In my mother’s shed, she keeps a photo of the only Halloween costume I’ve ever owned. In the photo I’m one of two black girls in my first grade class, second row, standing amidst Disney princesses, police officers and power rangers. I’m Frankenstein, the living dead, though my dress looks more like a hospital gown. My mask is a plastic green, and two bolts are screwed into my neck. My hair is in a tight ponytail sticking up like a sprout above the fake black hair of my mask. My arms are at my sides, straight and limp. I remember I had difficulty breathing with that mask on my face.
Every Halloween I brace myself for an onslaught of the racial grotesque: white people who slather on heavy bronzer to revel in spooky coonery. This year the parade of racial horrors seemed worse than previous years, or perhaps I was more acutely allergic this season. Even before Halloween, a string of viral photos assaulted the Internet: men, mostly white men, chose to impersonate Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year old African-American who was shot and murdered last year.
I won’t re-post the photos of those blackfaced men wearing “blood-splattered” grey hoodies. If one is desperate to see the truly vile it’s easy to find using Google.
I’ve come to expect offensive portrayals of blackness during Halloween, but this past year’s trend of impersonating Trayvon Martin seemed unusually cruel. I’ve never understood why certain white people love black face. I can only imagine those who love blackface or find the use of “blackface” funny enjoy dehumanizing blackness. Blackface has been used for racial parody since the early 1800s, and slowly over the years Halloween has become the season for horrific racial parodies within a larger social framework that thrives on dehumanizing blackness for its own survival. Blackness as monstrous. I’ve been thinking about this as a concept more and more, especially this Halloween as I perused photos of people who could not have possibly seen and understood Trayvon Martin as a human being.
Recently, I finished The Kid, a novel by African-American author, Sapphire. It took me two years to finally read it. I had read her previous novel Push, which depicts a brief moment in the life of a sixteen-year old black teen, Precious, who is obese, illiterate and a survivor of incest. The Kid follows the life of Precious’ son Abdul Jamal Jones. The novel begins after Precious has died of AIDS and that early childhood loss, the incapability of its narrator Abdul to understand the full significance of that loss, propels him (and readers) into a scattered, perverse journey, a stunted bildungsroman, in which Abdul is a victim of rape who then becomes a rapist. Seriously halfway through the book, and I can say this without spoiling the novel because there is nothing to spoil, Abdul has been raped by almost every person he comes in contact with, has abused young boys, and dreams of abusing animals. In a bizarre and frightening scene with his only living kin, his grandmother, he masturbates during her retelling of her own rape story. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
Even at her best, when Sapphire forces me to close the book in rigid horror, Sapphire’s novel felt like it was struggling under its own weight, its own anger, and as result the novel never found any real emotional movement. The novel ends somewhat like it begins: in destitution. Sapphire sketches Abdul so extremely thin, so excessively monstrous, that readers can hardly recognize themselves. Of course, this is no surprise Abdul does not recognize or know himself either.
Over fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote an essay “Many Thousands Gone” about Richard Wright’s Native Son and its protagonist Bigger Thomas, who shares scary similarities with Abdul Jamal Jones. Baldwin claimed the “tragedy is not that [Bigger Thomas] is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult -that is, accept it.” In attempting to write about the cycle of abuse and of the institutions that often fail African-Americans, Sapphire creates a monster and demonstrates what can happen when one tires of trying to feel human in a society that stubbornly refuses to allow it. The novel isn’t a failure, but it is an incredibly difficult one to read. I understand why she had to write it regardless. To be a writer of stories about real-life people, whose lives and histories are considered a monstrous fiction, is to commit to a lifelong quest to have one’s humanity recognized as real. Sometimes a writer must depict the lives of those who failed.
This past Halloween I had no party plans nor had I carved any pumpkins, but I thought perhaps I could go for a stroll through my neighborhood. I realized I had never really experienced that part of Halloween. The only children who celebrated Halloween on the island were American expatriates and their Bahamian neighbors, who often lived in gated communities. I thought maybe I could develop a deeper affection for Halloween if I actually experienced the joy of trick-or-treating, but when I woke up, the sky was miserable and grey.