Season Butler


“Character, Race and Empathy” Race has often functioned as a technology of division, making a culturally specific logic of domination and exploitation appear inevitable and fixed.

Like many other forms of social power imbalance, racialisation creates physical, social and affective distancing, often metaphorised using the notion of the gap – differential health and maternity outcomes, disparities in pay and attainment, are all figured conversationally as gaps, across which understanding, solidarity and even simple recognition of another’s humanity can become impossibly vague. Fiction works as a technology of connection, inviting readers to participate vicariously in emotional worlds outside their own. However, the common-sense connection between reading practices and the kind of prosocial behaviour changes necessary to close some of the gaps in understanding between differently racialised subjects is far from straightforward. Recent research into race and empathy reveals how profoundly racial division affects our ability to connect, even imaginatively, with the racial Other. Researchers have identified a Racial Empathy Gap by measuring test subjects’ automatic, unconscious responses to pain experienced by people of different races with troubling results. Narratology of empathy takes up similar research to explore the connection between fiction and empathy, and to explore the most effective strategies to ameliorating rifts in our ability to care or even feel involved in stories about marginalised characters.

Researchers investigating the Racial Empathy Gap look at the effects of perceived racial difference or similarity on automatic responses in the brain; sociological data such as surveys evaluating prejudiced beliefs serve only a secondary function in data analysis.[1] In 2013, Jason Silverstein reported on a number of studies into race and empathy in an article prompted by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy whom Zimmerman stalked, attacked and shot dead as Martin walked home from buying sweets.[2] Zimmerman was acquitted on the grounds that he perceived the unarmed teenager as a threat. Silverstein suggests that research into the Racial Empathy Gap links empathy with disparate outcomes in education, health and the criminal justice system (particularly in juvenile sentencing when Black children are perceived as more like adults than their white counterparts), and at least partly explains how Martin's killing could have been ruled lawful.[3] One study tested participants' reactions to video clips of subjects receiving either a neutral stimulus (an eraser touching their skin) or a painful stimulus (a needle touching their skin).[4] When we empathise with someone else's pain, the same regions of the brain are triggered as when we are in pain, and measurable physiological effects occur. From the all-white pool of participants, the study found that while 'there was no racial effect on the reaction to the harmless stimuli […] [r]eactions to Caucasians' painful stimuli were significantly greater.'[5] White participants felt the pain of the white subjects far more acutely. Notably, gender similarity between the participant and the subject in the video did not impact on the results, yielding no sign of a similar intra-racial gender empathy gap within this study.[6] Further studies support the growing evidence that unconscious bias and race-conditional empathy are real and measurable.[7]

Suzanne Keen's practice of narratology of empathy explores 'which techniques effectively invite concord of authors' empathy and readers' empathy in experiences of intense emotional fusion with the imaginary experiences of fictional beings' as well as the possibility that 'narrative empathy might be translated into real-world altruism' or 'prosocial action' on the part of the reader.[8] Narrative empathy, for Keen, means 'feeling with fiction':[9]

Even though readers know perfectly well that fictional characters are make-believe, they go on caring about them, lending them the bodies that they do not possess, feeling with them in emotional fusion that paradoxically calls into embodiment a psychic corporeality vouched for in readers' own bodily responses.[10]

While Keen finds that ‘readers’ empathy with fictional characters does not reliably correspond with what the author appears to invite,’[11] her analysis suggests that ‘the opportunities for character identification afforded by novel reading may participate in the internalization and socialization that can transmute empathic responses into prosocial action.’[12] Through case studies grounded in works by James Baldwin and Jesmyn Ward, I will examine the use of racial empathy gaps within plot construction, and the impact of active racial marking on the mechanism of withholding or conferring empathetic connection.

Keen takes an intersectional approach to narratology of empathy, interested in the moments ‘when narrative empathy reaches across boundaries of difference, geographical and temporal distance, to evoke shared feeling’ and the effects of identity subject positions on reader response relating to empathy and self-identification with character.[13] Intersectionality is an analytical framework originating from Black feminist thought; intersectionality appreciates identity as a matrix of simultaneous, mutually reinforcing points of privilege or marginalisation, for example, how Black women experience the double oppressions of racism and misogyny, or how class status complicates racial privilege.[14] Intersectional narratologists highlight the relationship between socio-political narratives and literary ones in an attempt to ‘identify and demystify the workings of [social] norms in and through narrative, and expose the dominant stories’ which maintain social hierarchies.[15] The intersectional framework permits analysis of both readers’ and characters’ subject positions (for example, race, gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, religion etc), and explores the relationships between power, identity and empathetic connection, as well as the real-world implications of storyworld constructions.

Intersectionality, Narratology of Empathy and Reader Response

The diegetic racial formation within The Hunger Games trilogy and the reader response to characters’ racial identities in the film adaptations demonstrates the unsettling contingency of race and empathy in some readers, particularly with regard to Katniss, the protagonist, and her young friend Rue, who effectively radicalises Katniss and the storyworld’s entire working class.

Suzanne Collins's young adult, sci-fi/fantasy trilogy is set in a dystopian USA in the near future following a civil war. The country – now called Panem – has been reorganised into thirteen working class 'Districts' and the wealthy Capitol. Every year, two young people are chosen from each District to fight in the eponymous Hunger Games, a high-budget television event in which the one child left alive at the end is that year's 'victor'. The protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is the female 'tribute' selected from the coal mining district, District 12. The Games foment animosity between working class subjects and consolidate the Capitol's power through collective discipline and social cleansing.

Collins's active marking of whiteness defamiliarises race and presents it as a mutable construct that is complicated by class, nation and other points in the intersectional identity matrix. Focalised through Katniss’s first-person narration, the reader experiences the world of the novel through a white, but unusually race-conscious, subjectivity. Early in the novel, Katniss marks her own whiteness when she sees it mirrored in her best friend, Gale. She tells the reader that she looks similar to him, with the same 'straight black hair, olive skin [...and] grey eyes'[16]. Through recognising herself in the image of another, the protagonist actively marks what the reader would recognise as racial normativity (whiteness) in a story about class conflict rather than racism per se. As a race-conscious narrative, it does not take whiteness for granted but makes use of it to enhance the potency of the story's message about fostering meaningful coalitions and identifying the real enemy amidst harsh class antagonisms.

