The Follies of Racial Tribalism: Mat Johnson and Anti-Utopian Satire


The utopian impulse to imagine a world free of racial oppression has a storied history within the African American literary tradition, from abolitionist slave narratives to Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, from Marcus Garvey to Black-Power Afrocentrism, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to contemporary Afrofuturism. Posing alternatives to a world dominated by racial hierarchy and white oppression of darker peoples, African American utopian texts have run the ideological gamut, imagining societies predicated on principles of color blindness, the eradication of race, egalitarianism, multiethnic pluralism, or black supremacy. While Afrocentrists envision monoracial utopias based on the rebirth of ancient African cultures or on achieving safety through isolation in all-black communities, other African American thinkers reconceive the “promised land” as a pluralist heterotopia or a society beyond race.1 The post-race rhetoric of the multiracial movement, for example, often posits an idealized future where racial categories are nullified by the increased frequency of race mixing. In 2008, the election of the first African American and/or mixed-race president of the United States gave new life to utopian dreams of a post-race America, bolstered by Obama’s faith in “the audacity of hope.”

Whereas utopianism in all its varieties has sustained African American hope in the possibility of a better world, running counter to such optimism is a more skeptical strain of black cultural life—the irreverent tradition of African American satire. Justin E. H. Smith argues that there is an “unending war between . . . the earnest ones [who] do what they can to build a perfect society” and satirists who mock the inevitable failure of their efforts (B12). Displaying a “tragicomic recognition of the apparent endlessness of the struggle” for racial justice (Carpio 20), satirists such as Charles Chesnutt, George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Ishmael Reed provide “criticism of . . . African American political and cultural trends, and indictment of specifically American forms of racism” (Dickson-Carr, African-American Satire 16). African American satire employs the “signifying” practices of trickster folklore and the black vernacular, casting aspersion through indirect or ironic commentary on the texts and cultural practices of racist America, while also offering “intragroup satire” of the follies of the black community (Dickson-Carr, African-American Satire 123). The contemporary author Mat Johnson is the descendant of a long line of African American satirists whose targets include not only white racism but also the foibles of black culture. Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym, in particular, signifies on an intertext of the white canon, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), while also satirizing elements of contemporary black discourse and behavior.

As a satirical writer, Mat Johnson often employs his wit to expose a particular human folly—the pursuit of utopia—which he renders as dangerous at worst and delusional at best. This essay argues that Johnson’s Pym examines the failures of both white and black utopias, exposing how human fear of otherness and the desire for power undermine utopian experiments. Pym critiques not only the white supremacist utopian rhetoric of the past and present, but also Afrofuturist idealizations and Afrocentric utopias based on a romanticization of a primitive past. Although scholars and reviewers have called Pym a dystopian text, this essay categorizes the novel more precisely as “anti-utopian” because it satirizes Enlightenment beliefs that undergird many utopian philosophies, beliefs such as the perfectibility of humanity, teleological progress, and the concept of race itself.2 According to Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, dystopias still “maintain utopian impulse[s]” (7), whereas the “anti-utopian disposition . . . forecloses all utopian possibility” (6). I argue that Johnson’s anti-utopian satirical novel Pym shines a harsh light on problematic and recurrent patterns of human communities that render racially based utopias implausible, impossible, or simply undesirable. Pym’s anti-utopian critique is further developed and complicated in Johnson’s newest novel, Loving Day (winner of the 2016 American Book Award), which takes aim at an interracial utopia that falls prey to many of the same failings as monoracial tribes.

Johnson’s critique of Afrocentrism and tribalism aligns him with the “post-soul” or “post-black” generation of African American writers who came of age after the civil rights movement. “Postsoul” writers undermine the essentialist notion of “authentic blackness,” otherwise known as “soul,” that was central to the Black Arts Movement and black nationalism. As Paul C. Taylor argues, “[w]here soul culture insisted on the seriousness of authenticity and positive images, post-soul culture . . . subjects the canon of positive images to subversion and parody” (631). Trey Ellis and other scholars have noted that post-soul texts often feature “cultural mulatto” or “post-black” protagonists who defy stereotypes, confound racial categories, or express allegiance to many cultures.3 Many of Mat Johnson’s protagonists, for instance, are literal as well as cultural mulattos, defying expectations with their physiognomy as well as their allegiances. Chris Jaynes of Pym loses a tenure bid for pursuing his scholarly passion for Edgar Allan Poe rather than conforming to institutional expectations for a black academic. The racially mixed protagonists of Pym and Loving Day inspire critical reflection on identity policing as they struggle to be considered “black enough” to belong in urban African American neighborhoods. Johnson’s post-soul characters are clearly shaped by his own racially complex life experience. Born to an African American mother and an Irish American father, he was raised in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia but maintains an ethnic identification with both sides of his family tree. Despite Johnson’s embrace of the term “mulatto” to define himself (Johnson, “Enigmatic”), his physiognomy reads as white to some observers, a situation of misrecognition that many of his protagonists also experience. The experience of racial hybridity was alienating to him as a child, a “little Irish boy in a dashiki” (qtd. in M. M. 281), but he now sees his liminal position as a “benefit” granting him a critical vantage point to analyze the American racial caste system (Johnson, “UO Today”).

