Indicting Us as Readers in James Wilcox’s "Hunk City"

Twenty plus years after the events in Modern Baptists, Mr. Pickens, Burma, Donna Lee, and others returned in James Wilcox’s Hunk City (2007). Unlike his inaugural novel, Wilcox’s Hunk City deals with questions of race and benevolence in a more direct manner. In the novel, one character of African descent, Iman, plays a major role. Throughout the novel, white characters refer to Iman as an African American, and that assumption, for the reader, does not disappear until the latter half of the novel. Donna Lee tells Burma that Iman quit her previous job because she got “sick and tired of Mrs. Pickens referring to her as an African American when she had told her, time and again, that she was a Carib from Grenada” (160). Just because she has dark skin, Mrs. Pickens and others assume Iman is African American, and their perceptions show their lack of understanding in regards to those around them.

Earlier in the novel, Burma gives $500 to an unnamed, African American woman who appears to need it. However, Mr. Pickens thinks the woman stole the money and takes it from her. Furious at his actions, Burma looks for the woman to return to the store so she can give her the money again. One day, another woman in a turban enters the store, and Burma gives her the money. Unfortunately, she gives the money to the wrong woman. She gives it to Iman rather than the unnamed customer. After Mr. Pickens calls Burma out on this mistake, she tell him that she had a turban on like the unnamed lady. Mr. Pickens replies, “Just because someone’s wearing a turban doesn’t mean you have to give them five hundred dollars. Can’t you tell one African American from another?” (76) Through his comment and question, Mr. Pickens interrogates Burma’s intentions and her inability to perceive, like his wife, those around her. 
Perception plays a large role in the novel. Characters fail to notice what makes individuals unique, and through presenting their perceptions in the above ways, they essentialize groups of individuals, in this case African Americans and people of African descent. For the white characters, their inaccurate recognition of individuals comes from their lack of interaction. It also arises from their pre held stereotypes that have been perpetuated through the media and other cultural sources. When Burma tells Donna Lee about a robbery at her house, Donna Lee reprimands Burma because she wanted to help the robber and even offered to assist with money. Donna Lee tells her friend, “And by the way, if you truly want to help minorities, you won’t encourage them to steal” (emphasis added 31). Of note, Donna Lee automatically assumes a minority attempted to rob her friend. Burma asks how Donna Lee knows the robber was a minority, and the lawyer responds by telling her, “You said he was African American, didn’t you?” (31) Burma did not say any such thing.
Immediately when Burma mentioned a robbery, Donna Lee jumped to the robber being African American. Her “benevolent” nature does not protect her from the preconceived stereotypes that, consciously or not, have seeped their way into her very being. While she espouses a progressive view, she maintains a view of African Americans as criminal, never allowing herself to think that the robber could be a white man. In fact, the robber turns out to be Mr. Pickens’ white assistant Edson. This fact, along with Iman’s native country, do not appear until the latter part of the novel. 

By withholding this information, Wilcox implicates the reader in the assumptions that the characters make. Burma and Donna Lee’s discussion of the robbery ends when Burma says she did not mention the robber was African American, and Iman appears throughout the novel with no indication to her origin, the reader just knows she works at WaistWatch and as a security guard. What comments does that make about us as readers if we immediately believe that Burma’s robber is African American or that Iman becomes classified as African American even though she is from the Caribbean? Wilcox does not just comment on the characters in the novel by presenting the narrative in this manner, he indicts us as well.

All of this makes me think about a line from Lecrae’s “Dirty Water” as well, In the song, Lecrae speaks about the ideas of perception on the oppressed and the oppressor in the second verse. There, he raps, “Lie you told about yourself you don’t realize (like what?)/ I must be a thief; she locked the doors when I was walking by.” Without provocation, the woman locks her doors because she fears that the man will rob her or do her physical harm. This line mirrors Donna Lee’s assumptions about Burma’s robber.

Another example that I thought of, which mirrors Wilcox’s technique comes from Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999). In the opening scene, Michael Bolton, a white character, is stuck in traffic. He raps along with Scarface’s “No Tears,” loudly, but when an African American man walks by selling flowers, Michael turns the radio down. After the man leaves, Michael turns the volume back up and continues to rap along with the song. The scene highlights the same false fears that both Wilcox and Lecrae express. As well, the scene provides us with an interesting discussion in regards to cultural hybridity and dissemination.

What are your thoughts on Wilcox’s technique here? What other authors do something similar? Let me know in the comments below.   

Wilcox, James. Hunk City. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

"Benevolence" in James Wilcox’s "Modern Baptists"

A couple of weeks ago, I noted some similarities between James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists (1983), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Today, I want to look at the African American presence in two of Wilcox’s novels: Modern Baptists and Hunk City (2007). I have covered this topic in relation to Percy’s novel before, and you can see those posts on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog.