In the poverty-stricken Districts, both white and Black characters are linked to imagery and symbols associated with racial Otherness. Katniss tells the reader that her District is in the area once called Appalachia, a mountain region spreading roughly from present-day Pennsylvania in the north to parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama in the south. Labour in coal mines, folk music and medicine, moonshine brewers and black-market traders define the social and economic life which extends from the real historical region into its fictional rendition in the novel. Poor Appalachian whites were stereotyped as lazy, stupid and immoral, and the region's remote geography reflected and reinforced the neglect and distain it has been subject to by urban whites. Its remoteness also historically served as protection for escaped slaves and displaced Native Americans, providing a base for further interracial insurrection as well as intermarriage. Katniss's relatively dark features combined with the historical resonances of the setting permit a reading of Katniss as mixed-race. Read this way, her racial identity is grounded in a heritage of defiance and lack of racial ‘purity’, and foreshadows the working-class uprising for which she will become a unifying symbol.

Descriptions of the other Districts reveal parallel but different, racially inflected conditions of poverty and coerced labour, recalling historical stratifications of the US and global working class, from colonialism to its evolution into the contemporary paradigm of corporate capitalism. Agricultural production is located in District 11, which resembles the plantation landscape of the rural US South under slavery. The 'Peacekeepers' who enforce the border around District 12 are present, but here they are mounted on horseback, presiding over labour in the fields like plantation overseers. The songs the workers sing and the messages they carry coded in music recall life-sustaining and sometimes subversive African-American spirituals. The tributes from District 11, Rue and Thresh, are explicitly marked as Black, a point Collins confirmed in a 2011 interview about the film adaptations of the trilogy, stating unequivocally: 'They're African American.'[17] Katniss describes Rue, the youngest tribute in the 74th Hunger Games, no fewer than three times in terms which clearly racialise her as Black, observing Rue's 'dark brown skin and eyes' (HG, 45), 'bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin' (HG, 98) and her 'dark, thick hair' (HG, 234). The descriptions which mark Rue as Black are also always accompanied by reflections from Katniss which reveal affection and affinity. Adjacent to each of the descriptions above, Katniss compares Rue to her sister, Prim, observing their similar age, physicality and 'demeanor' (HG, 45), and the fact that they are both named for flowers, a symbolic reference to the delicacy and innocence of both girls (99). When Rue is dying in the arena, Katniss mistakes Rue for Prim in her thoughts (HG, 234).

Katniss's response to Rue's death is the key inciting incident in the trilogy, an act of love and sisterhood which catalyses a new uprising among the Districts against the Capitol. Knowing that TV cameras, which broadcast the games around the clock to all homes in Panem, always show the removal of dead tributes from the arena, Katniss decorates Rue's body with wildflowers. Katniss signals her burgeoning class-consciousness here, directing her anger away from the tribute who killed Rue and squarely onto the Capitol for orchestrating the Games, recognising that humanising Rue is a potent affront to the Capitol's divisive agenda. Katniss's humanising act is threatening to the Capitol because it is both defiant and telegenic, carrying the possibility of inspiring Capitol viewers to question the barbarism of the Games. Racial difference is not incidental in The Hunger Games, nor is its marking reducible to a righteous political gesture. Rue's burial would still have been a harrowing moment in the book if the girls were of the same race. The racial difference between the two girls infers the breach of an empathetic gap and subverts the logic of racialised social hierarchy, imbuing the memorial gesture with even greater significance. Collins effectively denaturalises the deterministic view of race by portraying a world in which non-white racialisation does not preclude innocence and empathy, and ‘colour-blindness’ is not preferred over race-consciousness. Notably, the world of this novel is a dystopia; constructs of race which differ from our own do not necessarily belong only to perfect-world scenarios.

Readers' responses to the actors cast in the film adaptation of the bestselling trilogy exposed the role of association and symbolism in the construction of racial normativity and Otherness, as well as the effect of racialisation on empathy. Journalist Anna Holmes provides a comprehensive analysis of the more troubling elements of the social-media response to the casting in the debut film.[18] Holmes investigates the 'disturbing trend among Hunger Games enthusiasts: readers who could not believe – or accept – that Rue and Thresh, two of the most prominent and beloved characters in the book, were black', evidenced by bigoted online posts. One of the most disturbing was this one: '"Kk call me racist but when I found out rue [sic] was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself"'.[19] Another points to the discursive and symbolic racial markers which I believe generated an affective disparity between the description of a Black phenotype and a positive character attribute, leading to a mis-reading of Rue as white: 'Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture'.[20] In this construction, innocence and Blackness are mutually exclusive; Rue's defining character trait effectively overrules her clearly stated racial identity.[21] Even the grammar in this post points to structural racism; Rue is 'some black girl' – an indeterminate member of a group – as opposed to 'the little blonde innocent girl' – recognised as an individual.

For Suzanne Keen, these readers' 'sympathy for [Rue], to whose death Katniss responds humanely and subversively, was disrupted by the accurate representation of her race.'[22] Keen asserts that an intersectional study of 'this failure in strategic narrative empathy' could help us to understand, 'how the novel permitted an empathetic response while the film blocked it' for some readers.[23] As Holmes and Keen attest, these posts provide a valuable collection of unprompted (and apparently, at times, unguarded) reader response and spontaneous literary debate. Like Silverman, Holmes relates the literary excision of innocence from Blackness within the US social imagination to Trayvon Martin's death wherein the killer, not the unarmed Black child, was found 'innocent'. As Holmes concludes:

In addition to offering lessons in bad reading comprehension, Hunger Games Tweets […] illuminated long-standing racial biases and anxieties. The a-hundred-and-forty-character-long outbursts were microcosms of the ways in which the humanity of minorities is often denied and thwarted, and they underscored how infuriatingly conditional empathy can be.[24]

Racist responses to the film adaptations demonstrate not that Collins's strategy failed, but that racial imagery can be as strongly linked to racially coded qualities and behaviours as they are to skin colour – something which is only ever a metaphor in race talk. The additional visual text presented by the films extended and amplified the work which started in the novels, anchoring the meaning of references to brown skin, for example, firmly to the image of Black bodies. Racial elements in the narrative which were already clear to more attentive readers became explicit to readers who had read over them; public discourse about this misreading is now contributing to the wider conversation on race and empathy in the reading experience.

