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I was mesmerized when I heard Mat Johnson (2015) do a reading from his new novel, Loving Day. One of the great joys that has accompanied my transition into the Houston metroplex this year involves connecting with a community of readers. Mat Johnson is one of several fantastic authors I saw this year during the Inprint Houston Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
Mr. Johnson inscribed my book – “there will be a test on this.” This post represents at least part of what I consider to be the ‘test’ of the book; let us consider it a written essay, perhaps responding to the question: Explore and unpack your understanding of Johnson’s conclusions regarding race in 21st century America.
A Brief Overview of the Plot
In the opening chapter, the mixed-race narrator Warren Duffy returns to Philadelphia (from Wales) following the death of his father and a failed marriage, to care for Loudin Mansion – a dilapidated pieces of historic property that Warren’s father was restoring (for historical reference, this fictional mansion is based partially on a real historic site in Philadelphia called Loudon Mansion, which Mat Johnson discusses on his Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross).
Readers are immediately introduced to the racial themes of the book. Warren, reflecting on returning to a predominantly Black part of Philadelphia, immediately demarcates the central struggles of the novel: “I’m not white, but I can feel the eyes of the few people outside on me, people who must think that I am, because I look white. . .This disconnect in my racial projection is one of the things I hate. It goes in a subcategory I call America” (p. 4). Warren goes on to describe himself as “a racial optical illusion” (p. 18) – largely identifying with his Black racial identity, although phenotypically of lighter complexion.
On his first night back in the house, Warren experiences the first of a series of irruptions central to the novel – a vision of ghosts, crackheads, or sociopaths – on the front lawn. The metaphor of these visions carry on throughout the book – and I will return to their importance later. A second irruption occurs in Warren’s life on his first full day back in Philadelphia, when he discovers he fathered a daughter as a teenager. Tal, like her father Warren, is multiracial~multiethnic~mixed, although she has been raised by her White, Jewish grandfather and has no sense of her multiracial background, despite her phenotypically darker complexion. Upon learning her father self-identifies as Black, Tal immediately freaks out: “So, I’m a Black. That’s just fucking great. A black. That’s just what I need right now” (p. 39). Warren assesses: “My daughter is a racist, I think” (p. 39).
The third irruption occurs when Sunita Habersham confronts Warren during an author talk he is giving at a comic book convention. Warren, who has written comics exploring issues of race, is confronted with a difficult question: “What is it like for you, as a biracial artist” (p. 25)? Since he identifies as Black, Warren becomes defensive – “there is no such thing as ‘biracial’ in Black America. . .there’s black, and there’s white. That’s it” (p. 27). Sunita accuses Warren of being a ‘sunflower,’ – a term evidently describing multiracial individuals who deny their white heritage – and is simultaneously accosted as “stick[ing] within the racial mold set by slavery” (p. 26).
Throughout the remainder of the novel, Warren and Tal, now thrust together as father and daughter, engage in an unpacking of exploring what it means to be multiracial~multiethnic~mixed. Warren enrolls Tal in a ‘charter school’ for multiracial children, which actually functions more as a roving community seeking to provide space for multiracial~multiethnic~mixed people of all ages to explore the complicated nature of their ‘identity.’ Near the culmination of the book, the community plans a Loving Day celebration – paying homage to the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which decriminalized interracial marriage in the United States. The novel is satirical, funny, but also thought provoking in its examination of the intensely complicated nature of racial identity, discourse, and construction in the United States.
The Irruption of Multiracial~Biracial~Mixed Identity
Irruption is defined as “a breaking or bursting in; a violent incursion or invasion” (dictionary.com). Johnson’s novel traces and maps irruptions – not just in the plot twists, but also more importantly in the continuously evolving discourse that is the social construction of race in the United States.
I use the word “irruption” purposely. In my reading of the novel, Johnson is anticipating a 21st century discourse on race in the United States that will have a difficult time breaking outside the binary of Black-White; or, put differently, outside of monoracial lenses. Since we, as a society, have not successfully dealt with race relations between Black and white people, Johnson seems to be questioning what will happen to discourses and relations as more people begin to self-identify as multiracial~multiethnic~biracial. The appearance or self-identifying of multiracial~multiethnic~biracial people (will) appear as an irruption in our discourses on race, and our social imaginary, largely because we are not used to thinking about people self-identifying outside monoracial markers; in fact, it is only within the past two census cycles that we have begun gaining a sense of the self-identified multiracial population in the United States (Wijeysinghe, 2012).
Johnson appears to lean toward or desire a post-racial future. I use the closing lines of the novel in justifying this assessment. Remember the ghosts-crackheads-sociopaths from the opening pages of the book? Throughout the novel, these apparitions become clearer – one is a Black man, one is a White woman – and in the imagination of the multiracial community that forms within the confines of Loudin Mansion these apparitions become a spiritual beckoning of the first interracial couple. Warren has denied these apparitions throughout the novel, but in the closing lines he sees them: “I see, even from here. One is a man. One is a woman. He, black. She, white…I’m not scared. I see them. I see what they are, or what they were. Just lovers. Just people” (p. 287). While there is a much more complicated discussion to be had related to the apparitions within the novel, the long history of sexualizing Black male bodies, the lynching of Black male bodies accused of raping White women, and general fears of miscegenation that has accompanied the history or Black-white race relations in the United States, the closing words of the novel, “just people,” is an oft-uttered phrase of post-racial discourses (Rothenberg, 2016; Wise, 2010).
