I finished re-reading Harry Sylvester Bird, the second novel (and third book) from Nigerian-American writer Chinelo Okparanta published in July 2022. At the center of this satire is an unlikeable character Harry, a white man from Pennsylvania who believes he is black. This first-person narrative tackles racism and how ingrained white behaviors perpetuate systemic oppression.

The story starts in Tanzania with Harry and his parents taking a family trip where his parents exhibit overt racist behavior towards Africans. During his family trip to Tanzania, Harry is fascinated by a dark-skinned African and begins to fetishize black skin and black bodies. Tired of his overtly racist parents, Harry goes to New York City and falls in love with Maryam, a young black woman from Nigeria who eventually pulls away from him.

Harry reminded me of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman born to two white parents who pretended to be black and called herself transracial.

I would consider this novel a critique and commentary on performing blackness and appropriating blackness and black bodies. The satire tackles topics like the white savior complex, microaggressions, consumption, objectification, transracialism, appropriation of black life and black bodies, and much more, showing how well-meaning white liberals and white allies can still exhibit racism.

I thought this satire was laugh-out-loud funny. For me, this novel is a disruption because a black Nigerian-American, an immigrant, takes on Harry Sylvester Bird and raises questions about identity, whiteness, and politics. I had to remind myself that I was reading satire because some events or groups in the novel (like a group called the Purists, a Trump-like, MAGA-like political party that focuses on white domination and threatens violence across the US) were frighteningly too close to reality.

What are you reading? Which books do you recommend?

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