Racialised Whiteness and Narrative Empathy

In this essay, I execute close readings of diegetic racial formations that include the active marking of whiteness in two US coming-of-age novels set in widely disparate times and contexts: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1957) and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017). Through this reading, I consider the implications of actively racialised characters on the relationship between author, narrative and reader. In her writing on queer narratology and grief, Peggy Phelan positions seeing and speaking as inextricable, ‘even if what one sees is that one cannot say’ in a narrative.[25] When whiteness – the ‘universal’ which is always seen but goes without saying – is actively marked, what new registers and subtext become legible within the text? How does a sense of a reader’s or writer’s racial identification with or against a character impact what we take from the narrative encounter?

Giovanni's Room

James Baldwin's sophomore novel follows David, a US-born, white, middle-class man on the brink of adulthood. David expresses a deep investment in what Lauren Berlant calls ‘good life’ fantasies,[26] hoping to achieve the normative milestones of marriage and family, but finds these at odds with his autogenic identity as a homosexual in the context of the 1950s US where sodomy is a crime. He has expatriated to France to ‘find’ himself but, although homosexuality is legal in France, he continues to repress his homoerotic desire and becomes engaged to a woman. While his fiancée, Hella, is away in Spain, David falls in love with an Italian bartender, Giovanni. This relationship tests his loyalty to the normative structures he continues to associate with a meaningful life and social legibility. When David breaks off the affair, Giovanni is left heartbroken and destitute, and returns to work for an unscrupulous bar owner who attempts to assault him sexually. Giovanni kills him in self-defence, but the killing is officially framed as a bungled robbery and he is sentenced to death. When the novel opens, David is locked in contemplation of his identity, experiencing the guilt of his betrayals of Giovanni, himself and the conditions of heteronormative national identity which prohibit the fulfilment of his authentic desire.

Baldwin's decision to write a novel about homoerotic desire from a white perspective mounted a challenge to numerous extant formal and moral conventions. Writing in the introduction to the 2001 edition of Giovanni's Room, author Caryl Phillips attributes Baldwin's choice to racialise David as white to an emancipatory strategy driven by a desire for creative freedom. Though Baldwin won wide critical acclaim for his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a coming-of-age story set in Harlem with only Black characters, 'the label "Negro author" was one which Baldwin never warmed to,' Phillips notes.

He had no desire to be thought of as just another Negro limited to writing only on 'Negro' topics. He saw his talent as universal, and he was determined that he should be free to write about anything or anybody he pleased.[27]

In Baldwin's second novel, Black characters are entirely absent, allowing sexuality to emerge in the thematic foreground, breaching the convention that racism is the central, if not the sole, preoccupation of African-American literature. However, if, like Phillips, we view Giovanni's Room as 'raceless' – a term he deploys numerous times in his essay – we imply that 'race' only belongs to those characters racialised-as-other, reinforcing the idea of the white subject as 'universal', a term Phillips does not problematise here.

For literary theorist Mae G. Henderson, David's whiteness is grounded in a generic concern, finding that, 'Baldwin's novelistic construction of whiteness constituted a strategic decision to compel […] a certain self-distancing in relation to [his] second, thinly veiled, autobiographical novel.'[28] Although Baldwin chooses his racial opposite as the conduit through which to explore sexual Otherness, there are subtle clues to an African-American subjectivity throughout the novel. Baldwin opens the novel with an epigraph by Walt Whitman, a notably gay compatriot author: 'I am the man; I suffered, I was there' as if inviting the reader to sense the presence of the author within the narrative. Another reading of Baldwin's construction of whiteness in Giovanni's Room reveals a distinctive racial co-presence between the white narrator and the Black author, imbuing the protagonist with a multi-dimensional roundness of character.

Many of the ways in which whiteness is established in Baldwin's characterisation parallel the optical, historical and relational means by which it is established in the real social sphere. The reader first sees David as he sees himself, highlighting the privilege to self-define which his whiteness enables. Baldwin places David in front of his reflection in a window looking out onto the night; this configuration allows his whiteness to emerge against the background of the blackness which makes his reflection visible to him and, by extension, to the reader. David reports what he sees:

I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.[29]

The repetition of the word 'gleam' emphasises the effervescence of his visibility and links his blondness (a phenotypical suggestion of whiteness) to an angelic quality recalling Robin Bernstein’s theorisation of ‘racial innocence.’[30] His body is inscribed with marks of innocence and benign visibility belying the sombre tone of the prose and the feelings of guilt and condemnation he attempts to suppress, generating a conflict between racialised narratives of white purity and his lived experience of his own acts of betrayal. It is not David's features which make it a white face but, significantly, its familiarity. Baldwin's readers will surely have seen non-white faces many times as well. It has a 'generic quality', a face that stands in for an officially recognised and sanctioned identity, and also one licensed to appear unselfconsciously in the public sphere.[31]

Baldwin goes on to situate David's identity within the dominant US colonial narrative, designating pre-Columbian America as 'death-laden', echoing the popular misconception of it as homogeneous, primitive and culturally unsuccessful. David, then, does not only possess a white physicality but also a coloniser's subjectivity. He alludes to his roots when he mentions his ancestors, as well as their routes, a specifically colonialist motility through geographical space, propelled by the self-serving fiction of Manifest Destiny (a quasi-religious doctrine justifying the violent appropriation of the entire North American continent by white settlers).[32] This pioneering agency differentiates David's ancestors from Baldwin's, whose forced migration and enslavement would have been characterised by a distinct lack of physical and social mobility.

