In “Love and Theft,” Eric Lott wrote about the contradictions and dualities of antebellum blackface minstrelsy, how performers pursued self-expression through a terribly distorted black mask, how spectators “indulged in displaced blackface versions of themselves, ‘went black,’ even as they were engaged in racist ridicule.” It’s a legacy that continues to inform pop music and culture and some of the most heated debates surrounding it.
“Your Face in Mine,” the first novel from noted short-story writer Jess Row, takes the black mask to its extreme. At the start of the book, Kelly Thorndike, a white product of elite schools, spots a faintly familiar passer-by who turns out to be a friend from his Baltimore youth. Through “racial reassignment surgery,” however, the formerly white and Jewish Martin Lipkin has been transformed into the African-American Martin Wilkinson. From skin to hair to the timbre of his voice, Martin is “thoroughly, unmistakably” black, and, indeed, Martin’s new identity has convinced all, from his African-American wife to his friends and colleagues in professional, civic and church life.
At the time of this passing-strange reunion, Kelly is managing a beleaguered public radio station and grieving the accidental death of his wife and young daughter. Rudderless and intrigued, he signs on as Martin’s biographer — or something — although the pair’s initial line is that Kelly is writing a vaguely defined story about black entrepreneurs for the New Yorker. (Kelly has no credentials in print journalism, so surely someone will question how he landed such a prestigious assignment.)
Although Martin has a financial interest in publicizing his story and promoting the advanced cosmetic and educational procedures behind it, he also has his eyes on prophethood. He argues that “racial identity dysphoria” should be a psychologically recognized condition, that just as transsexuals feel they were assigned the wrong gender at birth, there are people who were “born in the wrong race.” Kelly’s experiences with race and otherness sometimes dovetail with Martin’s. He met his late wife while studying in China, and at times he felt the sting of being an embedded outsider, an alien no matter the extent of his immersion in Chinese language and culture.
“Your Face in Mine” has a compelling if slightly baggy plot, but it’s first a novel of ideas. The book’s almost universally intellectual characters explore the issues in frequent colloquies, sometimes samey-sounding but always smart and, like the story itself, often hackle-raising. As a white man, Martin was a midlevel criminal; as a black man, he runs a successful business, though in a legally dubious corner of the tech sector. His transformation seems to corroborate the blinkered white fantasy of a life made not only more authentic but also more successful through blackness — or perhaps Martin has only proved what one can achieve when one feels self-actualized, at home in one’s skin.
White literary writers, either because they lead insular lives, or because they’ve become sensitive to the problematic ways their predecessors have portrayed race and characters of color, have probably gotten too timid around the subject. Row is intrepid. He hasn’t just written a book to start debates, he’s written a book with enough substance and nuance to start really good ones.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and the author of the novel “Boarded Windows.”