Immodest Proposals

Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (New York Review Books Classics) BY Darius James. edited by Darius James, Amy Abugo Ongiri. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 208 pages. $14.

The cover of Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (New York Review Books Classics)

Back when I was entering my forties and thus more youthful and idealistic than I am now (the forties having been the new twenties since the ’80s), I read Darius James’s Negrophobia in its original 1992 edition, and upon sustaining its full impact, I said to myself: “You know what, self? If something this graphically over the top, in your face, and on the mark doesn’t mortify white supremacy into oblivion, then nothing will.”

At this precise moment in our history, I’ve decided that nothing will. Which has a lot more to do with white supremacy’s exasperating resilience than with James’s scatological assaults upon its edifice. Whatever happens to Donald Trump’s presidency from here on, the scabs on the body politic ripped open by his election have become festering, oozing sores that perhaps could only be cauterized by phantasms as searing, squalid, and flagrantly inappropriate as those summoned by Negrophobia. It therefore serves us right that the damn thing’s back in print, in a new edition published by New York Review Books—a rare instance of NYRB honoring a lost or neglected work by a living author; rarer still a living author who’d emerged from the gritty-glittery literary scene of the fin de siècle East Village. We apparently didn’t get or want to hear what it was saying and how it was saying it the first time around. So as punishment for what’s happened these past couple years, we’ll just have to stick our faces in James’s X-rated movie-of-the-mind once more, knowing some of us still won’t get it, but that many more of us will need it, whether as purgative or reinforcement.

Darius James, Berlin, 2004.
Darius James, Berlin, 2004.

Written as a screenplay for a movie projecting a vast, seething backwater in the collective American subconscious, Negrophobia begins in a haze of smoke emitted from a doobie savored by what James’s script describes at first as a “drug-addled teenage girl” and then as a “teen sex-bomb blonde” whose name is Bubbles Brazil, one of the few whites attending the predominantly black Donald Goines Senior High. Think of the eponymous angel-headed heroine of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s comparably off-color 1958 satire Candy, only with a self-absorbed sneer, punk-rock pretensions, and wildly demeaning suppositions about black people—or as she refers to them, even in front of her “monstrous, mammy-sized cookie jar” of a black maid, “coons” and “jigaboos.”

I guess here would be as good a time as any to begin warning unsuspecting post-millennial readers what they’re in for: ethnic stereotypes, raunchy jokes, bug-eyed minstrelsy, and grotesque, often violent imagery suggestive of underground comics of the 1960s at their gaudiest and most frenzied. (Of course I mean all this in a good way.) The junkie visions of Naked Lunch are often cited as direct links to Negrophobia’s hallucinatory delirium, and William S. Burroughs’s demented-vaudeville tone of voice resonates in James’s descriptions of Bubbles’s world; a subway ride to her high school includes such passersby as an albino “Minstrel of Mau Mau Metaphysics,” a couple of “ill-tempered young negroes” with “reddened coke-glazed eyes,” and a “noisome brood” of malformed urban grotesques. Somewhere within the grim, utilitarian hallways of Goines High, Bubbles gets into a hair-pulling, eye-gouging girls’ bathroom scrape with the gang formally known as Aunt Jemima’s Flapjack Ninja-Killers from Hell. All of which is mere prelude to the craziness in store for Ms. Brazil, upon whose golden head a voodoo spell is cast, sending her into an alternate universe even more twisted and harrowing than whatever passes for her real life.

Her sordid passage takes her to such places as “The Cave of the Flaming Tar Babies,” whose denizens, bearing “sagging toadlike skin, bulbous heads, bulging lemon-shaped eyes, and plump, red lips framing a bow of gleaming, yellow teeth,” are torturing pale puffy doughboys, one of whom pleads for his life by insisting, “I was just a pawn! A trademark! A mere promotional symbol!” (You neither want nor need to know how he ends up in the oven.) From here, we get to meet “an arthritic old Negro” in paramilitary fatigues named H. Rap Remus, advocating before his followers the total extermination of what is referred to here and sporadically through the book as the “Whyte” race through spontaneous combustion, which he says they’re predisposed to do anyway. (“With shit for brains, how could anyone believe the Whyte man is superior? Even he know he inferior. Why else would he want to blow hissef up?”) “Dada be praised!” Remus chants as he carries out upon Bubbles an impromptu baptism into his cause, the end result being a welter of vomit, convulsions, worms.