Authorial labour is visible on close consideration of this opening passage. David must be actively racialised as white to ensure that the reader does not conflate the race of the author (a young, gay, Black American living in France) with that of the protagonist (a young, gay, white American living in France). A white author could rely on the standing convention of passive racialisation – that is, a white author could indicate a protagonist's whiteness by simply leaving it unmarked. This labour accords the author a kind of shadow presence in the narrative, complicating a view of the novel as 'raceless'. In contrast to a stereotypical association of whiteness, particularly white youth, with innocence, David is overwhelmed by guilt, even as his assertion of his personhood in direct address to the reader contains, to use Morrison's terms, a sense of being 'licensed', 'historical' and 'a progressive fulfillment of destiny'. [33]

What Baldwin establishes here is an intersubjective, simultaneous narrative focalisation where the protagonist's white subjectivity operates in close proximity to the author's Black subjectivity, a parallel visibility of David's white reflection which is made possible by the black night outside. Non-threatening or neutral encounters while moving through public space provide further cultural markers of David's racial identity and contribute to the novel's intersubjectivity between narrator and author. As an intersectionally round character, his identity politics, psychology and physical presence are meaningful and mutually informing. David goes on to mentally anticipate his journey from the South of France back to Paris the following day, imagining other passengers offering to share their food with him, suggesting a certain presupposition of his humanity. When someone wants to come into his full carriage and is turned away, David will be one of the turners-away rather than the one rejected. David's African-American counterpart might note the difference between the experience of travel in the US and in Europe, while David does not. In a later scene, David has a neutral encounter with a police officer which demonstrates his whiteness as one who is not stopped, even when a literal and symbolic stop sign (the arret) is present:

I found four bus tickets in my wallet and I walked to the arret. There was a policeman standing there, his blue hood, weighted, hanging down behind, his white club gleaming. He looked at me and smiled and cried, 'Ca va? [sic]'

                        'Oui, merci. And you?'

                        'Toujours. It's a nice day, no?'

                        'Yes...But the autumn is beginning.'

'C'est ça.' And he turned away, back to his contemplation of the boulevard. (GR, 138)

The amicable encounter is narrated unhurriedly. Although David sees the policeman's weapon, the phallic authority it symbolises furnishes identification rather than a threat, colour-coded as the same 'gleaming' white David saw in his own reflection in the opening scene. David goes on to say that he 'watched a woman pass'; that this occurs without incident evokes grave, racialised subtext. In the context of the 1950s US, similar acts of looking on the part of a Black man toward a white woman frequently served as the pretext for lynchings.[34] The encounter ends with a banal expression of David's approval of the policeman who 'had a gusto which I admired.' The repressive impulses and distancing thought processes which characterise David's typical response to homoeroticism are not present here, and admiration for the quality of 'gusto' feels distinctly asexual, undermining any erotic undertones in the encounter. The purpose of this exchange seems to be the racial marking of David as white through a benign encounter with the law for which the policeman is a symbol. What does not happen here is what imbues this scene with significance. If our reading experience is focalised through the author's subjectivity – as the semi-autobiographical nature of the book might encourage – we might anticipate an African-American man's response to the French police officer's conviviality in contrast to the treatment he might receive in the U.S.. The narrator, however, registers the encounter as normal. The simultaneous focalisation and active racialisation of whiteness makes white privilege visible through the co-presence of Black subjectivity.

Baldwin fuses racially and sexually Othered subjectivity in David's lovers, Joey (his first romantic and sexual partner from childhood) and Giovanni. Although both Joey and Giovanni are racialised as white by omission, they are both described by David as 'dark', placing them on a slightly lower position within the white supremacist hierarchy. Abur-Rahman expounds on the ways that contact with each threatens to undermine David's masculine privilege as well as his white privilege. 'A number of words that David uses to describe same-sex desire have racial connotations: black, half-forgotten, madness, half-understood, dirty. It is Joey's brownness then – his being raced – that is both pollutant and contagion to David […].'[35] Giovanni confronts David's self-deception in racially-coded terms when David leaves him. David insists that he loves Giovanni, but Giovanni retorts, '"You do not," […] "You love your purity, you love your mirror."' (GR, 133) The relationship between identification and denial here recalls Baldwin's suggestion that Blackness operates 'as a disagreeable mirror' to whites in the US, a reflection of themselves they prefer not to see.[36] When David looks at his 'dark' lover, Giovanni, he is not in love with the masculinity he sees reflected back at him, but estranged by the Otherness he almost automatically projects onto Giovanni and all of the gay subjects he encounters.[37] For Abur-Rahman, Giovanni, as David's 'darker, poorer, abused, and finally executed Italian lover' embodies the classic experiences of the degraded figure of both the African American and the homosexual. In terms of race, Giovanni’s dislocation in Paris, his failure to belong, and the extreme poverty he faces emblematize the alienation that African Americans experience wherever they are on the globe, including the country of their births and citizenship.[38]

In order to affect a final break in his attachment to Giovanni, David leaves Paris and travels to the South of France. A parallel North-South move in 1950s US would constitute a move from a more liberal region to one governed by the strict racial caste system of Jim Crow laws. The subtext of racial apartheid implies a desire on David's part to invoke an empathetic gap between the dark, sexually deviant object of his autogenic desire and his own threatened normativity. This interpretation both racialises and 'Americanises' David's moral compass and social orientation. The circular structure of the narrative places David back where the novel started, alone with his whiteness, but with his understanding of white innocence complicated by his contact with subordinated race, class and sexuality.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward’s third novel is set in the multi-ethnic Louisiana coast against the backdrop of the wake of cultural and historical injustices and inequalities. Poverty affects all of its characters and serves as a unifying factor while at the same time, the subtle social stratifications of white supremacy and the racial formation from slavery continue to inform a racial hierarchy among the region’s neglected underclass. The plot centres on thirteen-year-old Jojo and his family, primarily his Black maternal family. His primary carers are his elderly grandparents, Mam and Pop, who live in modest conditions, close to the land and an ancient, culturally hybridised spiritual tradition as Mam slips ever closer to death from cancer. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, struggles with addiction and a tragic ambivalence which harms all of her relationships. Leonie’s emotional distance leaves Jojo largely responsible for the care of his three-year-old sister, Kayla. Their white father, Michael, after whom Kayla (Michaela) is named is serving a sentence in the nearby Parchman prison, a site of trauma for so many of the novel’s characters that it looms as an almost predestined part of adult life for the men in the region. The narrative point of view, always in the first person, switches between the perspectives of Jojo, Leonie and Ritchie, the ghost of an adolescent Parchman inmate who was close to Pop a generation earlier. The novel opens on Jojo’s birthday, a moment of emergence from childhood into the liminal space of teenage life wherein he is immediately exposed to the dangers and dilemmas of Black masculinity.

