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.

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