The Realities of “Black Rage”: A Review of Dwayne Alexander Smith’s “Forty Acres: A Thriller”

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August 9, 2018 marked the four-year anniversary of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer’s murder of Michael Brown. Three days later, white nationalists gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., only steps away from the White House. This event was held only one year after the unconscionable attack in Charlottesville, which left one counter protester, Heather Heyer, dead. The ghosts of Jim Crow are clearly visible as black Americans are robbed of equal rights and equal protection of the law on a daily basis. These individuals continue to be targeted by police officers, as well as by white citizens who call the cops on them for rightfully occupying public spaces. And when they express outrage about these realities, their protests are trivialized. Critics cast them as “angry blacks,” rather than engaging their arguments.

Take, for instance, Rep. Maxine Waters. Right-wing extremists paint the lawmaker as villainous and uncivil, and President Trump has accused her of trying to incite violence against his supporters. Trump has also targeted black men as being inexplicably angry. In a tweet about NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem in protest of racism across the country, Trump wrote: “Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define.”

Where exactly does this idea of unwarranted anger come from? How do such negative portrayals of black grievances impact the health and wellbeing of black communities? And how can society acknowledge the depths of black experiences without calling black Americans’ emotions and intelligence into question?

The concept of “black rage” was first introduced in 1968 by psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs to describe the psychological effects of institutionalized racism. In Black Rage, published shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Grier and Cobbs argued that the realities of enslavement and Jim Crow resulted in psychological damage that developed into paranoia—blacks living on edge and in constant alert of danger from whites.[1] These psychiatrists observed that the physical abuses of slavery transformed into “different but equally damaging abuse.” In their words, “the cruelty continued unabated in thoughts, feelings, intimidation and occasional lynching. Black people were consigned to a place outside of the human family and the whip of the plantation was replaced by the boundaries of the ghetto.”[2]

The cure for “black rage,” the authors suggest, is a deep understanding of experiences with racism and oppression. Grier and Cobbs conduct a thought experiment, asking readers to imagine the “remote possibility” of white enslavement. They write: “Long after slavery, many whites are haunted by a vision of being oppressed, exposed to the whims of a powerful cruel black man. To dissipate the fantasy, increasing barriers have had to be erected.” Here, Grier and Cobbs suggest the power of imagination to help individuals think through the lasting effects of slavery without a literal return to a horrific moment in history. If whites could imagine what blacks have experienced—and continue to experience in terms of social inequalities and health disparities—then perhaps race relations in the United States would drastically improve. Perhaps black Americans would be taken more seriously rather than dismissed as “angry.”

“If whites could imagine what blacks have experienced—and continue to experience in terms of social inequalities and health disparities—then perhaps race relations in the United States would drastically improve.”

Dwayne Alexander Smith’s 2014 novel Forty Acres: A Thriller enacts a similar thought experiment. Forty Acres uses speculative fiction to invite readers to consider a return to slavery as a means to placate “black rage” (what one main characters calls “black noise”). But Smith does not return to slavery as it is traditionally understood. Instead, Forty Acres takes on what Grier and Cobbs call a “remote possibility;” a group of rich and powerful black men kidnap and enslave whites in the twenty-first century to better cope with living in a racist United States.

Forty Acres somewhat resembles grand Southern plantations. The “wide gravel road that was lined on both sides with the biggest oak trees”[3] is reminiscent of the plantation in Gone with the Wind.”[4] However, African-descended field hands do not make up the manpower at Forty Acres. Rather, white bodies work these grounds while influential black men relax while drinking iced tea, reading the latest books, and enjoying the company of a concubine.

The name “Forty Acres” invokes the executive order that promised reparations (“forty acres and a mule”) to those formerly enslaved after the Civil War. The fictional founder of the plantation, Dr. Kasim, emphasizes that Forty Acres means to give back the strong sense of self and pride in Afrocentric culture that black men lost as a result of slavery. According to Dr. Kasim and his followers, Forty Acres removes black men from the racist distractions of the outside world that weaken them. “There’s a kind of interference that clouds the black man’s mind,” the narrator reflects. “This interference keeps black children from focusing on their studies…turns black teens into drug addicts and killers (and) keeps black men from being good fathers and providers.” Furthermore, the interference “keeps a black man behaving like a slave even when he’s the master (and) keeps the black man from walking the earth with pride. There’s no scientific name for it, but it’s as real as depression or bipolar disease or any other psychological disorder.”[5]

Here, the novel emphasizes the well-established relationship between racial inequalities and health disparities. Such was the subject of a 2011 special issue of Du Bois Review, in which experts demonstrated how historical traumas (race-based slavery, forced relocation, genocide, etc.) become embodied and manifest into social, physical, and psychological stress.[6] Relying on ecosocial theory, researchers also found that contemporary trauma, interpersonal violence, and chronic stressors including microaggressions and daily discrimination seriously undermine wellbeing.

The fictional Forty Acres is so transformative for its patrons because it removes them from such a destructive environment. Yet, as the narrator observes, this plantation was no “different from dozens of private country clubs around the country…where black servants catered to an all-Caucasian membership. Forty Acres was just the reverse, with a touch of dark humor.”[7] Like real-life weddings held at plantations with an all-black staff, Forty Acres allows its patrons to reclaim a sense of lost superiority, even if only momentarily.

Not surprisingly, Smith’s novel has touched nerves. In a 2014 interview, the author commented on the novel’s reception: “Slavery is a touchy subject in the United States. Many readers who are looking for something entertaining to read, won’t easily select a thriller centered around such a sensitive topic. Surprisingly, the book has been better received in Europe.”[8] But the racial climate in the United States begs for a novel such as Forty Acres, which forces readers to consider the past and its present consequences. There is a deep reason why people find it taboo to imagine a situation where whites are enslaved by blacks, and that reason speaks to public discomfort with claims of white supremacy, which results from the enslavement of blacks.

As studies have shown, our country’s racist history continues to damage the lives of those in the present. Speculative fiction like Smith’s Forty Acres forces us to contemplate the real-life physical, mental, and social consequences of slavery. The “angry black woman” and “angry black man” may be stereotypes. However, the physical and psychological realities that engendered those stereotypes are still felt; and they remind us of American society’s failure to confront its past.

[1] William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage, (New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1968), 206.
[2] Ibid., 26.
[3] Dwayne Alexander Smith, Forty Acres: A Thriller, (New York: Atria, 2014), 115.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 142.
[6] Karina L. Walters et al., “Bodies Don’t Just Tell Stories, They Tell Histories: Embodiment of Historical Trauma among American Indians and Alaska Natives”, Du Bois Review 8:1 (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2011), 179-180.
[7] Ibid., 143.
[8] “Author Interview: Dwayne Alexander Smith talks about Forty Acres.” browngirlreading.com. https://browngirlreading.com/2014/12/22/author-interview-dwayne-alexander-smith-talks-about-forty-acres/ (accessed August 21, 2018).

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About Author

DeLisa D. Hawkes is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at the University of Maryland. Her research centers on representations of intraracial tensions in nineteenth-century African American literature. Taking an interdisciplinary approach that relies on archival and literary sources, Hawkes’s dissertation examines the work of authors who experimented with tropes of racial passing and colorism to critique the liminal condition of African Americans as “second-class citizens.” Her research and teaching interests include nineteenth-century African American and American literatures, law and literature, historical fiction, critical race studies, gender, and critical trauma studies. Follow her on Twitter @DeLisaDHawkes and visit her website.

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