April 2005

Elizabeth Kiem


Angry Black White Boy by Adam Mansbach

When Adam Mansbach reviewed White Girl by Kate Manning in 2002, he commended her subject matter, noting “the fact that the most profound fiction on race has been penned by black authors, for whom the subject is inescapable, should not exempt white writers from taking it on.” Then he panned her book.

I have the opposite reaction. I want to restrain white writers from equating “profound fiction on race” with frenetic sonatas written in the key of b-boy and from playing the homey, even in the guise of a white boy “passing.” But I dug Mansbach’s book Angry Black White Boy.

More than once, I wanted to asphyxiate the long-winded-chest-puffin-ball-clutching-don’t-go-thinkin-I can’t-talk-the talk-banter, circling like a vinyl-track-wich-jellied-with the-goof-ball-blunt-resin, hell, I don’t even know if I want a verb-or-a-capital-M-for Me-but I sure-as-hell-ain’t-gonna-stop-till I’m- run-outta-breath, hyphens and metaphors- prose that Mansbach allows every one of his characters. But in the end, what they had to say, in all its semi-stilted silliness, was more interesting than my discomfort. So I trained my hackles to sit, as one might train one’s ear to the riffs of Mansbach’s muse. I settled in for what proved to be an engrossing story and curiously cognizant tribute to Ellison, Wright, and the Notorious B.I.G.

Not just another proud black man trapped in the body of a white kid at Columbia, Macon Detornay is something like the reverse invisible man. He robs the fares in the back of his cab with impunity, because the face they see on the other end of the gun is black by association. This bugs Detornay even more than the sense of privilege he is ostensibly hijacking. Four days into his crime spree, his motivation changes. As the curtain closes on scene one, Detornay has his finest moment:

“It’s not a trick question! Take a good look. What fucking color am I?”

“White.” The syllable leaked from him, a weak gust of terror.

“Jesus. Thank you. I thought I was going fucking insane here. Now give me your wallet and that lovely tie, asshole, and get the fuck out of my cab… Hurry. Before you forget what I look like.”

If we weren’t convinced already, young Macon from Boston is a breed apart from the masses of white boys weaned on P.E. and Tupac. He’s more than down. He’s derailed.

Angry Black White Boy acknowledges the assimilation of hip-hop culture by whites with a mix of resentment and resignation. Pot-shots at the suburban presumptives who have “sauntered into hip-hop like it was their parents’ living room and thrown their legs up on the table,” are frequent and funny. Even our hero has moments of uncertainty, fearing a “botched handshake” and haunted by his ancestry to the racist ball-player Cap Anson. He is at pains to measure up his bravado against the necessity of “keeping it real.”

Somewhere in the hierarchy of “real” is Mansbach, a poster-boy for the white intellectualization of hip-hop. As an editor, novelist, poet and recorded rapper under the name of Kodiak Brinks, (much of whose work is apparently sampled by Detornay, a poet himself, yo), Mansbach has staked out some artistic turf. As a critic, public speaker and one time artistic consultant to Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, he’s also got the high-brow chops. If the dialogue between Detornay and his college-brothers sometimes strikes a false chord, the rhetoric that spews from their unctuous Intro to Black Studies professor, the self-proclaimed "Academic Gangsta," is bona fide -- evidence that Mansbach has clocked some time in the post-modern symposia of hip-hop and identity.

In part two, our Angry Black White Boy gets busted, but his media-savvy roommates Nique and Dre step in to turn his felonious aggression into a national debate. Moments later, Detornay is a racial demagogue, a guest on the talk-show circuit and the founder of the Race Traitor Project’s Day. Within 48 hours, packs of misguided white folks are trekking to Brownsville to pay penance on his proclaimed National Day of Apology. Remarkably, Mansbach’s tale never falters in its boffo momentum. Its hilarity is studied and each fantastic flight gets a counter-punch: an elderly black man dressed in his finest awaits his supplicants on a park bench, and with dignity and grace informs his would-be-apologizer, “I don’t give a rat’s ass… No sir. Only God is that forgiving.”

Based as it is on a wack brew of adrenaline, inspiration, naiveté, spite, desperation and west-coast chronic, the Day of Apology quickly turns into a riot. Unfolding in raucous vignettes, the mayhem of Macon Detornay’s last stand is a clear evocation of the Invisible Man’s awakening. Like Ellison’s nameless hero, who runs only from his chasers’ “refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine,” Detornay chooses to give up. His bow to absurdity is a moment of profound fiction; his final gangsta words are today’s most color-blind: “Fuck you.” Those are words you can accept, even from some fool white boy who thinks his heart beats in rhythm with the black planet.

Angry Black White Boy by Adam Mansbach
Three Rivers Press
ISBN: 1400054877
352 Pages