The bulk of the novel takes place on the road. Leonie insists that Jojo and Kayla drive with her and her white friend Misty (whose Black boyfriend is also a Parchman inmate) to collect Michael, whose release has just been confirmed. Jojo is forced to leave the relatively protective space provided by his maternal grandparents out into the wider world, a social sphere governed by the state sanctioned oppression and violence associated with his white paternal grandparents. Through this journey, Ward leads the reader through an emotional landscape scarred by failed connections, toxic attachments and fractured notions of self.

Sing’s characters all live with the afterlife of social, cultural and ecological catastrophe: Michael’s addiction, which influenced Leonie’s, was catalysed by the trauma of the deaths of those close to him – and the near-annihilation of coastal wildlife – following the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Misty still lives in emergency housing, a ‘pink MEMA cottage she’s had since Katrina,’[39] a signal that the poor are still suffering from the flooding over ten years earlier, much of which resulted from insufficient investment in poor coastal areas. Vulnerability to the worst impacts of climate catastrophe are further alluded to through references to illness caused by dramatically fluctuating temperatures, which will yield to diabolical heat. As Leonie observes toward the end of the novel: ‘It is the first hot day of the spring, a foretaste of the damnation that will suffuse the air in the summer, that will make everyone and everything bend.’ (SUS, 273)

Death suffuses the narrative; death by neglect – by would-be care-givers or by the state – seems to be the characters’ shared fate, which poverty makes them helpless to resist. While the region is characterised by shared traumas and common coping mechanisms, its racial divisions are pronounced. The white characters are geographically associated with ‘the Kill,’ an area ‘upcountry’ from Bois Sauvage, where Jojo’s family live. Pop’s ‘red’ colouration suggests a racial admixture of African American and Native American, and the spiritual practices evidenced by the protective charm Pop hides in Jojo’s clothes and in Mam’s invocation of a combination of African and Christian goddess figures point to the multi-cultural nature of Southern Louisiana. Jojo and all of the members of his family on the maternal side have close relationships with natural and supernatural forces through acuity with herbal medicine, visitations with ghosts and the ability to speak to and empathise with animals.

Magic is not in evidence in Sing’s white characters. Their power is not supernatural but social. White privilege is not as elegant or pristine as it might be in other class-inflected settings, but it remains a strong, invisible force, and consistently undermines empathetic connection. The novel’s white characters have all, consciously or unconsciously, accepted the ‘wages of whiteness’; a racial micro-hierarchy governs social transactions, and overstepping one’s place in the system carries grave, and often fatal, consequences, as the interracial contact within the novel’s impoverished class reveals.[40] Everyone in the novel ekes out a living from the land, odd jobs, various extra-legal cottage industries (Leonie’s white friend, Misty, makes forged car insurance documents; Misty’s friends Fred and Carlotta cook meth and, it is implied, trade in the resale of consumer goods which clutter their home in boxes). Only Al, Michael’s lawyer, has a conventional job though it is one tied to a corrupt criminal justice system, and Al is involved with the drug trade as well. Jojo observes that he is ‘the whitest White man I’ve ever seen.’ (SUS, 111) His whiteness might be phenotypical, but Ward’s description does not foreground it as with other characters, suggesting a more social/cultural significance to Al’s whiteness at the centre of Jojo’s observation. He has found a sweet spot in the system of addiction, criminality and economic inequality from which he is able to thrive. Indeed, the white characters all seem to occupy marginally higher status with occupations like lawyers, bar owners, law enforcement and forgers.

Ward reveals the operation of privilege even in the absence of overt, avowed racism, showing the subtle ways in which it governs interactions in bi-racial space. Jojo recalls Mam’s gentle but firm reminders to behave particularly politely in a shop as a child, because she knows that white people will judge them more harshly (SUS, 128). In the present tense of the novel, on the return journey from Parchman, the barely perceptible movements on the part of a white shopkeeper reveal internalised, unconscious racial bias which coexists with conscious interracial empathy: ‘I lean forward. He moves back just a step: small as a slivered fingernail. A twitch. I remember I’m brown, and I move back, too.’ (SUS, 175) When Jojo asks the price of a lollipop – which he will give to his sister – he can see that the shopkeeper would prefer to give him the candy for free: ‘“Seventy-five cents,” the man says. His eyes say different: I would give it to you if I could, but I can’t. Got cameras in here.’ This correction suggests that his move back was a reflex (perhaps governed by the same neurological mechanisms observed in studies of the Racial Empathy Gap), independent of his conscious intentions, the subtle impact of white supremacist acculturation present even in someone who is not consciously, aggressively discriminatory. Surveillance in the form of the cameras implies an unseen governing logic which prohibits the extension of an empathetic gesture toward the clearly neglected child.

The dehumanisation of Black characters within white supremacist logic exposes the naturalisation of the racial hierarchy. During Pop’s time at Parchman, he was given the task of caring for the dogs kept on site to hunt down escaped convicts, another strong echo of oppressive tactics enduring in the afterlife of slavery.[41] The older white inmates find it offensive and ‘unnatural’ that a Black man is empowered with the task of hunting down escapees. Ritchie acknowledges the paradox, though he notably views it as cultural rather than natural. ‘There had always been bad blood between dogs and Black people,’ he recalls, adding that ‘they were bred adversaries – slaves running from the slobbering hounds, and then the convict man dodging them.’ (SUS, 138)[42] Despite his superior skill with the dogs, which the text implies is linked to his focus on empathetic connection and care rather than a logic of domination, he is eventually demoted and his role is taken over by a white inmate. The then-warden explains his decision by deferring to a white supremacist notion of nature and its thin, self-referential logic: ‘“It ain’t natural for a colored man to master dogs. A colored man doesn’t know how to master, because it ain’t in him to master.” He said: “the only thing a nigger knows how to do is slave.”’ (SUS, 139) Law enforcement continues in Jojo’s time to serve as the State’s arbiters of the racial hierarchy, as we see when the police pull over Leonie’s car on their return journey to collect Michael from Parchman. An officer seizes Jojo, though he has done nothing wrong, and handcuffs him at gunpoint, telling him to ‘sit, like I’m a dog.’ (SUS, 170).

