I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the young hag. Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching. Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute. The people who see me as white always will,and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body.
Loving Day by Mat Johnson took me by surprise. I was expecting (and got) insightful examination of race; I was expecting (and got) funny. What I didn’t anticipate was what a big heart this novel has. Our hero, Warren Duffy, a newly divorced, biracial comic book author and artist, is a hapless but likeable character to root for. He’s inherited a crumbling mansion in the middle of the slowly “gentrifying” Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia after the death of his Irish American father. He’s emotionally adrift and broke, half-jokingly contemplating burning down the mansion for the insurance money. Not long into the story he discovers that he’s the father of a seventeen year-old girl, Tal, who has been raised by her Jewish grandfather and believes that she is white. This is quite a game-changer for both of them, as you can imagine. Her reaction to the news is a great comedic scene.
“So I’m a black. That’s just fucking great. A black. That’s just what I need right now.”
“You’re not ‘a black.’ You’re black. It’s a good thing, nowadays. You can be president.” I grin for her. Her smile back is quick and fraudulent. She’s trying to act composed and mature, and she’s not old enough to know how to pull off the illusion like the rest of us.
“Jesus, I thought you’d be Israeli or something. I hate rap music,” she says, then looks off. “You know, I was the best dancer at Kadima, since like third grade. Guess that’s explained.”
“I can’t dance, sorry.”
“Maybe it skips a generation. God, school. He told you to tell me to go back to school, didn’t he? He told you to tell me to get back in high school, finish up and go to a good college. That’s why he’s doing this to me, because it’s easy to get into college for blacks. Don’t they get scholarships or something? That’s what this is about.”
My daughter is a racist, I think. I adjust that to, My daughter is mildly racist. My daughter is casually racist, I settle on. She’s casually racist.
Funny, banter-y conversations abound in Loving Day, and Warren provides a droll narration throughout. In trying to figure out how to get his daughter to finish high school and get into a good college, he winds up meeting a community of people who identify themselves as “mixed.” They run the Mélange Center, a school for composed of trailers and tents squatting in a section of a Philadelphia city park. Warren ends up teaching art at the school to help pay Tal’s tuition. They both have to wrestle with their identities – which I think surprises Warren, as he’d previously settled on identifying with his mother’s black heritage. He has a fight with one of his black best friends, who thinks the “sunflowers” and “Oreos” (self-adopted terms) at Mélange are abandoning the struggle for racial justice by declaring themselves apart from black people. She thinks Warren is “lost.” He says, in his mind after he walks away from her,
I don’t feel I’m “lost” in what is, despite my own resistance, a minor identity alteration. And it is a little thing, saying, “I’m mixed” instead of “I’m black,” yet it’s the difference between the comfort of wearing shoes that fit as opposed to bearing the blisters of shoes just once size too small. I might have said. It does feel like a relief, and actual relief of pain, just acknowledging – yes I use the word acknowledging – all of who I am, to myself. I would have said to her.
This is one of those books with great lines and ideas appearing on practically every page. It was entertaining and quirky – there’s a whole subplot about ghosts – and has a frenetically-paced denouement involving the future of the mansion and the Mélange Center. The romance between Warren and Sunita, a teacher at the Center, distracted a bit from what was the meat of the story for me, the emerging relationship between Warren and Tal. Tal is a perfectly written teenage girl, a mix of bravado and vulnerability, idealism and world-weariness. She and Warren fight and make up like teenagers and parents do, and even though he’s only been a parent a few months, he cares about Tal almost immediately. There’s a tender heart at the center of this novel, underneath the pithy lines and wry social commentary. It kept me wanting to turn the pages and kept me connected to the story despite its many wacky threads. I really enjoyed Loving Day and have to add the rest of Johnson’s work to my TBR.