The two apparitions are not ‘just people.’ They are ‘raced people,’ and unpacking the role of race – as social construction, lived reality, personal identity, communal struggle, and ongoing social imaginary – is a major function of Johnson’s novel. An understanding of multiracial and intersectional identity theories can assist us in this regard (Renn, 2004; Wijeysinghe, 2012). One assertion of multiracial and biracial identity theory is that racial identity is a fluid construct, produced both personally and socially; one that can shift and change throughout one’s life as environments, history, family, and personal explorations evolve. Moreover, research has indicated that multiracial people may choose a monoracial identity (such as Black or white) or operate fluidly across racial identifiers (Renn, 2004; Wijeysinghe, 2012).
Exploring the actual lived experiences of this irruptive reality appears to be a central line of conflict between Warren and his best friend Tosha throughout the novel. In what I consider to be one of the most important conversations in the book, Warren attempts to explain to Tosha why embracing multiple racial or ethnic identities is not indicative of negating one’s Black identity. Tosha cannot understand:
What mixed people? They’re black. If these Oreos are trying to change things so that they’re not really black, how does that help anyone besides themselves? We’ve got black boys being used for target practice by white cops out there, we’ve got a prison system overflowing with victims of white judgment. We have a crisis. Right now. . How does running away from blackness not make that worse? (p. 239).
For Tosha, embrace or acknowledgment of your mixed racial or ethnic heritage is indicative of Black racial abandonment. In the novel she often equates it with selling out, or with buying into racism itself: “Biracialism buys into racism” (p. 271).
Aside from the very real difference in perspectives between Warren and Tosha on what it means to embrace one’s multiracial background, this exchange and conflict in the novel represents one strand of what I mean in saying biracial individuals serve as an irruption in the discourse and social construction on race. Within the United States we are uncomfortable with imagining racial identity outside monoracial lenses; this discomfort cuts across monoracial lines – white communities and Black communities (as well as many others) have difficulty processing these discussions.
A similar difficulty arises related to how racial identity is socially constructed based on physical appearance. In multiracial identity theory, there is an acknowledgment that often one’s sense of racial identity is based on skin complexion, hair color, facial features, and other attributes of physical appearance “used by the general public and society to make assumptions about people’s racial ancestry” (Wijeysinghe, 2012, p. 89). Such socially ascribed markers can help or hinder people’s individual choices about racial identity, as well as acceptance within certain racial~cultural~ethnic communities. The novel is quite explicit about the problematics associated with how race is socially constructed around such physical markers, particularly in relation to Warren (light-complexion) and a character whose nickname is “One Drop,” another very light skinned multiracial individual (whose nickname also refers to the history of race in the United States being based on the one-drop of blood rule; meaning, if you had one drop of non-white blood, you were considered Black or minority). Both Warren and “One-Drop” spend considerable time feeling the need to justify their self-identifying as Black, particularly in the company of other Black people.
Multiracial identity theory also considers it healthy for an individual to self-identify their racial identity – which is why it becomes perfectly legitimate for the characters in the book to explore their multiple backgrounds as well as decide on their own racial identity, which many fluctuate. Further, the more recent models and explorations of this topic explore the role of intersecting identities – such as gender, sexuality, spirituality, and geographic region – as well as environmental contexts, as critical to understanding how people self-identify racially~ethnically.
How these issues of racial identity are resolved for each of the main characters in this novel – Warren and Tal – is ambiguous. I believe Johnson creates this ambiguity purposely – unsure of what to do with it. Johnson himself is mixed, even referring to himself as mulatto at times (noting the consternation this causes).
The novel opens a space for us to begin thinking about how our discourses on race will evolve~shift~change in a country that is not only becoming more racially diverse and less white, but also allowing for people to acknowledge their multiracial~biracial~multiethnic backgrounds. Dominated as we have been with monoracial thinking in the United States, I wonder alongside Mat Johnson whether we are ready for the complicated conversations that must ensue in the ongoing social construction of race in our society. This novel might serve as an important starting point for such discussions among friends, colleagues, in our classrooms, and as parallel reading to studies examining the construction of racial identity in the United States.
Johnson, M. (2015). Loving day. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Renn, K. A. (2004). Research on biracial and multiracial identity development: Overview and synthesis. New Directions for Student Services, 123, 13-21.
Rothenberg, P. S. (2016). White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Wijeysinghe, C. L. (2012). The intersectional model of multiracial identity: Integrating multiracial identity theories and intersectional perspectives on social identity. In C. L. Wijeysinghe & B. W. Jackson III, New perspectives on racial identity development: Integrating emerging frameworks (2nd ed., pp. 81-107). New York: New York University Press.
Wise, T. (2010). Colorblind: The rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from racial equity. San Francisco: City Light Books.