In Wilcox’s first novel, African American characters exist on the periphery, present only in relation to the white characters. This reminds me, sort of, of the way that T. Geronimo Johnson presents the inhabitants of the Gully in Welcome to Braggsville (2015). The citizens of the Gully do become more fully realized later in the novel, but the initial discussions of them create a sense of mystery regarding who they are. I am not comparing the way that Wilcox and Johnson present their African American characters as a one-to-one correlation. I am just saying that I see similarities, possibly because I read them in such close proximity to one another. 
The first reference to an African American presence in Wilcox’s novel comes in the first chapter when the narrator discusses the train tracks, the tracks that have not seen a train since 1908. After that time, when the lumber company moved out, “the railroad became nothing but a dividing line between the side of town where Mr. Pickens lived and the side of town where Mrs. Wedge went every Thursday to pick up her maid” (8). Rather than having any of the action on the “other side of the track,” the entirety of the novel takes place in the white section of town.

Throughout the novel, only one African American really plays more than just a role on the edges. The Keely’s maid Moab shows up at various times in the novel; however, she does not say anything except a couple of lines at the very end. Elsewhere, Mr. Ray, Ms. Jenks’ handyman, gets mentioned periodically. Donna Lee worries about him, continually asking how he is doing and blaming Ms. Jenks for his sickly condition. However, she never attempts to either call on or see Mr. Ray. In fact, at the party at the end of the novel, Donna Lee tells Ms. Jenks to give Ray her love. The narrator then comments: “She knew Mr. Ray was lonely and in pain. But somehow she had never got around to [visiting him]. There was always so much work to do” (225). Donna Lee’s benevolence has its limits.

During an interview with John Lowe, Wilcox comments on Donna Lee’s motivation in the novel. When asked if Southerners have more humility than others, Wilcox responded:

In one narrow sense, yes. When I went up to Yale at first, being polite and deferential was not the norm. Any categorical statement is suspect, but Henry Adams points out the tremendous difference between the South (which he did not particularly like) and the East, where people think they can fix everything–total self-reliance. A lot of my comedy comes from people like Donna Lee, who is Emersonian. She’s rejected all the things that she finds distressing about the Old South, and is going to be self-reliant and get her friends to be that way. 

Donna Lee feels like she can, and should, fix everything. In many ways, she reminds me of the “benevolent” characters in Antebellum novels who espouse compassion and aid only for the sake of making themselves feel better or to boost their social standing. For Donna Lee, I feel her impetus is the former. She wants to help Moab and Mr. Ray; however, she doesn’t  understand the multitude of factors that cause the racial problems on the periphery of the novel. 

As Donna Lee and her parents follow Moab in the grocery store, the narrator talks about Donna Lee’s interactions with Moab and how those interactions disappointed her. Donna Lee “had tried many times to start up a conversation with [Moab], not like her mother, just gab about petty household matters. Moab’s silence hurt Donna Lee and made her wonder about herself” (140). Rather than trying to understand why Moab doesn’t speak with her, Donna Lee becomes self-centered and focuses on how she feels hurt. By doing this, Donna Lee separates herself even more from the community (as a whole) that she wants to help. 

At the end of the novel, when some in the community gather to raise money for Josie Wayne Bickwell Recreation Center, Moab says her only lines in the novel. Donna Lee approaches the woman and demands that she speaks with her. Moab simply whispers to a shrub, “I seen a woman sit upon a scarlet-colored beast, and upon her forehead was a name written . . .” (228). Confused, Donna Lee then asks Moab what she means. Moab calls Donna Lee scared and says, “Moab, she just a straw in the wind” (229). Donna Lee remains confused, finally leaving the lady with her nieces and nephews. 

Through her actions. Donna Lee becomes like the city of Tula Springs after desegregation. Even though she espouses a heart of benevolence, she fails to help anyone. Donna Lee lives her life, daily espousing her concern for others, but when it comes down to it, she acts like Tula Springs who “[f]ifteen years ago, when blacks could no longer be excluded from Josie Wayne, . . . discovered it had no more funds for the center’s upkeep” (177). Donna Lee, for all of her blistering, does not have the funds (time) to help Mr. Ray or to really converse with and understand Moab’s life. 

I’ll save a discussion of Hunk City for the next post. That novel expands upon some of the topics discussed here. What are your thoughts? Again, let me know in the comments to below. 

Lowe, John. “An Interview With James Wilcox: January 1997[*].” Mississippi Quarterly 52.4 (1999): 617-663. 
Wilcox, James. Modern Baptists. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. 

Horses, Manhood, and Power in Ernest J. Gaines

When Django and Dr. King Schultz ride into Daughtrey, Texas, near the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), the white townspeople freeze, staring in shock at an African American riding a horse next to a white man driving a carriage. Django does not drive the carriage, as would be expected of an African American servant or slave. Django rides through the streets on a horse, dressed as a frontier cowboy, not as a slave. As a doctor and his female patient head into the streets, the doctor takes a second look at Django, points, and queries, “Is that a nigger on a horse?” Django and Schultz continue through the street while the citizens stare at them dumbfounded. Eventually, Schultz asks Django,” What’s everybody staring at?” Without turning his head to address Schultz, keeping his eyes on the townspeople, Django responds, “They ain’t never seen no nigger on a horse before.”

