The Real Fifty Shades of Gray

Loving Day by Mat Johnson. Spiegel & Grau. 287 pp $26.00

The issue of race is so fraught these days that I’m almost afraid to write about it. I am afraid to write about it. Anything I say will offend somebody. Of course, there’s something liberating about that. I know I can’t do it right, so I can just jump in and do it. Be offended, people. Enjoy!

At our Zen Center recently there were some folks who wanted to start a People of Color sitting group. The feeling was that people of color were under-represented and weren’t entirely comfortable coming into a room of gray-haired gray-faced white people like me (and who can blame them?). At first it seemed a simple matter, but the more we talked about it, the more complex it got. Let’s say there were twenty people in the room (I don’t remember) at a meeting about this issue, and if you had asked me at the beginning how many were people of color, I would have said, maybe three. Maybe four. Wrong! It was more like eight or nine. Ten. I had no idea.

The question is not just: are you a person of color? Or do you consider yourself a person of color? It’s also, do other people consider you a person of color? Do people of color consider you a person of color? The term apparently implies some degree of feeling oppressed, but I was pretty sure that the African Americans I worked with at the Homeless Shelter would not have considered the two PhD’s at our meeting, one Indian American and one Chinese American, to be oppressed in the same way they were. I’m not at all sure they would have seen them as people of color. So is oppression the key, or the shade of the skin? Economic oppression? Psychological? Job discrimination? What is it?

What about Jews? God knows they’ve been oppressed, and some have fairly dark skin. Of the two who were speaking up at the meeting, both my age, one was pale, but the other had a dark hue to her skin. She was certainly darker than the Chinese American. But she was not a person of color.

People were concerned that we didn’t have a priest who could officiate (how about an Italian American? They’ve suffered plenty of oppression in this country. Some are pretty dark too. Alas, our Italian American priest didn’t make the grade), that the various people of color weren’t really qualified to teach, that people wouldn’t be following the forms properly. But I teach a Beginner’s Class at the zendo and I’m not a priest, I’m not qualified to teach, and I have a decent, but hardly flawless, understanding of the forms.

My feeling from the start was, Yes! Have the group. Have a people color group, an LGBT group, a young person’s group, a women’s group, an old person’s group (actually, you can skip that. That’s the actual group). The more people sit zazen the better. Have people in that building every night, all the time. If they don’t get brilliant instruction they can get better instruction eventually (furthermore, let’s face it: nobody knows how to do zazen). Still, I was stunned at how complicated the issue became.

The story I told my friends, at least those I thought wouldn’t be offended (all three of them), was about the time my son went to kindergarten at a racially mixed school. After a couple of days he came home and said, “Some of the kids at the new school are a different color. They’re black. They’re not orange, like us.”

So you people don’t think orange is a color? I thought orange was the new black.


Into this dizzyingly complicated situation wades Mat Johnson with his new novel Loving Day. The title refers to June 12th 1967, the day when the US Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the 16 states in which they still existed. It sounds as if the Court is giving approval to loving—wouldn’t that be nice—but actually, the person who filed the suit was named Loving. The case was Loving vs. Virginia. It may be true that Virginia Is For Lovers, but until that decision it was not for Loving.

The protagonist is a man named Warren Duffy who has just returned to Philadelphia after expatriating for years. His father was Irish, his mother African American, and he’s light-skinned enough to pass. He is, among other things, a comic book artist (as is Mat Johnson), and attends a comic book convention where he is shunted off with the black artists, though he had hoped to be with the other guys, where the crowds were. While he’s there, an old man shows up with a young woman, and they reveal that she is Warren’s daughter Tal, the product of an early act of sex, with a Jewish girl, at age sixteen. She is lighter skinned than he, has spent her whole life considering herself white. Warren considers himself black. Her grandfather—the oldster in question—is nearing the end of his life, and Tal’s mother is dead. He can’t handle the girl. Tal has one more year left in high school, but has ambitions as a dancer, has decided to drop out. That’s our situation. Funny, huh?

In the hands of Mat Johnson it is. Johnson is a satirist of the first order, and wades into this explosive material fearlessly. He believes he knows his daughter’s true identity (“I guess I’m going to have to start using hot sauce on all my food now”) and insists that she needs to graduate from high school. But he has no money to help her out, and they live in the middle of a rough ghetto, Germantown. He owns a huge run-down mansion there, the one thing his father left him. He at first considers a black magnet school, Umoja, but Tal would look out of place there (she also dances incorrectly for that school. She is prone to leaps, and they prefer dance grounded in the earth). He then discovers the Melange Center, specifically for people of mixed race. Their goal is for everyone to achieve balance, to accept not only the race they identify with, but the one that they’ve been suppressing. The only way Warren can afford the place is if he takes a job there, as an art teacher. Even the teachers have to work toward balance.

First they have to take The Balance Test. You, as a reader, can take it too. Here are some of the questions. Was O.J. Simpson guilty? Name the most important musician of the twentieth century and explain your justification. What race was Jesus? What do you eat New Year’s Day? What card games do you know? What are your feelings about mayonnaise? What do you do with these (a picture of dominoes)? Name your black friends. (Warrens answer: Nat Turner, Warren G. Harding, and What T. Fuck.)

Warren and Tal wind up in different Balance classes, as you might guess. In Warren’s, though he’s quite light-skinned, he’s the darkest person in the room.

The plot gets wilder from there. Warren has met his erotic ideal at the school, a woman named Sunita who also loves comic books (he encountered her first at the comic book event). She is much more devoted to the school than he, more a true believer. She’s also had a troubled past with relationships. It is she who introduces him to the term sunflower (white on the outside, black on the inside): that’s Warren. The opposite situation is the more familiar term Oreo. The school’s other ardent believer is its head, an apparently Jewish woman, also of mixed race, named Roslyn. Her obsession is finding a physical location for the school, and she has her eyes on Warren’s mansion in Germantown. There is a huge whitish guy who also likes Sunita named One Drop, a tattoo artist who seems very black—at least he talks that way—named Spider. He’s my favorite character in the book, one of those people who brings the book alive whenever he hits the page. (That’s true of the black characters in general. Their speech is livelier. Any surprise in that?) He’s accepting and wise. Used to be a woman, as it turns out.

This white boy felt about as out of place in this novel as I did at the movie Dope, but I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t identify as a person of color (though I am orange!), but I’ve always loved black culture and have learned a lot from it all my life. I will admit that the plot of Loving Day got a little wild for me toward the end, but that’s what satire is supposed to do. This is one of those novels where the brilliant thing is the initial conception, Warren meeting his daughter, their encounter with the Melange Center.

When the Buddha was asked for a summation of his whole teaching, he said, Don’t cling to anything whatsoever as me or mine. That is his answer to the problem of human suffering. It seems that these days people cling to their identities like a dog with a bone. Is that suffering? Zen teachers pose the question Who am I? in the hope that, over time, it will open them up to all of existence. These racial identities seem to make one’s world smaller and smaller. Ask somebody at the Melange Center that question, and they’d probably just shrug and scratch their head. Well, it’s complicated . . .