Harry Sylvester Bird follows a white man who is deeply uncomfortable with the color of his skin. As a teen, the eponymous Harry Sylvester Bird is disgusted by his bigoted, small-town parents. Unsurprisingly, he decries their racist views and moves to New York City, where he finally feels free to begin living his life as he truly wants to. While there, he joins a self-help group - called Transracial-Anon - for white people ashamed of their whiteness, identifying as a Black man from Africa (thanks to a fascination with the continent he developed while on a family safari vacation in Tanzania as a teen) and insisting that he be called G-Dawg.
Frankly, I found this book to be a delight and absolutely hilarious. As in, I laughed out loud multiple times while reading it. Okparanta really leans into the absurdity of satire to great effect in this of-the-moment investigation of the racial blindness and ignorance of well-meaning white people but not so much that the protagonist becomes a caricature or unrecognizable. He is spectacularly, fascinatingly racist and has absolutely no idea. In fact, the only person who seems to recognize his racism is the Black woman he dates in college, whose judgment is felt in the side-eyed glances she gives him during some of his more obnoxious moments. One of the book’s most important takeaways, I think, is that even as G-Dawg desires to separate himself from the blatant bigotry of his parents and the Purist, white supremacist movement, he’s guilty of making offensive comments to/about Black people and fetishizing his Black girlfriend. As an exploration of how deeply racism runs, even amongst “allies,” this book hits the mark.
Goes well with:
Pair this with any (or all!) of the recent crop of novels using satire to explore race and identity politics. I suggest Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour and Identitti by Mithu Sanyal from personal experience. Also, I’m also very much looking forward to reading The Last White Man by Mohsin Ahmid and the forthcoming Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.