This short scene presents a brief, but powerful, illustration of the horse as a symbol of power and authority that the ruling society denied African Americans. I point to this scene because it makes me think about two texts by Ernest J. Gaines. As I reread his novels in preparation for the NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience,” I keep getting drawn to couple of novels that present the horse in a symbolic nature of manhood and citizenship. The first instance occurs in Of Love and Dust (1967) and the second occurs in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971).

Perhaps one of my favorite covers for any book is Tim Gaydos’s cover for the 1979 paperback edition for Of Love and Dust. The cover, pictured above, shows an African American male picking picking corn while a white overseer straddles a horse and watches him work. The image provides a microcosm of the book’s narrative while highlighting the power structures that exist for the majority of the novel. The overseer’s position places him above the worker and highlights that he has the power in the scene because does not work in the field pulling corn. Instead, he observes and makes sure that the worker does his job and maintains his position of subservience.

In the novel, the scene from the cover plays itself out. After Marshall bonds him out of jail, Marcus works in the fields under the watchful gaze of Marshall’s overseer Sydney Bonbon. Every time Bonbon enters the fields, he rides his horse, shifting his weight one or the other in the saddle to maintain his position. Occasionally he descends, but when he watches Marcus work, he typically observes him while leaning over the pommel of the saddle. The first time that Bonbon comes to the field to observe Marcus, he rides behind the worker, so close that Marcus can feel the horse’s hot breath on his neck. James, the narrator says, “And there was that black stallion about six inches behind Marcus-and power Marcus feeling the horse’s hot breath on the back of his neck” (37).
Bonbon’s position of power, spatially speaking, in this scene comes from his position above Marcus. Gaines draws even greater symbolic nature to the horse a little later in the same scene. For a paragraph, James sinks in to the mind of the horse as Bonbon rides him and the two wait for Marcus to start picking the corn and put it in the sack. Here, Gaines draws an implied correlation between the horse and Marcus. James says, “[The horse] didn’t mind carrying Bonbon (he was born to carry man), but he would rather move with Bonbon or two like Bonbon than stand with one Bonbon in the hot sun” (38-39). With the phrase “he was born to carry man,” James invokes Nanny’s comment to Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Nanny tells her that African American women are the mules of the world.
Marcus doesn’t achieve his manhood through riding a horse; however, he does achieve manhood through his actions at the end of the novel, his ability to stand up for himself in the face of white oppression from characters like Bonbon and Marshall. While Marcus’s manhood does not come from his horsemanship, Joe Pittman’s masculinity can be seen in his ability to train wild horses, doing what other men can’t do. Joe becomes a frontier man, riding horses and existing equally amongst his other horse breakers when he takes Jane to live with him on a horse farm near the Sabine River.
For Joe, breaking horses became a way to show his manhood in a society that denied him that right. When he goes to Mr. Clyde to get money so him and Jane can pay Colonel Dye and leave his plantation, Jane’s says, “[Joe] said it wasn’t easy; some colored men had to speak up for him. Then he had to prove to Mr. Clyde how good he was. Clyde picked one of the wildest horses he had. He broke the horse, true, but he was shoved up he had to lay up awhile before he could start back home” (87). Here, Joe had to receive recommendations from others before Mr. Clyde would take him on. Even when Mr. Clyde decided to trust Joe, he gave the man a wild hose and the horse laid him up. Even though Joe tamed the horse, the horse injured him.
When Jane fears that a horse will kill Joe, she visits Madame Gautier to interpret her dreams; the “hoo-doo” woman tells Jane that manhood cannot be found in conquering the horses. Gautier tells Jane that she can’t stop Joe from riding the horse because “That’s man’s way. To prove something” (97). Joe rides horses to prove his manhood in the eyes of he whites who subject him to oppression. Later, Gautier reiterates that if the horse doesn’t kill Joe something else will. She says, “I have told you the horse is just one. If not the horse, then the lion, if not the lion, then the woman, if not the woman, then the war, then the politic, then the whiskey. Man must always search somewhere to prove himself. He don’t know everything is already inside him” (99). Even though Joe seeks acceptance and manhood through the horse riding, he does not find it there. Joe is a man, but he is not a man in the same way that Ned Douglass is.
Perhaps this is why Marcus does not appear on a horse in Of Love and Dust. The horse presents an image of power and manhood, but it is not tribe manhood. Instead, that manhood that leads to equality comes from within, as Gautier says. What are some other novels, short stories, plays, or poems that contain references to African Americans and horses? Let me know in the comments below.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.

Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Note: The clip below is also from Django Unchained. It shows Stephen, a character that is similar to Bishop in Of Love and Dust and Uncle Robin in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Here, Stephen asks the same question that everyone else has asked, “Who dat nigga on that nag?”