fiction’s biggest advantages is the way it can be used to explore sensitive, difficult, and contentious topics from a relative distance. Fictional characters can express ideas and ask questions that would be considered beyond the pale in everyday life, offering writers and readers a relatively safe space in which to deal with these difficult issues. However, this quality also has a downside, because too often destructive ideas can be repeated and strengthened through works of fiction that purport to be doing quite the opposite. The short stories “Sharing,” “Along the Frontage Road,” and “Brownies” are all guilty of this dishonest, destructive practice, because although all three stories pretend to offer useful insights into the contentious issue of race and identity, all three end up subtly reproducing racist ideas and tropes. By examining these stories in conjunction, one is able to see how the productive, exploratory power of fiction can be used as a kind of cover for the reproduction of outdated, ignorant stereotypes and ideas.
Before discussing these three stories individually, it will be useful to briefly address their narrative similarity, because the narratorial perspective they share is one of the most important means by which they are able to reproduce racist stereotypes and ideas while purporting to offer a useful, critical look at racism itself. In short, all three stories are told in the first person, with the narrator offering commentary not only the events themselves, but also on their own thoughts, producing a kind of commentary-on-the-commentary as the characters in the “present” of the narration reflect on their immediate mental reactions during the “past” of the narrated events. This tactic helps the stories shield their subtle racism by providing a kind of false front, whereby the story implicitly suggests that any racist content is the responsibility of the narrating character, rather than the story as such. Thus, when the narrator of “Sharing” assumes that her black neighbor does not like white people, it is the character herself that is racist, and not the story, so the reader feels as if the story is encouraging a judgment of the narrator’s racism (Wideman 27). Of course, not every story that contains a racist character is itself racist, so the reader is supposed to be left feeling a comfortable sense of superiority that he or she is enlightened enough to criticize this racist character.
However, this is merely a dodge, because while the story does offer the narrator’s blatant racism up to the reader’s criticism, it nevertheless engages in a more subtle, insidious racism through the events of the story itself. That is to say, the story simultaneously offers an example of blatant racism while reproducing a racist stereotype via the events of the story. This is essentially meant to trick the reader into a false sense of security and moral superiority, so that the more subtle racism may go unnoticed but nevertheless reproduced (it is worth mentioning here that the intention of the author is not relevant; while saying that this is “meant to trick the reader” suggests a level of intentionality, this is merely one of the linguistic necessities that arise when attempting to describe something that independent of any single actor but which nevertheless acts, which in this case is the racist ideology under discussion).
In the case of “Sharing,” the racist stereotype is that of the sexually aggressive black man who specifically targets white women, and its perpetuation of this stereotype is all the more egregious because it pretends that it is doing quite the opposite. The story pretends to produce a level of irony when the racist narrator talks about not being like “those racist people I really don’t appreciate living in our neighborhood,” but ultimately this amounts to naught because the story ultimately validates the narrator’s own racism, such that her racism is deemed acceptable when compared to people who “complain about colored or Negroes or worse” (Wideman 29). When the narrator’s black neighbor comes to borrow some mayonnaise, for a moment the narrator imagines that “the mayonnaise is going to wind up in an X-rated place, and the man busy down there in that place, mayonnaise his favorite erotic dish, his bushy hair rubbing against my bushy hair and mayonnaise smearing his lips as he laps it from my thighs” (Wideman 30). At first glance the story suggests that this is merely the imagination of the racially insensitive narrator, but there are details of the story that actually serve to make the black neighbor (he is never named) into a sexually aggressive, white-woman chasing stereotype.
Firstly, the narrator notes earlier on that the neighbor’s wife is white, which again, is a small detail that only becomes relevant when the story’s larger picture is complete (Wideman 27). Then, when the story concludes, the neighbor says that he is leaving soon, concluding with “so I don’t know about a friendship. I don’t know if there’ll be time for friendship before I leave” (Wideman 38). The narrator’s response is puzzling until one considers it in the context of the racist stereotype it is helping to reproduce:
You don’t understand. I don’t mean what you’re thinking. That’s not what I mean. That’s not the kind of friendship I want this to be. I just want us to exchange names, smiles, maybe shake hands, remember each other that way. It’s never too late to be nice to each other. You know what I mean. Sure you do. Never too late to be nice. Never. Never. Never. (Wideman 39)
The story simply ends here, and it is somewhat difficult to read these rather ominous lines as anything other than the narrator attempting to ward off a potential sexual predator. While one might be inclined to suggest that this is merely the narrator’s own racism showing through once again, because the story simply ends here, without commentary or continuation, the lines function as “last words” spoken by a frightened woman alone in her house with “this large black man” (Wideman 31). Obviously the narrator is able to tell the story and so is not dead (or else is speaking from the afterlife or something like that), but the effect of the ending is to turn the story from a critical look at the narrator’s own racism into a validation of her initial racist assumptions.
This same phenomenon occurs in “Along the Frontage Road,” although in this case the trick is even more ham-fisted and egregious. In the story, the narrator is taking his son to buy a pumpkin when he sees “a little boy, black, not much older” than his son (Chabon 3). The narrator sees the boy’s father come out to the car where the boy is waiting and retrieve “what looked to the narrator’s not entirely innocent eye like a rolled zip-lock baggie” (Chabon 5). The narrator states that the boy’s “father was a drug dealer who would not bother to take his son shopping for a pumpkin,” and in order to provide the story with the false air of critical insight, he adds that “these may not in fact have been certainties so much as assumptions, and racist ones at that. I will grant you this” (Chabon 6-7). In the same way that the narrator of “Sharing” seemingly acknowledges the racism of her neighbors in order to lend the story’s own narratively-delivered racism the air of legitimacy, the narrator acknowledges his own racist assumptions in order to make it seem as if the story is considering this racism in a critical light. However, the fact remains that every piece of evidence provided in the story suggests that the black man is actually a drug dealer, and a bad father to boot.
It is entirely possible that the father in “Along the Frontage Road” is not a drug dealer, and that he is not in fact a bad father, but the story seems determined to make this possibility unlikely by withholding any evidence to this effect. Instead, the story acknowledges the narrator’s racist assumptions while nevertheless suggesting that those racist assumptions are accurate, such that the racist stereotype of black men as criminals and bad fathers is reproduced even as the story is pretending to critique this stereotype. In effect, the story is explicitly saying that it is racist to assume that black men are drug dealers and black fathers, while implicitly making the case that one would be justified in making this assumption nevertheless, thus perpetuating a racist stereotype while simultaneously offering the reader the opportunity to feel as if he or she has actually participated in critiquing this stereotype.
“Brownies” stands out among these three stories because unlike “Sharing” and “Along the Frontage Road,” it is narrated by a black character. However, this does not mean it is any more productive or insightful than the others, because although “Brownies” does at least give some voice to its black characters, it simply reproduces other forms of racism. The story is ostensibly about the narrator learning something…