“I had become a devotee to a religion of my own creation. Its most integral ritual was maintaining a precise calm especially when angry, when hurt, when terrified.”Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black
I wish I could say that I got a lot of reading done over the holidays. There’s this complexity that happens in me when Christmas rolls around: I wonder if I’m able to connect to the idea that magic is real again, to the little girl, ravenous, waiting to tear into colorful presents like an animal.
On the other hand, I’m made cynical by mindless consumerism, which is what reminded me of “Friday Black,” a short story by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah that explores the juxtaposition of humanity vs. the typical Black Friday shopper — in this case called a ‘Friday Head’ — by utilizing a very literal sense of the term “consumer.”
I was originally introduced to this story in a class I took last fall, and from there I very much wanted more, and so I discovered Adjei-Brenyah’s book of short stories by the same name, “Friday Black.”
I said in a previous segment that I’ve been on a short story kick, and that’s very true. I suppose, when it comes down to picking up a novel or something much shorter, these days I reach for the latter. That being said, this particular collection stands as one of my favorites. Its writing is visceral, unapologetic, and absolutely necessary.
Adjei-Brenyah has the innate ability to make the supernatural seem natural. He does so with an intellectual grace that turns tackling topical commentary into something thrilling, something that will bulldoze through you and leave you sitting there, mouth open wide, because, despite the many macabre and terrible things you just read, it all feels uncannily grounded. You’ll realize that this is not a fantasy collection, or a dystopian vision of the future, but an apt dissection and exploration of Black culture and identity, all wrapped up in vivid hypotheticals and exaggerations that make its stories so poignant.
For example, see the collection’s opener, “The Finkelstein 5,” wherein white man George Wilson Dunn decapitates five African American school children with a chainsaw and is later exonerated. Protagonist Emmanuel struggles with the news, who laments early on during the narrative of his morning routine:
That morning, like every morning, the first decision he made regarded his Blackness. His skin was a deep, constant brown. In public, when people could actually see him, it was impossible to get his Blackness down to anywhere near a 1.5. If he wore a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly, used his indoor voice, and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his Blackness as low as a 4.0.“The Finkelstein 5” Friday Black
Not only does the story weigh heavily with similarities to the George Zimmerman trial, it speaks of the truths behind the white demand for assimilation of Black society. It’s not hard to imagine a gun being held to Emmanuel’s head throughout the story, one which dictates how he’s allowed to act, react, dress, and exist.
You’ll get much of the same context throughout a handful of the stories in the collection. “Zimmer Land,” for example, illustrates a theme park of sorts, where white men and women are welcome to live out their intimate fantasies of killing people of color.
The protagonist, Isaiah, works as a cast member there. He puts on a suit of fantastical armor, followed by a white t-shirt and a joint behind his ear, and loiters in the street, where a paying patron comes to argue with, and eventually kill, Isaiah. “When patrons leave and fill out their postmodule surveys … they mark all five through the questionnaire if I was on the clock. Did they have fun? Five. Did they viscerally feel justice was at work? Five. Would they come again? Five. In the comments section they write things like, ‘I’ll be back soon. I’d bring my kid if I could.’” It’s a grotesquely essential portrait of race in America, one whose fantasy setting is really no fantasy at all — at least, not one that’s terribly far from reality.
Veering away from these two stories, you’ll find that Adjei-Brenyah has a profound interest in the afterlife, and what happens therein. There are stories about ghosts, angels, and the divine weaving itself into our world, and others about Ice King, a salesman with a superhuman ability to sell coats, such as in the aforementioned and titular story, “Friday Black.”
My hope is that you’ll pick up a copy of this collection and be left uncomfortably speechless by its end, reminded that the colorfully narrated acts you see inside are not fictitious by any means, but surrealistic representations of the now we currently live in.
Sarah is the Arts & Culture Editor and a writer for the Seattle Collegian, as well as a student of Seattle Central College, and intends to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing once finished with her BA. She has a deep fascination, bordering on obsession, with all the many things that make us human and the conditions and complexities therein, and tends to lean into these in her writing. When not buried in text or staring at the blinding light of a word processor, Sarah is enjoying films, books, and video games, as well as exploring the beauty that Washington has to offer.