“The white man in this book is a symbol of progress,” according to the former English literature teacher of Furo Wariboko, the protagonist of A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass. The book referred to, however, is actually Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which Furo had been forced to read during the Nigerian equivalent of junior high. And while Furo’s teacher might have interpreted “the white man” as a symbol of progress, the tribespeople in Things Fall Apart had ascribed meanings of their own to this singular plural entity, viewing “the white man” as an object of amusement, then pity, and, eventually, a harbinger of doom — the death knell for their traditional customs and beliefs. But of course, in the zero-sum politics of settler colonialism, one man’s progress is another man’s decline. “Progress always wins,” Furo’s English teacher had taught, “that’s why it’s progress.”
By the time Furo Wariboko recalls this lecture in Blackass, however, literary symbolism is not exactly his most pressing concern. He is a man in crisis. Furo had gone to sleep a young black man and awoken the next morning in a Kafkaesque dilemma: he was suddenly and inexplicably white. He had an “alabaster belly” and “pale legs . . . covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring through the open window.” His hair was red. His eyes were green. Like Gregor Samsa, Furo is panicked at this metamorphosis (which he also immediately hides from his mother by locking her on the other side of his bedroom door). But unlike Samsa’s condition, Furo’s transformation will not in any straightforward way set the stage for a story of surreal calamity.
While most would agree that a giant, anthropomorphized insect would induce horror anywhere, how Furo’s racial transformation will be received in Lagos, Nigeria, is hardly predictable. Accordingly, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the conceit of Furo’s newfound whiteness has less to do with dramatizing the absurdity of racial identity and rather serves as a useful opportunity to illuminate the multiplicity of Lagos — which is gloriously alive in Barrett’s writing. The city is not a mere setting; it is animated, fractious, and a catalyst for much of the novel’s action. After narrowly escaping the sight lines of his parents and sister, Furo flees his childhood home to become a mirror to the city’s unceasing gaze, a walking reflection of Lagos in its extremes of decadence and decay, decorum and duplicity.
”Lone white face in a sea of black,” Furo notes that people in his own neighborhood have never seen a white person, the sight of whom “is an incidence of some thrill . . . [n]ot quite the excitement decibels of seeing a celebrity, but close.” One man stares at Furo with “festering intensity”; drivers slow their cars; schoolchildren point and whisper. Outside his neighborhood, in districts less residential and more commercial, merchants are effusive in their solicitations, (as “[a] white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on to his forehead”). In yet other parts of the city, where white denizens are known to work and play, Furo’s appearance is entirely commonplace, eliciting no attention. “Every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity and water,” Barrett writes. “Lagos is a city of warring nations.”
The novel, then, provides a vivid portrait of what happens outside of Furo, beyond his skin. This is not to say Barrett doesn’t, through Furo, wax existential on the incoherence of identity. (“Who I was as a person was more than what I looked like, but then again, how people saw me was a part of who I am.”) But such notions are far less interesting than the social commentary on modern-day, urban Nigeria — in particular, Barrett’s depiction of the “ruins of Nigeria’s middle class . . . neither wealthy enough to jet overseas on vacation nor deprived enough to cease the Christmastime pilgrimages to our family hometowns.” In that light, Furo’s predicament as one of the more than 50 percent of Nigeria’s unemployed youth (as noted in a news headline toward the beginning of the novel) intersects with his whiteness in revealing ways. No newfound privilege goes unnoticed. No economic presumption is below his radar. (A broke Furo, for example, grows exasperated by taxi drivers who hike the fare on account of his mere appearance.)
If Furo’s internal rumination is less engaging, it is precisely due to his preoccupation with money. In fact, Furo is probably more panicked at the start of the novel due to his job interview that day than he is to waking up white. Being newly white, at that point, is naturally a shock, but it’s primarily a massive inconvenience given his appointment, and absolutely no reason for Furo to miss a chance at earning a salary. Furo’s quest for a steady paycheck and — once out of his family’s nest — food and shelter makes Blackass more of a plot- than character-driven narrative, as for much of the novel he either struggles to meet his basic needs or grasps at external indicia of stability and status. In that vein, Furo does not hesitate to exploit for his own ends the various meanings that his fellow Lagosians impute to his being a white man.
Incidentally, “a white man” in Blackass is more often referred to as obiyo — a label not only for a person of European descent but also for a Westernized person of any background. The term is yet another indication of Furo’s liminal state. Whether rich or poor or black or white, he’s neither/nor yet both/and. Moreover, in a literal sense, Furo’s transformation is not total, as he soon discovers that all of him had become white except for his buttocks, hence the novel’s title. “Blackass,” of course, is African-American slang — it means what it says and is irreverently used, typically referring to something someone can kiss. In that light, the title points to (and provokes) an intended audience that is far beyond the bounds of the city of Lagos, the state of Nigeria, the West African region, and, indeed, the enormous continent of Africa.
There are ongoing and valid debates on “whom novels are written for” and the editorial pressures on non-white and non-Western authors to “explain” rather than tell their stories. (Indeed, very early on in Blackass, Barrett provides the kind of statistical rundown on Lagos’ population and characteristics that one would find in the CIA World Factbook.) While Blackass certainly displays the effect of such realities, Barrett craftily transforms these systemic pressures into art. Yes, he “explains” what pidgin is, but he also describes it as “the shortest distance between two thoughts” that caused “mingled voices to beat the air like wings of released doves.”
Furo’s “blackass,” moreover, is yet another nod to Things Fall Apart: one native interpreter for white missionaries mispronounced the translation of “myself” to instead say “my buttocks”; and tribesmen-cum-messengers for the white man’s court were derisively called Ashy Buttocks due to the color of their shorts. Indeed, such liminal go-betweens in Things Fall Apart presaged the disintegration of the tribe — or the clan — in favor of the individualism and promises of “progress” offered by colonial rule. Clan elders bemoaned that a man could “leave his father and brothers,” and “curse the gods of his fathers and ancestors.” By the time Furo forsakes his own family in Blackass, contemporary elders share their “bitter nostalgia for the administrative competence of colonial rule.” Even if notions of “progress” remain unsettled, Barrett certainly depicts whiteness as a means of protection and entry into coveted spaces. Meanwhile, his bracing novel pulses on the question of whether Furo will ever find a way home.