This is the first column in the fourth round of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life. In each round, the contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: How will you read differently in 2021?
What I miss most about dinner parties is the messy thrill of meeting new people. Ever since I moved to Portland from Philadelphia a few years ago, it has been a rare occasion when I have gone to someone’s house for a gathering of friends and known everyone. Back when such gatherings were a thing, this meant that I was constantly introducing myself. As soon as I would tell a new acquaintance what I do, that I teach and write about African American literature, I could often see a spark light up behind their eyes. Most often, there were two options for what the response signified: either this new person was chuffed to have found someone who shares a genuine interest in common with them, or they were about to launch into a soliloquy laying out their thoughts on The Race Question.
While talking to someone who knows anything about Black literature holds its own charms—finding people who can speak rigorously and with nuance about race in Portland has been one of the exhilarating aspects of moving across the country to a city in which I had very few people—it is my conversations with those who desperately wanted to make clear that they were “down with the cause” that have usually been the most amusing. I often think about the woman who owns several goats in the backyard of a craftsman in St. John’s, a working-class neighborhood that has been pricing poor people out for the last decade, asking me which Morrison novel I would recommend to her because “I’ve always loved African American literature.” There was also the woman who, in early December 2016, looked me dead in the eye and said, “You know, since everything that’s gone down, whenever I see anyone of even just a little diversity, I have to ask… are you okay?”
These awkward encounters, which are often strange to navigate in the moment, exasperating to think about in the immediate aftermath, and then hilarious to retell at future dinner parties, present a circadian rhythm in the social lives of millennials of color. When the pandemic retreats, it is difficult to imagine that this routine won’t reemerge. But how will the new me, one mostly cultivated alone in my apartment over the course of the past year, respond? I have no idea who I will be when socialization materializes again as a real and desired possibility, and though I’ve practiced some of my new personality quirks on friends during short walks around the neighborhood or lunch dates in the park, these peripatetic performances are inadequate rehearsals for the real thing.
So, in preparation for our vaccine-laden future, I’ve been treating everything I read as didactic fiction. I want novels to not simply remind me of the ever-vanishing before times; I need them to actively teach me what I want to bring from that past into a post-pandemic future. Because COVID-19 has largely forced me to socialize through Twitter, a website in which I present a simulacrum of my best self—attentive, patient, charming, witty, attractive—I want to remember what it is to like to cultivate distance in my relationships as a matter of choice rather than necessity. Over the course of lockdown, I have principally toggled between reading contemporary novels and old staples in my repertoire with an eye towards small moments of social chaos in intimate settings. This may sound niche but actually feels ubiquitous in literature—think the fire alarm during an Eighties-themed shark fin soup party in Ling Ma’s Severance or the inelegant race talks that occur at a dinner party shortly after Obama’s inauguration in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.
One of the first books I read in quarantine was Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, a campus novel about a Black queer graduate student, who navigates the pressures of fitting in and acting out in ways that probably resonate with most PhD students and candidates. The novel gets so much right about how the abject estrangement many of us feel when we are the only Black person in academic environments puts us on a knife’s edge in almost every interaction. I cringed at the same time that I felt relief when Wallace, the novel’s protagonist, finally says “Fuck you” to a white female colleague who could not hold her hostility toward him in abeyance. And then I only cringed later in the novel when that interaction is relayed to his advisor as an act of misogyny, a revelation that shakes Wallace as he realizes that white women’s feelings will always trump white women’s racism in professional settings.
The most explosive scene of Real Life, much like many of the most explosive scenes in graduate school, takes place at a dinner party furnished by Ikea. Wallace has been pondering whether or not the biology PhD he has been pursuing will ultimately be worth the trouble. When Vincent, a friend who holds academia at a distance by working in finance, casually lets their social circle know that Wallace is considering exiting his graduate program, another partygoer, Roman, asks him why he would drop out given “the prospects for… black people, you know?” Wallace’s friends are made to feel uncomfortable, but they are not bothered enough to speak in his defense. Instead, as their silence passes, he is left alone at a crowded table to rehearse the feelings of inadequacy that at least partially caused him to consider leaving graduate school in the first place.
Wallace knows that Roman’s insistence that the university enrolled him despite his shortcomings is a thinly veiled reference to his Blackness: “What Roman is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness, a lack of some requisite sameness. This deficiency cannot be overcome.” Wallace’s immediate response could be read as unsatisfying. A gentle pushback and a forkful of casserole is all he can muster. Later, however, when another couple attempts to brighten the mood with light banter, Wallace casually discloses sensitive information to and about them—he had seen one of them on a dating app—and throws the party into chaos.
