Tag Archives: Mat Johnson

31. Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

19 Aug

Loving Day by Mat Johnson

I can claim no credit, but I was Mat Johnson’s editor in the long-ago days before he’d published his first novel, and I was recently delighted to discover that he’s become a literary fiction success-story, who is just as hilariously funny now as he was back then. Loving Day, which came out May 2015, is his fourth novel and—breaking news!—just this week it was announced that Showtime has acquired the rights to the book as a potential TV show.

Johnson is one of those writers who you can’t put down because of the dryly funny lines, which just keep coming. A lawn is “utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle.” A dilapidated house is “covered in all the paint that’s failed to chip.” Of a man wearing a dashiki, Sudanese mudcloth pants and a kente hat, he says, “It’s like Africa finally united, but just in his wardrobe.”

Loving Day is about a very light-skinned, mixed-race black man, Warren Duffy, who suffers what he calls “a disconnect in my racial projection.” He is often taken for white, but as he says, “I know I’m black. My mother was black—that counts no matter how pale and Irish my father was.” The term the novel uses for him is “sunflower”—yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. As one of Johnson’s characters explains, it’s “a slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.'”

After a failed marriage to a Welsh girl, he’s back in his hometown of Philly to deal with his late, white, father’s inheritance when the story starts. The inheritance (yes, a loaded metaphor) is a crumbling, totally ridiculous mansion that he doesn’t want. (Whiteness, that’s you.) He’s broke. He’s recently discovered he has a teenage daughter, and hijinks ensue that require him to teach at the Melangé Center, a high school to help people like Warren find balance. He calls his tribe “the human equivalent of mismatched socks. The people whose racial appearance fails to mimic the ethnicity of their inner spirit.”  The school teaches “inclusion of all perspectives of the black and white, mixed-race experience.”

Warren, with typical humorous candor,  likes it because:

“Finally. I—lighter than some white people walking around this world, always the palest of any black person, a man who can barely hold on to that mantle–am like an Asante chief in this room…. These people, they are not black like me. They are less black than me, and therefore I don’t trust them. And I love it. Embattled groups have to police membership, for their own self-protection. But with policing comes power, and all power’s usual intoxicants…. This, I realize, is a singular element of the Black Experience I’ve been previously denied. The guilty satisfaction of sitting in judgement over others for their insufficient blackness. I forgive everyone who has ever done this to me maliciously. How could anyone resist such a pleasurable self-righteous indulgence!”

But it’s not that simple. As he knows, and as his friends point out, by embracing his whiteness, he’s betraying his race. The people at Melangé are “‘trying to cut black America loose, so they can live some post-racial fantasy. That shit is dangerous. It weakens us, as a people.'”

Warren’s ultimate revelations are more about loving his new-found daughter and himself than they are choosing one group over the other or solving this race dilemma. Which, in it’s own way, is the solution.  The “Loving Day” of the title is a real holiday, June 12th, on which people celebrate the Supreme Court decision in the case Loving vs. Virginia, which in 1967 struck down all the remaining miscegenation laws in the United States. Johnson, very nicely, in the end chooses to focus on not the mixed children but on the love that created them.

It was a great book, which I really hope gets made into a TV show. And if it does, pull this character from the margins:

“It’s called home. Oh yeah, you betcha,” an ebony-skinned woman says next to me in a thick white-girl accent that sounds like it was obtained in North Dakota.

And here’s one last laugh/insight that I really appreciated:

“‘Look, my life is hard and boring too, just like everyone else’s.”

Amen.