Let’s move on past Malcolm X’s talking cadaver (“Hi! . . . Remember me? I was shot back in the sixties!”) to a proto-fascist version of Disney World, whose avuncular namesake, or “president-for-life,” emerges from suspended animation to deliver a negative-image version of the “I Have a Dream” speech extolling the “unsullied whiteness” of a “Negro-free” USA. The only challenge to this bucolic but sinister world comes from an army of zombies, whose master, with “conked head” and wearing “a black, short-coated tuxedo with tails and a satin-lined cape,” bears a passing resemblance to either (or both) Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay (“I Put a Spell on You”) Hawkins. Of course a zombie Elvis Presley dies—again—as a hero of the revolution. And hell no, we’re not done here! You have yet to meet the “Muppet B-Boys” (or “Buppets”), with rolling ping-pong eyes, babbling on in crackhead patter about money, cinema verité, sneakers, and rap before gunfire from both a mysterious white “shadow” and from Bubbles herself tears their bodies into exploding cotton balls. And I guess I forgot to mention the latent desire among some white characters to cannibalize black humans, and the chocolate figurines bearing Elijah Muhammad’s likeness and marketed under the slogan: “Min. Louis Farrakhan’s ‘Ambrosia of Islam’ Do-for-Self Designer Chocolates. ‘Allah eats ’em! And you will, too!’

To quote one character: “Great gugga-mugga ’n’ jumpin’ Jehoshophats!

When Negrophobia originally came out, I dimly recall even sympathetic readers wondering if there was a “point” to all this free-range raucousness. Now as then, the question makes me testy for its implication that all art, most especially art by African Americans, must converge around a “message.” My inclination in such discussions is to say something like, “Does The Rime of the Ancient Mariner have a ‘point’? Does The Big Sleep have a ‘point’? Do Richard Pryor’s ‘Mudbone’ routines have a ‘point’? Does ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ have a ‘point,’ whether Elvis or Lloyd Price sings it?”

But fine. You want to toy around with “meaning,” I’ll play along a little. If there’s a clue to what one gets out of James’s book, it can be found in my earlier image of “cauterizing” wounds to the body politic. In this social-media era, when we are more intent than ever on isolating things that offend and outrage, Negrophobia revels in its own outrageousness, and thus is more of a tonic now than it was almost three decades ago. It neither blinks nor recoils at the stereotypes, insults, and presumptions that have been used to cage and subdue African American self-esteem, but compels its readers to confront rather than retreat from or smooth over the retro Jim Crow imagery. Negrophobia inhales all that inappropriateness with gusto and composure before shooting it all right back in the face of whatever we mean by—and I now unequivocally despise this phrase— “political correctness.” Those using that PC designation as a spiked club are, if anything, stomach-punched even harder by Negrophobia, since its very title crawls beneath the skins of conservatives and liberals alike, who may have conditioned themselves away from using words like “burrhead,” “coon,” and “jigaboo” but continue to think of people of color in constricted or diminished terms. Indeed, if you care to follow the logic in Negrophobia’s acerbic worldview, you may decide that even the notion of “people of color” carries some absurd baggage of its own and that it could lead to the kind of enlightenment teasing away at Bubbles Brazil’s hitherto self-satisfied consciousness toward the end—to seeing herself as a person “without the vampiric beauty of my whiteness, without the definition of my skin, without my emblematic significance.”

Or maybe not. At least not in a time when the president of the United States and his enablers in Congress and on judicial benches seem bent, for no reason beyond pettiness or spite, on undoing every decent action carried out by his African American predecessor. And yet at this very same time, American literature has seen the ascent of talented young black writers who aren’t willing to settle for parochial or hidebound conceptions of who they are and what they should say. Such fictionists as Paul Beatty (The Sellout), Mat Johnson (Loving Day), and Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Heads of the Colored People) are more emboldened to tweak and upend conventional wisdom, and it’s a fine time to be reminded that crazy, willful acts of hoodoo storytelling such as Negrophobia helped make this renaissance possible.

Mentioning “crazy, willful acts of hoodoo storytelling” immediately brings to mind Ishmael Reed, éminence grise of literary necromancers and author of such noteworthy precursors to Negrophobia as Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Terrible Twos (1982). But when contemplating the potential impact of reinserting Negrophobia’s freewheeling impertinence into the present day, I’m not thinking of Reed’s novels so much as his oft-anthologized and (thus) much-beloved 1970 verse work “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem,” in which the poem begins cannibalizing its readers from the feet and legs: “back off from this poem / it is a greedy mirror / you are into this poem. from / the waist down / nobody can hear you can they? / this poem has had you up to here / belch / this poem aint got no manners . . . ” And so forth toward the arms, fingers, eyes, and head until the “poem is the reader & the / reader this poem.” Yeah. Right here, right now. This is exactly how I want Negrophobia to carry out its new reign of terror. Is it too much to ask it to start its feeding frenzy at Fox News network’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters?

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn.