Steve McQueen dedicated the Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, his adaptation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing 1853 memoir, not just to the countless victims of slavery in eras past but the 21 million “who still suffer slavery today.” The latest data from the World Slavery Index doubles that figure: 45.8 million enslaved in 167 countries, nearly all of which have laws against it. About 12.5 million Africans were captured and transported to the New World in chains over three centuries of American slavery; nearly 2 million did not survive the inhuman trip. Still, some white people scoff at reparations because slavery was “hundreds of years ago.”
The numbers are only numbers, and may obscure the cruelties they aim to describe, the magnitude of misery. McQueen’s point was that slavery is a continuous, expanding evil, which is why narratives like Northup’s (and Tubman’s and Douglass’) didn’t just become powerful salvos in the abolitionist movement—they resonate also in the age of Ferguson and Trump. They go beyond mere facts, putting a singular voice to atrocity. And as black America confronts the toxic legacy of life under white rule in police violence, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement, black authors have taken these stories back from the white authors who like to borrow them.
It’s not just that classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn once again risk banishment from a school district due to their racial slurs. It’s that writers of color like Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, and John Keene are too good on this turf for a white novelist to compete. The past year was instructive: Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad took the National Book Award, and Beatty’s The Sellout became the first U.S. winner of the Man Booker Prize, while a hyped novel titled Underground Airlines seemed to fizzle. Its white author, Ben H. Winters, suddenly deleted the personal Twitter account he’d used to promote it.
As a white writer myself, I found this failure interesting, and read Airlines with an eye toward tone-deaf detail and misguided messaging. I cringed often, but since I haven’t lived the black experience, any criticism of Winters’ (well-intentioned) racial politics here amounts to a clash of white consciousness. Thanks to the novel’s essential marketability by way of controversy—the action takes place in the not-entirely-alternate reality of a 21st-century United States that never endured the Civil War, narrated by an escaped slave forced into service as a government slave-catcher—we’re stuck debating not the quality of Winters’ work but whether it should exist.
That’s as far as most readers got with Airlines, unhappy that Winters was commended for his audacity in piggybacking on Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. Then came Railroad, literalizing metaphor (Cora, a teenage slave, must navigate actual train tracks to freedom) and edging into phantasmagoria that grasps at the soul of American trauma. Opening with Cora’s grandmother’s abduction—she “had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort’s dungeon”—Whitehead swiftly takes us to her death “in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean.”
It was the shock premise of Airlines, of course, that landed a TV deal, with Winters on script duty. Again I’m in the awkward position of somewhat muzzling my white outrage and cynicism, but I suppose we can give him credit for at least making his a black character’s story, where Mark Twain and Harper Lee deployed Jim and Tom Robinson in the mode of the “magical negro” described by Spike Lee. On the other hand, it’s dismaying that he recalled, in “casting around for his next project,” continually returning to headlines about Trayvon Martin, and thereby took on the ghastly thought experiment of surveillance-era confederate states.
Besides, this self-seriousness and exploitative interest wither against the high-wattage satire of something like The Sellout, where Beatty riffs appallingly on the potential positives of slavery in contemporary California and, eventually, at the federal scale. It may be worth pointing out that he wrote the book because he “was broke.” And as Winters’ narrator Victor wrestles with the slave economy in existential terms, Beatty’s nameless slacker, whose stubborn community organizer father was slain by indifferent police, rolls his eyes at each predictable beat of the nullifying role he was born to. It’s scandalous because it ridicules the purity of struggle.
Take Hominy Jenkins, Beatty’s cruelest invention. Hominy is the last surviving Little Rascal, a dispossessed man of anachronistic talents who seethes because his stereotype bits—as the black member of the gang—have been whitewashed from Golden Age films. With nothing to offer “post-racial” America beyond an offensive version of himself, he seems more comfortable with overt forms of status and control than mastery of his own fate, basically demanding to become the black narrator’s property. He cavorts and capers and kowtows to earn his keep, revealing comic instincts entwined with survival strategies that practically carbon date him:
Sometimes I forget how funny Hominy is. Back in the day, to avoid the succession of booby traps laid by the white man, black people had to constantly be thinking on their feet. You had to be ready with an impromptu quip or a down-home bromide that would disarm and humble a white provocateur. Maybe if your sense of humor reminded him there was a semblance of humanity underneath that burrhead, you might avoid getting a beating, get some of that back pay you were owed.
