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.
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.