While reading this scene, I had to ask myself if I would similarly force others into the space of anger and hurt the next time someone insinuates that I am an affirmative-action case simply because I am jobbing while Black. And the answer is probably not. I’m no more resilient than Wallace; I simply do not have the gumption.
In the space of the dinner party, small opportunities to push back against racism can surface and provide the kind of feelings of meaningful change that retweeting the latest exposé on police brutality does not. These occasions scale racism down into an everyday phenomenon that seems not only manageable but amendable when so much of the discourse on racism renders it as massively intractable. Real Life may not be the best example of the kind of (admittedly minuscule) satisfaction that is possible in the face of even the most naked of microaggressions, but the novel effectively represents the unspectacular character of how these attitudes affect the person of color, and rightly asks readers to consider not only the embarrassment and shame such remarks impose but also the complicity of those in the room who allow such remarks to linger unopposed. I want to meet new people by way of their reactions to these quotidian moments. I want the guy who just told me he read To Kill a Mockingbird last summer to build a friendship with me through his best Atticus Finch impression rather than through what he will probably do—scurry off to get another piece of brie.
It is the texture of the ephemeral bonds that emerge out of these moments that I yearn for: the conversations with the intense ally sputtering apologies because they truly cannot even; the insistences by people that I’ve just met that not everyone in this city is like that; even the hushed whispers I see in another part of the room that make it clear my incensed or weary demeanor shut down what would have been an eminently reasonable conversation. I long ago had to let go of the idea that people I don’t know can tell me anything about myself; instead, it is my reactions to people I don’t know that reveal latent parts of myself to myself. Similarly, when it comes to figuring out new people, witnessing their responses to slight injustices sets a tone for how I would want to associate myself with them, if at all. Black Lives Matter signs, which are now perennially in fashion in this city, perform a particular commitment to anti-racism that should at least be underwritten by simple gestures and disapproving remarks when and if called for. However, rather than hope that the people I meet respond differently than all of the people that I have met, perhaps I should start taking other lessons from fiction.
In James Baldwin’s criminally underread 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a book about the somewhat chaotic life of a Black actor who grows up in Harlem, there is a scene in which the protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, goes to a theater industry party with his longtime friend and occasional lover, Barbara. This party features a number of Broadway celebrities, but Leo and Barbara spend most of their time chatting up the artistic directors of an acting workshop upstate that they end up wanting to join. The couple, white and monied, dress Barbara down for her Kentucky roots while they condescend to Leo for being, in essence, too young, gifted and Black.
When he gets up from the conversation in order to properly locate the source of his rage—the couple is not overly hostile but their simultaneous attraction to and revulsion of him confounds and frustrates—Leo realizes that interactions with white people will always be refracted through racial difference: “And my race was revealed as my pain—my pain—and my rage could have no reason, nor submit to my domination, until my pain was assessed; until my pain became invested with a coherence and an authority which only I, alone, could provide.” Here again, the loneliness of being Black in a white room pushes a character into pondering the larger structural conundrums that tether us to the world. But whereas Wallace forces his white compatriots to share the space of hurt that they have reserved for him, Leo sees a pretty girl and sings a blues song for her on the piano, and the party ultimately turns into the boisterous good time that can paper over the minor racist encounters that help structure everyday life. The people get drunk. They have a good time. They go home and try to figure out which bed to sleep in as another day ambles in.
If this too ultimately feels like an unrewarding response to quotidian racism, it might be because there is no rewarding response to quotidian racism, merely a slate of options that only work on the level of affect. And perhaps the past that I want to bring into the future is a naïve fantasy that reimagined unsatisfactory reactions into satisfying ones. Leo buoys out of deep racial despair when he catches the eye of a “strange girl,” locating within her a similar sense of detachment from the crowd that he feels in the aftermath of his previous conversation. As society becomes more well-versed in talking about the structural rather than the granular, as the power of everyday encounters loses sway in an age of isolation, perhaps, if I’m honest, what I’ve really been looking for is simply a way of figuring out how to just have a good time again.
Art credit: William H. Johnson, “Still Life with Book and Oranges,” ca. 1935-1938, oil on burlap, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the Harmon Foundation