It is Leonie’s brother, Given, who suffers the gravest punishment for breaching his appointed place in the racial hierarchy. Fifteen years earlier, whilst in high school, Given bets a white classmate – Michael’s cousin – that he can hunt more effectively with a bow than the cousin can with his rifle. Given applies himself to practicing and wins the bet easily on a hunting trip with his white peers. Leonie recalls the cousin as ‘a short boy with a wandering eye who wore cowboy boots and beer T-shirts like it was a uniform…’ (SUS, 48) The aesthetic of stereotypical white working class dress combines with the authority of a uniform, suggesting a tacit deputyship of the white supremacist order, empowering him to enact punishment. The cousin shoots Given then and there. On hearing about the incident, his uncle (Michael’s father, Big Joseph), acknowledges the truth of the situation, saying, ‘He shot the nigger. This fucking hothead shot the nigger for beating him.’ (SUS, 49) He is angered by the severity of the act, its impulsive lack of sophistication, more than the killing itself: ‘You fucking idiot,’ he chides, ‘This ain’t the old days.’ (SUS, 49-50) The cousin’s only defence is a simple deferral to the unwritten rules of the racial hierarchy; ‘the cousin had put his arms up and mumbled: He was supposed to lose, Pa.’ (SUS, 50) Big Joseph councils the family to report the murder as a ‘hunting accident’ and the cousin is sentenced to just three years in Parchman for murdering another person in broad daylight out of racist spite.

What is unclear is exactly how the truth of the situation reaches the reader through Leonie’s narration. Presumably, the truth must have reached her through Michael, an act of transgressing the white solidarity that led the boys who witnessed the murder to corroborate the cousin’s false account. Indeed, it is the extension of an apology on behalf of his cousin, an extension of empathy across racial lines, that initiates their intense, though not unproblematic, relationship. Still, Michael’s language echoes that of his father when he first approaches Leonie a year after the murder, saying to her, ‘I’m sorry my cousin is a fucking idiot.’ (SUS, 53) Although he had the courage to approach her, suggesting an evolution of emotions compared to his father’s, he still regarded (or, at least, expressed) an understanding of fatal racist violence as an expression of stupidity and unsophistication, rather than malice and an extension of systemic violence.

The impact of toxic racial acculturation as it is experienced by Leonie is perhaps the most tragic manifestation of the novel’s racial formation, complicating or undermining every potential empathetic connection she might form throughout the novel. Her perception of time and natural cycles are inflected with notions of degradation. For Leonie, growing up in the country did not give the connection with the non-human world that Mam, Pop and Jojo possess, but rather an overriding sense that ‘after the first flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants.’ (SUS, 46) Hers is a downward spiral of absorbing the toxic impacts of white supremacy and yielding to the destruction of the Black body which is its underpinning imperative.

A tragic ambivalence characterises all of Leonie’s close relationships. She shares much with her friend Misty, who works in the same bar as she does. They are both in interracial relationships, a point which Leonie credits as bringing the two together as fast friends (SUS, 35). Misty’s boyfriend is also an inmate a Parchman, and the two travel together frequently to visit their partners. They also share drug addiction as a mechanism for coping with the harsh realities they face. Nevertheless, subtle imbalances in power between them which Leonie intuits but of which Misty is entirely unaware, complicates Leonie’s feelings towards her friend in ways she cannot outwardly express. One night after work, the two women return to Misty’s MEMA cottage to get high. After a line of cocaine, Misty notices Leonie acting strangely and questions her about it, demonstrating an intimate perceptiveness in the way she registers the subtle changes in Leonie when she is lying, a detail which implies genuine connection. Leonie is reluctant to tell her friend that she is reacting to the appearance of the silent ghost of her brother, Given. Notably, the supernatural power possessed by Mam, Pop and Jojo only manifests in Leonie when she is high. Still, she feels close to her friend in that moment and attempts to broach the question of whether Misty also sees things when she uses drugs. Leonie quickly decides that she does not want to reveal the truth about her visitations by Given’s ghost, but Misty does not respect her friend’s boundaries, seeming entitled to the information, and Leonie cannot enforce them. Her feeling toward Misty goes from regarding her as her ‘best friend’ and her ‘only friend’ to wanting to lash out at her physically merely half a page later. Her knowledge that the law – one which upholds private property and white supremacy – would favour Misty in any intervention a physical altercation might provoke keeps her passive: ‘I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.’ (SUS, 36)

Misty’s embodied presence furnishes further perspective on the unconscious manifestations of white supremacy and Leonie’s fatal internalisation of its value system. Misty’s blondness provokes Leonie’s resentment as she watches Misty play with the ‘great sheaf’ of her hair, which Misty’s Black boyfriend finds irresistible. This white beauty norm registers an exclusionary quality in Leonie; it doesn’t just catch the light, it catches ‘all the light.’ It is a ‘self-satisfied beauty’ which Leonie comes to despise. (SUS, 36-37) In a later scene, Leonie once again perceives her friend’s white normative beauty as social capital which inspires both longing and violent impulses: ‘The way she said it, take advantage, made me want to slap her. Her freckles, her thin pink lips, her blond hair, the stubborn milkiness of her skin; how easy it had been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend to her?’ (SUS, 91) Still, Leonie straightens her hair with relaxer, a procedure which burns her skin and forms scabs on her scalp, making her look, from Jojo’s perspective, that her hair does not ‘belong to her.’ (SUS, 63)

