asserted that Walker’s art “was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.” And, in fact, the white establishment did flock to James’s novel; the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, John Cusack and and Johnny Depp loved it. Meanwhile, according to James, Amiri Baraka told him not to publish it, and black bookstores sold it under the counter wrapped in brown paper.
To James’s skeptical readers, it may seem cynical that Negrophobia spends more time making fun of the Sun Ra Arkestra than of Ronald Reagan’s administration, or has Malcolm X’s corpse lead the chorus in a demented version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Despite James’s protestations that Florence Washington would have understood the cover better with more context, the book itself describes so many viciously racist images in such hyperbolic detail that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if James is making fun of his reader’s unconscious desire for these images or satisfying it. A reader who comes to the book unsympathetically—for example, one who is shocked and hurt by the original cover—may not arrive at the conclusions that James is writing toward. But maybe that’s the point.
And widely beloved black literature—the kind that gets taught during Black History Month—seemed just as suspicious to James and his cohort. Paul Beatty describes reading Maya Angelou in high school, “growing more oppressed with each maudlin passage.” White people read and assign those books out of guilt—and, as the writer George W.S. Trow (who introduced James to his eventual editor at Carol) pointed out, what we read as “white guilt” is often really white euphoria; racialized malice and racialized shame converge on the same point. And Beatty sees little value in Angelou for black readers, either: “I already knew why the caged bird sang, but after three pages of that book, I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.” The caged bird in Negrophobia isn’t a singing parakeet but rather a parrot, furiously mocking everyone on the outside.
It’s pointless to complain about proper representation in a book whose purpose is to discredit the very possibility of such a thing, but there are points where the satire falls suspiciously short. In contrast to a wide variety of black male stereotypes in Negrophobia, we see white America’s relationship to black women only via sexually predatory “mammy” figures. Having defeated her maid, Bubbles looks down on “her blubbersome black bulk flopping and flailing about the floor” and mocks her: “She chose to underestimate the power of the Blond Venus.” Bubbles might be right. As the Talking Dreads push Bubbles into finally acknowledging her “disease” of negrophobia, the maid should reappear and claim her victory—the last word, the final irreverent joke—but instead a new (male) character does, the Cream of Wheat Chef. After a hundred-plus pages of semi-satirical lines describing Bubbles’s gleaming “blond valentine mons,” when Bubbles celebrates “the vampiric beauty of [her] whiteness,” it reads less like comic dismissal and more like reluctant endorsement.
Most of the pieties that James pokes fun at are worth the prod. But there are some passages that don’t particularly provoke laughter or thought, as when Bubbles, covered in soot and passing for a black woman, is passed around Uncle H. Rap Remus’s congregation and says: “If you insist on poking your fingers where they’re clearly not wanted, you could at least rub a little faster!” We’re already familiar with Bubbles’s fantasy that black men are sexually violent and obsessed with her; it’s a joke that’s been told before, and better. Sometimes James’s willingness to push boundaries folds back in on itself.
Afropessimist scholar Jared Sexton wrote that black artists are drawn to “paradoxical ideas about fighting anti-blackness by over-identifying with its desire to disappear or distort or disfigure blackness, essentially taking it over and enforcing it hyperbolically, satirically, even vindictively.” He cited Negrophobia, Beatty’s novels, and Walker’s art, as well as Dave Chappelle’s and Leslie Jones’s comedy, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled as examples. Though Sexton is dismissive of this trend, it’s a concise distillation of these artists’ efforts to combat racism by revealing the falsity of “blackness” as a fixed entity. Through hysterical realism and un-PC satire, they expose the massive psychological effort necessary to keep the racial hierarchies based on those fictions in place—an expenditure of energy that is increasingly revealing itself as both cynical and desperate.
American racism is as frenzied and slapstick as it’s been in decades—which could, depending on your perspective, either heighten the relevance of James’s analysis or render it redundant. A certain audience might read the book at arm’s length, repulsed at our impulse to laugh even when it seems like a transcript of the real world, which makes us want to cry. But many contemporary black political and intellectual leaders, especially the younger ones, are impervious to James’s caricatures; they’re much more likely to laugh along with him than complain at being parodied as hide-wearing “Aminites” (followers of Idi Amin).
But what would Negrophobia be without the confrontation with its readers? The danger to the book doesn’t come from the people who write angry letters about its cover to The New York Times. The re-release of Negrophobia in 2019 will lead to some much-deserved recognition for James, but the novel won’t cause the same uproar it did. Which will be a shame, since if we become complacent with its message, we’ll fall into its trap.