From Friday Black
Satire is a tricky mode. It requires exaggeration and ironic distance, which can be difficult to sustain if an author is not entirely invested in the material. It is essentially optimistic – the core assumption of all satire being that it is possible to achieve a better world – but it drapes itself in a tone of cynicism and (at least in the Juvenalian strain) acidity. It implicates its readers, turning the spotlight on them and forcing them to question the extent of their complicity in a given situation or set of circumstances. And it is dependent on the kind of absurdities that have become less and less absurd in recent years: in brief, we are living in a world that often proves resistant to satire, so determined does it seem on satirizing itself.
But when it is executed well, satire is an efficient and brutally effective means of commenting on essential injustices and the seemingly intractable ills of society.
The subject of the opening story in American author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s 2018 debut collection is racism. More specifically, it is a particular strain of institutional racism that has resulted in the deaths of innocent Black Americans at the hands of white people while the justice system turns a blind eye on the victims and refuses to punish the perpetrators.
The central premise in “The Finkelstein 5” involves the fallout from a trial in which a white man has been acquitted for the murders of five Black children. The facts of the case are undisputed by the prosecution and the defence alike: on the night in question, George Wilson Dunn exited a library in the company of his two children, Tiffany and Rodman. Outside the library, Dunn encountered five Black youths, the youngest of them a mere seven years old (at trial, Dunn will insist she looked at least thirteen). Feeling as though his life and the lives of his two children might be in jeopardy, Dunn decapitated all five young people with a chainsaw.
The defence argues that Dunn had simply exercised his “God-given right” to protect himself and his children from what he perceived as an imminent threat. This argument is given institutional sanction when the verdict to acquit is read; the reasoning, which Adjei-Brenyah couches in the mock logic inherent in much legal hair-splitting, is patently absurd: “The court had ruled that because the children were basically loitering and not actually inside the library reading, as one might expect of productive members of society, it was reasonable that Dunn had felt threatened by these five black young people and, thus, he was well within his rights when he protected himself, his library-loaned DVDs, and his children by going into the back of his Ford F-150 and retrieving his Hawtech PRO eighteen-inch 48cc chain saw.”
This single sentence is remarkable for the wealth of information and indictment it contains. The children’s only transgression, the court admits, was to have been found “loitering” in a public place, rather than installing themselves inside the library like Dunn, his family, and other “productive members of society” (which may be read as standing in for “white people”). That Dunn felt threatened by the youths is deemed “reasonable”; on the stand, Dunn will testify that they were all “wearing black, like they were about to commit a robbery.” Dunn drives a Ford pickup, which immediately denotes him as a dyed-in-the-wool American, and the specific make and model of the chainsaw codes him as a rugged outdoorsman, a masculine character of sturdy and honest stock. He acted to protect his children, meaning he is a family man. And he protected the DVDs, like a good consumer. The fact that the DVDs were borrowed and not purchased goes to demonstrate Dunn’s humble, salt-of-the-earth status in the lower-middle-class of American workers.
The murder implement is almost comically outlandish, as is the possibility that Dunn could have cut off the heads of all five children without even one of them making a run for it. This, too, is part of the satirist’s approach. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it,” Flannery O’Connor observes. “[W]hen you have to assume it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Adjei-Brenyah draws in bold strokes and loud colours, but a quick pause for reflection will indicate how little he has to exaggerate to render realism into satire.
Certainly, the situation the author sketches takes on a particular urgency in the aftermath the of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, but the bias against the threatening, hooded Black figure out to commit criminal acts or wreak violence on good, upstanding white Americans is not new to the Black Lives Matter era. It runs in a straight line through chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the founding of the Klan in the 1920s, Brown vs. the Board of Education, Malcolm X, and Rodney King.
Adjei-Brenyah has settled on an ingenious structure for his story. He intersperses scenes at the trial with one day in the life of his protagonist, Emmanuel, who leaves home in the morning to buy clothes for a job interview. When Emmanuel exits his house, he tries to tamp down his Blackness, even resorting to a numerical scale in an attempt to make his appearance and comportment palatable to white people.
On the way to the mall, Emmanuel encounters Boogie, a friend and a member of the Namers, a group of Blacks who have attacked and in some cases killed random white people as vengeance for an unjust verdict in the case of the Finkelstein Five. During the acts of violence, they ritualistically repeat the name of one of the five children, and for each act they carve the numeral 5 into their skin. The act of naming is significant in many African cultures and the repetition of the dead children’s names is at once a talisman and a way to pay respect to the innocent dead.
The fact that the innocent dead also include the whites the Namers assault is not incidental: like any good satirist, Adjei-Brehnyah inculpates his readers, forcing them to decide where their moral affinities lie. Is the murder of random white people a legitimate response to the injustice perpetrated by the not-guilty verdict awarded Dunn? Is violence or vigilantism a reasonable or useful reaction to institutional and societal racism and intolerance? How one answers these question and where one’s shifting sympathies are located in the course of the story says as much about the reader as it does about the particulars of the narrative itself.
The clear moral centre in the story is Emmanuel. In case this were not apparent from the outset, Adjei-Brenyah underscores it at the climax when, having joined Boogie in one of the Namers’ excursions, Emmanuel’s final act involves withholding violence. That he is then subjected to state-sanctioned violence against his person is a final irony in a story that has a great deal to say about the inequities of race in the U.S. and the way we rationalize injustice in the name of freedom and protection.