Winters’ ensemble fills out its own range of archetypes—undercover operatives, remorseful kingpins, freedom fighters, bottom-feeders, and happy, Hominy-like slaves—but doesn’t add torque. He’s simmering where Beatty is scathing. And if you want to cut right to the vile heart of the matter, Keene, in his excellent book of alternative takes on American history, Counternarratives, plumbs the humid crannies of European imperialism to deliver brutal accounts of people bound, silenced, and slaughtered in the name of colonial conquest. ‘An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’ follows the renegade Zion, who seeks the only unlawful liberties he can and is perpetually sold back into submission:
Most seriously the young slave had beaten up an Irish laborer outside a public house in Waltham, and threatened the man’s life if he reported the beating to authorities, local or the King’s. For this series of offenses, which broke the patience of the Watones, the General Court of Middlesex County arraigned, tried, and convicted the slave, to the penalty of thirty-five stripes, and a fine of £10, payable to the victims. After the boy received his public lashes, his master settled the fine and issued an apology for his slave’s behavior, which was printed in all the local papers. He then promptly flogged Zion himself before restraining the boy in a stock behind the cow barn. During this time, the Watones considered their options, and agreed it would be in their best interests to sell their intractable chattel, who, they supposed, still had arson and murder waiting in his kit. This they promptly did despite the rapidly deflating of the local currency, for the sum of £5, to a distant relative of Watone’s, the merchant Jabez Pennyman, then living on a small estate in the Dorchester Neck.
Even as nearby Boston bristles with sedition against the British Empire, veering toward the massacre that would make Crispus Attucks the Revolution’s first casualty, Zion is punished for resisting the hideous trade and moral depravity that has kept him fettered since birth. His value as an object of commerce is precisely half what he costs his keepers. His true talent, music, can’t be properly commodified—it’ll take America another couple centuries to get there—and, in the end, he escapes again, leaving another black man to be hanged for his crimes. Zion is not good, but we root for his rebellion because it counters sin with more of the same.
This is a sharp lesson in how white supremacy served as the baseline for American capital, and what all these books turn out to share is the refusal to regard slavery as an anachronistic form of ignorance or some embarrassing remnant. Slavery in these tales is a financial engine, the basis of an order that still holds sway. It is regulated, innovative, and, to whatever extent a society demands, sanitized. But where Winters ruminates on these matters as an exercise in white empathy, his black peers confront the naked horrors of lynching, torture, and rape, with the result that their lurid imagery often does the talking for them.
No doubt Winters was wary of accessing too specific a tragedy—slavery is not “his” to translate into art, which is why he invented a sleeker parallel version. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this summer answered questions from Guardian readers and touched a nerve when she told a 50-year-old white man stuck with the desire to write about “a young Bengali girl” that there were still stories to tell from his own point of view. Another commenter called the advice “short-sighted,” arguing that it “will only ensure that we have more books about middle aged [sic] white men and no books about disadvantaged Bengali girls.” Adichie disagreed:
It’s unfortunate that you seem to assume that if a white middle aged man [sic] doesn’t write about a Bengali girl, then the story of Bengali girls will not be written. There are in fact many Bengalis who can write about Bengali girls—and it probably doesn’t feel “insurmountable” to them. And “disadvantaged Bengali girl” is a very troubling way of framing an idea of a story. It already suggests that this character will be seen through the lenses of her “disadvantage” alone. People are people. “Disadvantaged” people also have agency, and dream, and think, and desire. Sometimes how one frames a story determines whether or not we will see the fullness of a character.
Victor has agency, of a theoretical sort; he dreams, although exclusively in relation to his disadvantage. I don’t know that he achieves true desire. He is, in sum, as much a tool for Winters as for his fictional masters. If Whitehead’s slaves strike us as better-rounded, and their mythical voyage better-mapped, it’s not because he’s black and Winters is a racist. It’s because for one of these men, slavery is a dramatic theme, a hook on which to hang his hat, and for the other, it is reality. Cora’s story is one of deep, inherited pain, while Victor’s journey hints at the unsatisfying conclusion that race is “complicated.” It’s grayed-out rather than black-and-white.