While Mat Johnson has been grouped with other post-soul writers such as Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, and Suzan-Lori Parks, he also participates in a longer intellectual history of black writers who use satirical humor to examine the absurdities of race.4 Black satirists have consistently offered a critique of white power, indicting institutional racism and the economic and political forces that oppress African Americans. Modernist and contemporary black satirists, however, have also dared to target the follies of the black community and even to satirize the concept of race itself. In Spoofing the Modern, Dickson-Carr analyzes the satirical works of George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman, writers who mocked the hypocrisy of bourgeois, opportunistic black leaders and questioned the racial essentialism behind manifestos of “New Negro” art. Johnson’s Pym could be seen as a direct descendant of Schuyler’s anti-utopian satires, Black No More (1931) and Black Empire (1936–38). Envisioning the consequences of a race-changing invention that turns black skin to white, Black No More takes aim at white supremacy, black chauvinism, and discourses of racial purity, the same targets of Johnson’s Pym. Pym also contains echoes of Schuyler’s Black Empire in that both expose how race-based utopian rhetoric fuels genocidal ideology.5 According to Derek C. Maus, the “self-critical tenor” (xv) that Dickson-Carr locates among Harlem Renaissance writers like Schuyler has become even more prominent since the 1980s. The collection Post-Soul Satire spotlights a group of writers who examine the ways that African Americans exacerbate their own oppression and who reject “the notion that airing house business is synonymous with being a ‘race traitor’” (Maus xvii). Informed by the current wave of post-soul writers and by literary ancestors such as Schuyler, Mat Johnson’s satire is deeply concerned about the oppressive ideology of white supremacy, bemused by the absurdities of the racial caste system, and wary of the ways in which racial categorization constrains human freedom and threatens human lives.

In the Post-Soul Satire collection, Keenan Norris analyzes Johnson’s 2003 novel Hunting in Harlem as an expose of the dangerous seductions of Afrocentric “ideology . . . as a means toward desirable ends” (186). I contend that Johnson’s oeuvre registers his increasing concern about the dangers and shortcomings of utopian ideologies at large, a concern that reaches its fullest rendering in Pym and is further developed in Loving Day. Not only does he target the immoral means through which utopian “desirable ends” are achieved, but he also questions whether the ends are indeed “desirable” or achievable in the first place. Examining the afterlife of nineteenth-century racial ideologies in twenty-first-century America, Johnson’s Pym critiques human desires for racially segregated utopian spaces, then and now. Whereas Pym examines the negative consequences of monoracial tribalism, Loving Day presents a more balanced, dialectical representation of an interracial, pluralist utopia. I close the essay with a reading of Loving Day’s “Mulattopia” as a satire of the multiracial movement and its idealization of race mixing as the path to a post-race future. While Loving Day acknowledges the powerful human longing for a pluralist utopia, Johnson continues to expose how the equally powerful and conflicting desire to belong to a tribe based on likeness sabotages even the most pluralist of utopic plans.

