APRIL 30, 1992. NBC’s The Cosby Show ended its run as the United States’s best-case scenario: Negroes not of its dreams. The situation comedy wrapped one day after a bunch of black guys beat the shit out of Reginald Denny at Florence and Normandie. A quarter-century or so ago, America’s racial schism peaked enough to make our Trump stuff look like chump change.
A month or so after that unmasking of day and night, Darius James’s phantasmagoric dark satire Negrophobia was published. Spoiler alert: James’s debut novel was not a healing tonic for its times.
But it could be one for ours.
Published by Carol/Citadel Publishing over 25 years ago and rereleased this month by New York Review Books, Negrophobia blends satirical narrative propulsion with sci-fi through a 21st-century scenario, stocked with characters based on the most husky and dusky 20th-century racist stereotypes. Among the parade passing through James’s political nightmare are horror versions of Race Subconscious Hall of Fame players: Elvis, Malcolm X, and Walt Disney.
Last century’s broadly digested racist cartoons drive both the James style of storytelling and the substance of his comment. The script is full of action that leaps about like a stereotype-mining Tex Avery short one might have taken in before a film like as Gone with the Wind, as a kind of appetizer. The story James told a quarter-century ago turns aggressively sci-fi as it leans on an endless stream of lies about black people that were cool with your grandparents’ generation. And these monsters from their minds are lampooned deadeye.
James’s twisted beasts engage in a cascade of violent strife. The book’s most engaging star and primary signifier: A delinquent teen girl best described in 2019 as a cross between Paris Hilton and Little Annie Fannie. (In an email exchange, the author told me the female character was inspired by the latter ’60s-era Playboy comic and Terry Southern’s novel Candy.) Her name is Bubbles Brazil. A whole bunch of bad things of a sexual nature happen to Bubbles, and if you’re the sort of reader who found him or herself halfway triggered by the title of this book in itself, Negrophobia sho’ nuff ain’t the book for you.
Which doesn’t make it not a book for the times.
James credits voudou in his lineage as a kind of co-pilot. Composed in the form of a movie script, Negrophobia from its very first sentence comes across as conjured. Be it conjured or hallucinated, the piece could only have been created in that the 395-year epoch before black lives began mattering on this here soil. When mass stereotypes went unquestioned and famous Negroes danced for chicken on TV. Out of this rich cultural content, the author cultivates extreme black caricatures to play in Bubbles’s mind. The comic narrative, one disturbing image diving in after its predecessor, is capable of producing a laugh and a wince per page.
James’s “screenplay” gives minimal internal motivation, just the raw expression of devious acts and racial distortion. “TEEN SEX-BOMB BLOND” is how Bubbles is introduced to us.
So delinquent is Bubbles that she’s forced to attend an all-black public high school in New York City. And Bubbles ain’t into it like Ann Coulter ain’t into Day of the Dead activities. Which is to say Not At All, and for good reason: the blacks inhabiting the mind of Bubbles Brazil — the one she’s matriculating with in her dreams — are literally The Worst Black Folks Imaginable. Monstrously bad. Graphically terrible.
The Maid, Bubbles’s Act One archenemy, resembles a demonic and funky-ass Nell Carter, illiterate as all get out. She’s a big beast in Bubbles’s mind. Only when The Maid enters do the proceedings turn truly, mind-blowingly shameful.
What’s a white girl to do in a school full of jiggaboos?
Mind her business. Yo’ parents spent all dat money sending’ yo butt off to fancy private schools. ‘N’ whatchoo do? Get hot little boll-daga ass thrown out!! ‘N’ den you end up in a crazy house fo’ rich dope fiends! Face it, you just’ gonna’ hafta put up wid dem niggas.
Reading satisfaction results will vary. As a 52-year-old black American male, the humiliation of having been stereotyped provides the book its gravity. If you’re a white American of about my age, you might be enjoying the mouth-feel of James well-wrought coon-speak. In your case, reading Negrophobia might feel like a treasured childhood brand returning to the local supermarket.
In Negrophobia, the previous century’s popular culture runs deep. Bubbles Brazil attends Donald Goines Senior High School. Lawn jockeys come to life. A take on Our Town in which Grover’s Corner is now Garvey’s Corner is in the play’s changes. Buppets are black muppet B-Boys in T-shirts that say, “IT’S A DICK THAANG! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Shelley Winters gets summoned back from Wild in the Streets. Unfrozen President-for-Life Walt Disney delivers a really fucked-up speech. Bernhard Goetz makes a chilling appearance. And, of course there is zombie Elvis. Hellish-Manhattan trains and apocalyptic scenarios tap into the absurdity of America’s racial horror show, late-20th-century-style.
Always in play is shame. James weaponizes the indignity through razor-sharp send-ups that are as lean as poetry, scene after scene.
For this reader there’s a strange kind of gratitude, if not thorough enjoyment for the reissue. I had all but forgotten that White America used to label my people as chicken thieves. And that there was a recurring media image of us filing down our own teeth, as African cannibals. I almost forgotten about hophead, jungle bunny jigaboo, spear-chucker, shine, jug, tar baby, boom blasters, coon, pickaninny, Jimson weed, and being called wool-headed, as our times no longer dictate that I remember. The language was not that far below the surface of my mind.
The worst Negroes imaginable, Darius James so artfully makes clear, live vividly in the culture of unedited cartoons. The sexual violence imposed upon his Downtown Little Annie Fannie echoes those Tex Avery and Warner Brothers reels. It’s a neat trick, loading their takes into Bubbles’s mind, because she and so many real-world characters have been unable to “imagine the existence of things outside [their] sum of knowledge.”
The idea to present James’s narrative in screenplay format came from the great and emotional darkie Michael O’Donoghue. James’s mentor and friend Terry Southern supported the development of it, as did Kathy Acker and Olympia Press. All over the pages of Negrophobia — nearly as much as mid-20th-century cartoon shorts — is the voice of Richard Pryor. Rudy Ray Moore and Ralph Bakshi are heavy in the mix. Steve Cannon’s in there, too.
Johnny Depp loved his first-edition copy of James’s book. Members of the band Fishbone read and related to it, and the painter Kara Walker said reading Negrophobia in grad school “was one of those good but rare occasions when I thought there might be one other person in the world that would get what I was doing.” Bill Cosby, James says in a new preface, forbade a daughter from bringing Negrophobia into his home.
James wrote a crazy punk book, bringing to the page an ethos of a Lower Manhattan in the ’80s scene that he frequented so as to turn the indie-lit party out. “He had a pedagogical intent throughout the book that can easily be missed in all the sex and grotesquerie,” D. Scot Miller, author of The Afro-Surreal Manifesto, told me in extolling James. “Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.” Where before there had been scarcity of surrealism this side of Chameleon Street, Afro-Surrealism has become, if not widespread, reassuringly present in television shows like Random Acts of Flyness and Atlanta and the feature film Sorry to Bother You.
Negrophobia is “a brilliant book whose time has come and whose time has always been now,” as Amy Abugo Ongiri calls it in the introduction. Bubble’s dream would make for the dirtiest film in the history of world cinema, but I cannot help but think James’s notes on a film could be an event in the hands of Jordan Peele. Then, James could work on the script and add a scene with Race Subconscious Hall of Famer Christopher Dorner. If I have one complaint about the re-issue of Negrophobia, it’s that I am missing Christopher Dorner. Cannot stop thinking of him, even when I’m not.