Maybe it’s unfair to knock Airlines for trapping its lead in a position where he can’t make many choices; what else could a slave narrative be about? Dostoevsky’s own underground correspondent tells us that “a man possessing character, a man of action, is fundamentally a limited creature.” But then The New Yorker chastens Whitehead for his “irrationally committed” and “irrationally unkillable” white slave hunter, Arnold Ridgeway, as if he’s a cartoon that minimizes wider responsibility for an institutional wickedness. A novel has to be about people, not abstractions, and Whitehead brings Ridgeway to terrifying life with a minimum of cliché:
He liked the night work best, when they lay in wait for a buck who sneaked through the Woods to visit his wife on a plantation up the road, or a squirrel hunter looking to supplement his daily meal of slop. Other patrollers carried guns and eagerly cut down any rascal dumb enough to flee, but Ridgeway copied Chandler. Nature had equipped him with weapons enough. Ridgeway ran them down as if they were rabbits and then his fists subdued them. Beat them for being out, beat them for running, even though the chase was the only remedy for his restlessness. Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again, In the chase his blood sang and glowed.
Measure that insight against Winters’ ungainly attempts at genuinely black dialect—the jarring moments when Victor the spy must sell himself as an affable man of his people instead of the unwilling archangel of their oppression—and there can be no doubt which author has command of the material. Airlines finally sounds like the authentic runaway slave ads Whitehead uses at the beginning of chapters, oversimplified and oddly generic: “She is about 16 years of age, with straight hair and tolerable good features,” reads one that mentions a neck scar. “She has a down look when spoken to, and not remarkably intelligent. She speaks quick, with a shrill voice.”
We can consider, however, how Airlines wants to be read: as a counterfactual that reveals the tragedy of our own circumstances. In Winters’ northern inner cities, like ours, wearing a hoodie can get black teens shot, and mixed-race marriages fall under a peculiar gaze. The sterilized techno-plantations of the south read more like dystopian YA, which isn’t to knock the genre but may somewhat diminish the anti-corporate message. And haunting it all, of course, is the crucial gimmick, repeated and tweaked so often as to nearly invalidate its importance—the shadowy sense that another existence lies somewhere in the seams of this bleak landscape:
Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green, impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.
This yearning for a grand universal correction owes a debt to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Allies lost World War II. Though where Dick lets his occupied people marinate in this quantum funk, and mainly declines to float over the Nazi-controlled territories (the recent TV adaptation shows no such restraint), Winters is compelled to balance this impulse with a chase formula. Neither does he get to revel, as Quentin Tarantino with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, in the bloody rush of a persecuted group reversing the dynamic of power with berserk and gleeful violence. Plus, once again, Whitehead bests him:
When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.
Faults notwithstanding, Airlines can’t just be dismissed over its author’s ethnicity. Frightening details stick with you, from the “172 varietals of African-American skin tone delineated in the US Marshals Service field guide” to the revelation that it is illegal for “persons bound to labor” to be shaved bald: “Without hair, sometimes, it’s hard to tell who is black and who is white.” And these flourishes, I’d argue, are even scarier from an ordinary white man working in a country governed by a black president, reminding us of Arendt’s observation that the architects of genocide are not specially equipped for the task. They are “normal,” they are “neighbors,” they are “nice.”
What truly grates are the spurts of performative wokeness inspired by black authors, who are acknowledged neither in the meat nor at the back of the volume. “An invisible man is an expendable man,” Victor tells us, by way of Ellison. And, in what could have been a direct quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me: “Lesson 1: your body is not your own.” Little wonder white critics were comfortable gushing over a man who hit these marks, for as soon as I feel the impulse to argue against Winter’s use of that rhetoric, I sense the jeopardy of further privileged assumptions about what it is to be black, or devalued due to my genes.
Not everyone has that hang-up. Lionel Shriver, known for the chiller We Need to Talk About Kevin, made enemies not long ago by mocking complaints of cultural appropriation while wearing a sombrero at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She’d been asked to speak on “community and belonging.” This dynamic is familiar: White writers lash out at censors allegedly policing their creativity even as Whitehead must appear “wary of the expectations put on an African-American writer who publishes a big book about race and freedom in the era of Black Lives Matter.”
No one wants to be marginalized, but white writers have no reason to fear it. They get to publish their slavery sci-fi as high literature. Shriver could no doubt get away with writing a novel about sombreros, were there any editor on the planet interested in buying it. In the meantime, even as they rack up awards, we question black authors for returning to the source code of American hubris and injustice. It’s time that reaction was quieted, or turned to a better inquiry. For in reading the rightly ascendant, bracing work of these writers, one does not seek an improved or endorsed enlightenment. Instead one asks, at long last, why we tell slave stories at all.