In her relationship with Michael, whiteness and beauty present the possibility of salvation. She is attracted to Michael’s curly blond hair and eyes that change color from ‘darkest blue, water gray, old-summer green.’ (SUS, 54) The visual echoes between Misty and Michael foreshadow a similar ambivalence. Jojo also registers the interaction of white phenotypicality as exclusion. Watching Michael in Mam and Pop’s house after their return from Parchman, Jojo thinks that he ‘look all wrong at the counter, the way he reflect too much of the morning light.’ (SUS, 224) From Leonie’s perspective, the pain of her Blackness is sublimated into something aberrant, and Michael’s whiteness is potentially corrective. When they fell in love as teenagers, ‘he saw me. Saw past skin color of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the color of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.’ (SUS, 54) Here, Leonie perceives her Blackness not as something Michael could see and love, but something he must be blind to in order to love her, as if her Blackness equates to that within her that is fundamentally unloveable. Leonie’s neglect of her children is a distressing constant in the plot, one which resonates in places with her internalised anti-Blackness. In at least two instances, she wishes that her children resembled Michael, thinking that ‘Jojo looks too much like me and Pop, with his brown skin and black eyes’ (SUS, 38) and wondering ‘if we had another baby, if it would look more like [Michael] than Michaela. If we had another baby, we could get it right.’ (SUS, 150) Notably, she names both her children after men on the paternal side; Jojo is named after Big Joseph who is so committed to white supremacy (‘He believes in niggers’ as Michael puts it) that he does not acknowledge his grandchildren and acts out violently whenever they approach his home. The idea that subsequent children might appear whiter than the last is troubling, suggesting that her purpose as a mother is not nurturing but rather to see evidence of herself bred out, whiteness serving as genetic purification.

When Ward shifts the internal focalisation of the narrative to Jojo’s point of view, the reader is furnished with an association of whiteness with the grotesque to counterbalance Leonie’s tragic hypervalorisation of whiteness. Jojo narrates a chapter wherein Leonie and Misty stop at the home of one of Misty’s friends Fred and Carlotta on their way to Parchman to pick up a supply of meth for them to transport to Michael’s lawyer, Al. The house is in a remote location, the smattering of mobile homes in various states of upkeep and disrepair. The ironic harbinger of danger in this space is a toddler just older than Kayla, with blond hair similar to that of Misty and Michael. Jojo does not see a cherubic white child, the stereotypical symbol of innocence itself, but a troubling victim and likely conduit of the worst impacts of social degradation and neglect:

A boy, probably four, is sitting on the ground in front of the porch steps of a house with no siding, and he is stabbing the mud with a stick. He wears a baby’s onesie that fits him like a shirt, yellow underwear, and no shoes. He wipes his hand across his face as Leonie comes to a stop and turns off the engine, and it turns his skin from pale milk to black. (SUS, 79)

The boy’s appearance and gestures recall Michael and his family: ‘The little White boy waves his stick in the air, and then grabs it with both hands, pointing it like a rifle. His blond hair sticks to his head, curls into his eyes like worms. “Pow pow,” he says. He is shooting at us.’ (SUS, 79) The neglect evidenced by his clothes are also affecting his health, as Jojo can see: ‘There is a worm of snot running down the boy’s face. […] he smiles, and his teeth are all capped with silver, the metal stopping them from rotting out of his mouth.’ (SUS, 82) Although he finds the scene disquieting, Jojo retains his sense of empathy toward the boy. When he grows frustrated at the driving-based video game he is clearly too young to play, the boy lashes out and breaks the television, prompting a brutal beating by his mother, Carlotta. It is with a sense of compassion that he observes the violence to which the boy is subject: ‘She hits him so many times, his cry goes silent, but that mouth is still open. I know what he is saying: Pain, please, no more pain, please.’ (SUS, 87) Kayla becomes ill when she puts a plastic ball from the house into her mouth, and this contact with a white counterpart proves life threatening for the majority of the narrative.

By positioning Jojo as the protagonist, the reader experiences this storyworld through a liminal space, encouraged to experience coming of age as emergence into a system of toxic racialisation and social disposability along with him. It is a narrative of frustrations – a road novel that feels constrained and claustrophobic, a racially integrated sphere where Black bodies remain killable and subordinated, and a working-class continues to play the scripts of anti-Black racism despite the meagre rewards of doing so. Told through multiple Black perspectives across generations, the depth of the lingering empathetic gaps Ward exposes echoes persistent social and personal agonies.


Race is a concept laden with connotations of history, power relations, proximity and distance, and is highly reliant on imagery, implication and emotion. When race is left unmarked, space opens for narratives to passively reproduce whiteness as a universal signifier – what Toni Morrison would consider a polite gesture which leaves racial power imbalances unchallenged:

Statements […] insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity are themselves full of meaning. The world does not become raceless or will not become unracialized by assertion. The act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act.[43]

Interrogating the use of active racial marking through physical descriptions, historical and social allusion, and relational dynamics, demonstrates how the unstable, value-laden field of race can serve as a useful tool in character and plot development.

Giovanni's Room centres on a character who benefits from multiple axes of social privilege as a white, middle-class, young adult male, and whose invisible sexual difference threatens to undermine his otherwise normative identity. Baldwin's use of whiteness exposes it to critique, announcing its associations with power, innocence and purity and then complicating these associations, contributing to the 'roundness' of David's character. Racialising his narrator as white allowed Baldwin to derive more benefit from the dual interpretations of the novel as both autobiography and fiction, permitting the story to communicate simultaneously on different registers. Ward attends to the nuanced, sometimes unconscious and embodied impacts of racial acculturation along with its more overt manifestations within the tense racial hierarchy of a poverty-stricken community. The world it depicts oozes depression on financial, emotional and social levels. While all of the characters are affected by poverty, race persists as a dividing influence with sometimes fatal, and always uneven, consequences, and the white supremacist racial formation remains as constant and destructive as the Gulf weather.

Writers make worlds through language. With this comes the choice of reproducing existing systems of oppression and privilege or using our craft to create and reflect alternative models. Understanding the operation of uneven social power dynamics, and our own positions within them, is essential to resolving the antagonisms generated in these dynamics by challenging their reification, denaturalising and ultimately abolishing them.

Work Cited

Abur-Rahman, Aliyyah I., ‘“Simply a Menaced Boy”: Analogizing Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room’, African American Review, vol. 41, no. 3 (Fall, 2007), pp. 477-486.

