“It began as one of those days when I asked myself, what else could go wrong? And then I died.”
Thus Lennox Randon's Memoirs of a Dead White Chick — a novel that uses an ingenious premise to talk about slavery — gets under way. It’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged white police officer turned schoolteacher named Eleanor. Her soul takes a wrong turn after a fatal accident in 1999 and ends up in 1858, trapped in a body that formerly belonged to Matthew, a 16-year-old black youth. Eleanor is relatively fortunate, because Matthew and his family live in Philadelphia, which means that they are impoverished but free.
Matthew/Eleanor soon fixes that, however, by going on a road trip with Harriet Tubman, during which he/she creates a diversion that prevents Tubman's capture and execution. The price of saving Harriet Tubman is Matthew/Eleanor's freedom, causing the titular dead white chick to experience the joys of slavery firsthand, including one of the most creative descriptions of being whipped I've ever read.
Matthew/Eleanor’s tone is jokey, sarcastic, offhand — and rather highfalutin'. Not surprisingly, Matthew gets a lot of funny looks whenever he opens his mouth — a reaction he might have received even as Eleanor. Still, a black male slave with an education and a tendency to state strong opinions would be more apt to run into trouble, a lesson that Matthew/Eleanor has to learn several times. The way that each character speaks seems to authentically demonstrate his or her education or lack thereof.
Although I’ve referred to the narrator as Matthew/Eleanor (which I'll cease), I almost forgot Eleanor's name as I was reading, because she seemed to adapt to being male pretty quickly. There is a chapter where she gets used to her new genitalia, but after that, I think there is one reference to wanting to hang out with other females, and another to wishing for a pedicure and massage. Of course, the dramatic circumstances of Matthew's life could account for this — and Eleanor is far from a typical human of any gender.
Walking in another person’s shoes
Randon's book is well-timed, coming out in the Transparent era around the time of Caitlin Jenner's transition last year. The gender issue isn't really central to the book, but I did find myself wondering what, exactly, I would expect from a woman who is literally trapped in the body of a man. Randon gets around this, sort of, I think — I don’t want to get into spoilers. Of course, I’m not the reader to assess how realistically that experience is handled. When I listened to an NPR story with a female-to-male transsexual, I was shocked at how much a few shots of testosterone caused him to stare at women's bodies and think incessantly about sex. That said, he didn't have pressing concerns, like being enslaved.
The other big issue the book tackles is, of course, race. It might have been interesting if Eleanor had been at least slightly racist to begin with, but she’s thrown into the experience already considering it indefensible to view black people as less than human. In any case, Eleanor's eloquent, spot-on retorts are a lot of fun. For instance, in response to being told that he needs to talk more like a “nigger” because his current speech pattern makes the overseer uncomfortable, he says:
“Are Blacks limited to a specific speech pattern?" I asked rhetorically. “Is there a nigger-speak class which I missed? Can we neither vote, move about freely, nor talk in standard English? Perhaps I don't talk like a nigger because niggers only exist in the heads of the small-minded? I am an Afric . . . , a Negro and Negroes speak in as many different ways as any other inhabitants of this planet!'”
Suitable for young readers?
Memoirs of a Dead White Chick is a lively, entertaining read. Obviously, Matthew survives the dangers he confronts, or he couldn’t have written his memoirs. Still, the situations are tense enough that I found myself wondering how he would survive. Things get tied up very neatly at the end — a little bit too neatly for my taste, but the choices are in keeping with the overall light treatment of some very heavy material.
The book isn't always sunny, but in the end, slavery is depicted as awful but not horrific. Memoirs of a Dead White Chick is particularly suited to a Young Adult reader, though Eleanor drops an internal f-bomb at one point, which, along with the contemplation of her new penis, might give pause to some very conservative teachers and/or parents. In addition, there is a lot of historically correct language, including liberal use of the “n” word. I have no problem with this dose of reality, but I know that not everyone agrees. Overall, though, most of the torment experienced by the characters is emotional, with no graphic violence or gore.
I am, however, concerned about softening any depiction of slavery. Millions of people died, or were maimed physically and emotionally, during the slave trade, a figure akin to or, by some estimations, surpassing the toll taken by the Holocaust. People in this country tend to turn away from any acknowledgement of the level of brutality that truly existed, so I understand the tone that Randon chose. He has created a relatively nonthreatening opportunity for readers to consider the national sin of slavery, doing a good job of tearing down the “logic” on which slavery was based. Mainly, if you don't mind occasionally highbrow language (and I don't), Eleanor is a congenial companion, and her story is a page turner. Enjoy.