Rison Thumboor from Thrissur, India, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m defeatist when it comes to taxes (meaning: I don’t understand deductions and pay whatever TurboTax tells me to), but I’m fascinated by those who aren’t. In 2001, for example, eighty thousand Black Americans filed for reparations with the IRS. Some made this their actual business. For $500, you could pay a self-taught financial advisor named Vernon James to apply on your behalf for a “Black Investment Tax Credit,” as he did for more than three hundred clients. James, who is Black, had a capacious “yes, and” attitude that bound together the case for reparations with workaday “Taxation is theft” libertarianism. Speaking to CBS in 2002, James asserted that Americans, whether Black or white, didn’t have to pay up come April. “The IRS took money from slaves. They are taking money from Americans. That is an investment. They have a right to get it back.” The IRS cut a number of claimants their requested checks, ranging from $40,000 to $100,000 per return and totaling more than $1 million. On realizing what had happened, the agency swiftly demanded their money back. James was sent to prison for six and a half years for tax fraud.
I discovered James in the midst of a depressive spell—that is, post my filing in 2015. It was a summer of right-wing memes about white slavery. After Dylann Roof’s attack on a church in Charleston renewed opprobrium of the Confederate flag’s public prominence, Southern Cross supporters began trotting out claims about Irish ancestors in American bondage. “At some point, you just have to get over it,” a Mississippi man told a Washington Post reporter at a rally in support of the banner of Dixie, the you being Black people, the it being slavery’s legacy.
It was also the summer of Rachel Dolezal. Sometimes, especially when you’re broke, your brain attempts a haphazard alchemy with the elements at hand: why not appropriate and invert James’s enterprise? One could set up a fake service, analogous to James’s: the White Inheritance Tax Credit, for which, for a mere $500, the supposed descendants of Irish slaves could apply—only, rather than filing their IRS Form-2439s on their behalf, one would just keep the service fee. The WITC has remained a speculative exercise. Every year after tax season—while recovering from the handover of my ill-begotten gains—I’ve found myself instead doing some ritual tinkering with a half-formed novella about a Vernon James figure serving white customers. (He’s usually white in this telling, for some reason, though he doesn’t have to be—perhaps it’s a nod to Dolezal.)
Over time, I’ve compiled a five-page document collating my research that I should probably retitle. This year, I made it through the reading list in SHIT ABOUT WHITE SLAVERY.docx to John Hersey’s 1964 novel White Lotus. Like many works of alternate history, the book concerns an American populace vanquished, the victor in this instance not Hitler’s Germany or Hirohito’s Japan but warlord-era China. The titular narrator recounts her experiences following the U.S. defeat in the “Yellow War,” beginning with her capture as a teenager in Arizona, where her village is ransacked by a group of white jazzbo musicians in a Packard touring car, blasting “Stormy Weather.” She’s marched to Los Angeles, where captured whites are billeted in abandoned film lots before being shipped across the Pacific. In Hollywood she sees a Chinese person for the first time, describing his skin as “the underside of the stretching foot of a desert snail” and “the color of curds.”
White Lotus lives through a compressed timeline of the struggle for Black freedom, as transposed from the United States to the Middle Kingdom before Communist rule. After her enslavement and renaming, she lives in domestic servitude in Beijing, picks cotton and tobacco in the south, sharecrops tea after the Emperor frees the slaves while under the violent thrall of a Chinese Ku Klux Klan called the Hall, and participates in a Great Migration back to the capital, where she experiences a version of the Harlem Renaissance. Hersey depicts the slaves’ struggle to reclaim whiteness itself, as both hue and creed: most memorably, in a prolonged passage about a milk-plumed fighting cock named Bad Hog. Armed and nonviolent paths toward white liberation are both represented, the latter encouraged by a priest named Runner who tells his flock, “We must be better than they are in their own terms.” The novel is bookended by the equivalent of a sit-in, in which White Lotus perches silently on a single leg in the “Sleeping-Bird Method” in face-to-face defiance of the cruel Governor K’ung. Yet when the governor retreats, White Lotus feels not victory but a puzzling fear, and the novel ends with a query: “What if someday we are the masters and they are the underdogs?”
What if, indeed! Hersey, best known as the author of Hiroshima, makes no mention of White Lotus in his Art of Fiction interview, in which he describes growing up in China as the son of missionaries and playing in a string quartet with jazz record producer John Hammond. But he speaks of reporting from Mississippi during 1964’s Freedom Summer and cites the feeling “that the situation of the black in America had a kind of urgency” as his motivation for writing The Algiers Motel Incident, which concerns the killing of three Black teenage boys by law enforcement in the Detroit Riot of 1967.
“You are trying to make flesh and blood of things that are remembered,” Hersey says of writing fiction. “It’s absolutely essential to make the past concrete. There have to be real, palpable objects, things seen, things heard.” White Lotus’s meticulous thought experiment in making a nonpast concrete, then, wasn’t meant to inculcate white chauvinism but to make real for white people the situation of those American “underdogs” who had actually been enslaved. This, despite nearly seven hundred pages of Caucasian suffering containing not a single Black person. (There is one mention of nonwhite Americans, a simile featuring a creeping plant brewed by the Indigenous to make a psychedelic tea.)
Reviews were mixed upon publication, but even now some readers seem convinced of the novel’s insights as to race relations, as well as geopolitics. Per a few select if representative Amazon reviews: “It tells of the injustice that slavery causes for any race of people and I also think it brought me down a notch or two when I was a teenager thinking that just because I was white and had it all that nothing like slavery could happen to me.” (Cathy, 5/5 stars.) “It taught me what it must be like to be a slave.” (Terry, 5/5 stars.) “THIS BOOK TELLS ABOUT CHINA TAKING OVER THE USA AND ENSLAVING AMERICANS IN CHINA. GOOD READ BUT IN PRESENT CONTEXT FRIGHTENING.” (HELPS, 5/5 stars.)
I myself was nonplussed, neither thrilled by Hersey’s invocation of a Chinese global century nor convinced that I now understood what it meant to be a slave. (In White Lotus’s parlance, I’d be a “mixie,” a Chinese-white equivalent of the tragic mulatto trope.) Rather than adding “flesh and blood” to an alternate history, each new instance in Hersey’s exhaustive series of translations of real historical events merely reiterated, ad nauseam, the book’s originary proposition: what if white people had been slaves?
As regards my own novella: if I do ever finish it, I’ll likely report any income I make off of racial speculation. (Dolezal didn’t, omitting tens of thousands of dollars of revenue from the sale of her memoir In Full Color as she applied for food and child care assistance; unlike Vernon James, she avoided trial for fraud, instead paying $9,000 in restitution and performing 120 hours of community service.) My progress is halted each year, however, by a failure of imagination—in the sense that reality seems to be catching up with mine. The conceit feels decreasingly novel, and I wonder if I’ll be beaten to the punch, perhaps by the likes of that man in Mississippi, who might treat White Lotus’s concluding line not as speculation but as a rallying cry. Why wouldn’t this country’s growing intertwinement of white revanchism and QAnon-style conspiratorial thinking produce a consensus reality powerful enough for some Americans to flock to fill out their own IRS Form-2439s and turn a fictional history not concrete but liquid—as in cash?
Matthew Shen Goodman is the author of “Lording,” published in issue no. 24o of the Review.
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