Baldwin, James, Giovanni’s Room (London: Penguin, 1957 [2010]).

- ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, Ebony (August 1965), pp. 47-48.

Berlant, Lauren, Cruel Optimism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).

Bernstein, Robin, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008).

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum: vol. (1989): iss. 1, pp. 139-167.

Davis, Angela, Women, Race & Class (New York: Random House, 1981).

Du Bois, W E B, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: The Free Press, 1935 [1998]).

Forgiarini, Matteo, Marcello Gallucci and Angelo Maravita, ‘Racism and the Empathy for Pain on our Skin’, Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 2, Issue 108 (May 2011), pp. 1-7.

Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).

Hartman, Saidiya V, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Henderson, Mae G, ‘James Baldwin: Expatriation, Homosexual Panic, and Man’s Estate’, Callaloo, Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture (Winter, 2000), pp. 313-327.

Holmes, Anna, ‘White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games’, The New Yorker (30 March 2012) <> [accessed 30 July 2013].

Keen, Suzanne, ‘Readers’ Temperaments and Fictional Character’, New Literary History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 295-314.

¾‘Intersectional Narratology in the Study of Narrative Empathy’ in Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions Robyn Warhol and Susan S. Lanser eds. (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press 2015).

Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992).

O'Sullivan, John, ‘Annexation’, Democratic Review, 17, no. 1 (July-August, 1845) <> [accessed 18 May, 2018].

Phelan, Peggy, ‘Hypothetical Focalization and Queer Grief’ in Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions Robyn Warhol and Susan S. Lanser eds. (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press 2015).

Silverstein, Jason, ‘I Don’t Feel Your Pain: A Failure of Empathy Perpetuates Racial Disparities’, Slate (27 June, 2013) <> [accessed 10 August 2013]

Valby, Karen, ‘Team “Hunger Games” talks: Author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross on Their Allegiance to Each Other, and Their Actors' in Entertainment Weekly, (7 April, 2011)

<> [accessed 10 October 2015].

Ward, Jesmyn, Sing, Unburied, Sing (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

Warhol, Robyn and Susan S. Lanser (eds.), Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015).


[1] Matteo Forgiarini et al., 'Racism and the Empathy for Pain on our Skin', Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 2, Issue 108 (May, 2011), p. 4.

[2] Jason Silverstein, 'I Don’t Feel Your Pain: A Failure of Empathy Perpetuates Racial Disparities', Slate (27 June, 2013)

[3] See also Bernstein, 2011, for a highly convincing analysis of the ways in which African-American children are excluded from the category of childhood and the attending notion of innocence.

[4] Forgiarini et al., p. 2.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid., p. 5.

[7] Silverman.

[8] Suzanne Keen, 'Readers' Temperaments and Fictional Character', New Literary History, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Spring 2011), p. 297.

[9] ibid., p. 296.

[10] ibid., p. 309.

[11] ibid., p. 302.

[12] ibid., p. 297.

[13] Suzanne Keen, 'Intersectional Narratology in the Study of Narrative Empathy' in Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions, Robyn Warhol and Susan S. Lanser eds. (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press 2015), p. 125.

[14] The term was coined by feminist legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in an essay identifying the simultaneous, mutually reinforcing oppressions faced by Black women in corporate hiring practices. Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics', University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. (1989): iss. 1, p. 140. However, it should be noted that what we now recognise as the intersectional framework has been in use for much longer. See, for example: Sojourner Truth, “Ain't I a Woman?” [speech], 1851; the Combahee River Collective (1974-1980); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984), Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (1981); and Gloria Anzaldúa Borderlands/La Frontera (1987).

[15] Robyn Warhol and Susan S Lanser eds., Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015), p. 8.

[16] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), p. 9; hereafter abbreviated to HG.

[17] Karen Valby, 'Team "Hunger Games" Talks', Entertainment Weekly, (7 April, 2011)

[18] Anna Holmes, 'White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games', The New Yorker, (30 March, 2012)

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] These readers have clearly been passively educated in the longstanding, unspoken convention which racialises innocence as white and ‘exclu[des] of black youth from the category of childhood.’ See Bernstein, 2011, p. 16.

[22] Keen, 'Intersectional Narratology […] Narrative Empathy', p. 142.

[23] ibid.

[24] Holmes.

[25] Peggy Phelan, ‘Hypothetical Focalization and Queer Grief' in Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions, Robyn Warhol and Susan S. Lanser eds. (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press 2015), p. 82.

[26] See: Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 2.

[27] Caryl Phillips, “Introduction” in James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (London: Penguin Books, 2001), pp. i-ix (p. iii)

[28] Mae G Henderson, 'James Baldwin: Expatriation, Homosexual Panic, and Man’s Estate', Callaloo, Vol. 23, No. 1, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: Literature and Culture (Winter, 2000), p. 313.

[29] James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (London: Penguin, 1957 [2010]), p. 9; hereafter abbreviated to GR

[30] Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

[31] Aliyyah I Abur-Rahman, '"Simply a Menaced Boy": Analogizing Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room', African American Review, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall, 2007), pp. 480-81.

[32] John O'Sullivan, 'Annexation', Democratic Review 17, no. 1 (July-August, 1845)]. For a discussion of the racial implications of ‘roots’ and ‘routes’, see Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), p. 112.

[33] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 52.

[34] Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Random House, 1981).

[35] Abur-Rahman, p. 481.

[36] James Baldwin, 'The White Man's Guilt', Ebony (August, 1965), p. 47.

[37] Henderson, p. 323.

[38] Abur-Rahman, p. 482.

[39] Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 32; hereafter abbreviated to SUS

[40] The term ‘wages of whiteness’ refers to the legislative and customary measures, which W E B Du Bois collectively designated as a ‘psychological wage’ of whiteness, to generate subtle stratifications within the working class on the grounds of race. See W E B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: The Free Press, 1935 [1998]), p. 700.

[41] My use of the term ‘afterlife of slavery’ is a reference to Saidiya V Hartman’s expansion on this idea in her book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), wherein ‘black lives are still imperilled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago [resulting in] skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.’ p. 22.

[42] Emphasis added.

[43] Morrison, Playing in the Dark, p. 46.