Critiquing White Utopias: From Poe to the New Right

Johnson’s fiction speaks to a recent debate within the field of utopian studies concerning the flaws and failures of utopian thinking. In The Concept of Utopia, Ruth Levitas expresses concern that “antiutopianism” is a dominant attitude in late capitalist society, given “the weakening of the belief in progress and in the extent of human control over society, and a corresponding increase in fatalism” (195). Levitas and Lucy Sargisson acknowledge the waning of hope after 9/11 and the dangers of utopianism turned into a tool to “destroy the Other” (“Utopia in Dark Times” 25), yet they also extol utopian discourse as providing necessary resistance to the status quo.6 On the other end of the spectrum, recent anti-utopian scholarship has shed light on the utopian roots of totalitarian nationalism and religious fundamentalism, in effect equating utopia with authoritarianism. For example, Eric D. Weitz examines Nazi, Stalinist, and Cambodian genocides that “drew upon Enlightenment conceptions of human progress and nineteenth-century scientific advances that posited the possibility, indeed, the desirability, of improving society by shaping its very composition” (237). John Gray critiques both religious and secular Enlightenment utopian projects for employing repression and terror to achieve the impossible goal of perfecting humankind. Viewing the utopian pursuits of perfection and harmony as unachievable, Gray contends that “[c]onflict is a universal feature of human life” (17). He concludes that we need “dystopian thinking” (19) to provide insight into history and the “flaws of human nature” (25), thereby fostering realistic goals for human attainment. Johnson’s novel Pym answers Gray’s call for a clear-eyed analysis of human flaws and of the dangers of secular utopias driven by the goal of perfection.

Gray’s use of the word “dystopian” warrants a brief explanation of the distinctions and similarities between the concepts of “dystopia” and “anti-utopia.” Summing up the state of critical confusion, Derek Thiess notes that “[s]ome writers and scholars use the various terms interchangeably, while others create important distinctions between them” (19). Two key scholars of dystopia and anti-utopia—M. Keith Booker and Gary Saul Morson—offer nearly inverted definitions of the terms. Booker views dystopia as the umbrella term, signifying a “negative portrayal of an alternative society to stimulate new critical insights into real-world societies” (“On Dystopia” 5). For Booker, anti-utopia is a type of dystopia that “is skeptical not just of any particular utopian program but of utopianism in general” (7). Conversely, Gary Saul Morson treats “anti-utopia” as the overarching term and defines it as a parody of literary utopias; he views dystopia as a subspecies of anti-utopia, one that “discredits utopias by portraying the likely effects of their realization” (116). Like Booker and Morson, I view dystopia and anti-utopia as similar terms whose deployment is “a matter more of emphasis than of distinct difference” (Booker, “On Dystopia” 7). I discuss Pym as “anti-utopian” in this essay because the novel “tak[es] exception to utopianism per se,” whereas dystopian fiction critiques only one “specific utopian program” (Morson 116). Morson’s definition of anti-utopia as a parody that mimics and subverts the assumptions of prior literary utopias makes it an apt term to describe Mat Johnson’s Pym, a parodic revision of Edgar Allan Poe’s antebellum tale The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In Pym, Johnson uncovers what Terence Whalen calls the “latent utopian impulse” (268) in Poe’s work and deconstructs the ideologies of whiteness at play in Poe’s narrative of cross-cultural encounter and utopian escape.

In Poe’s adventure tale, descriptions of place are inextricably linked to racial constructs, revealing the white supremacist, segregationist logic of Arthur Gordon Pym’s worldview.7 Because Johnson’s Pym parodies Poe’s novel throughout, I offer a brief analysis here of the utopian underpinnings of Poe’s enigmatic ending, the dichotomy he establishes between utopia and hell, and his linkage of those constructs with the Manichean opposition of black and white. Johnson’s novel focuses on the last third of Poe’s plot, when Pym is rescued by a British ship that discovers an island peopled by black natives. The island of Tsalal becomes a symbol of blackness itself; it is composed of black granite, all of its fauna are black, and the dark-skinned native inhabitants even have black teeth. The black Tsalalians also have a strong cultural taboo associated with white objects, which they fear and dread just as Pym fears blackness. Dana D. Nelson contends that the black versus white imagery in Poe’s Narrative creates a “segregationist parable” (97), implying that the races should remain separate rather than mixed. Even the purple water on the island is “made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; . . . these veins did not commingle” (Poe 136). As Toni Morrison has argued in her work of critical whiteness studies, Playing in the Dark, Pym and Poe engage in all the practices of “literary . . . ‘othering’” (58) that buttress a segregationist worldview. Poe’s Narrative first depicts the black natives as benign and ignorant primitives whose labor, land, and natural resources are easily exploited by the white sailors. But when the natives respond by plotting to murder the encroaching, imperialist whites, Pym describes the Tsalalians as “fiendish” devils (Poe 169). John Carlos Rowe and others have convincingly interpreted The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as an “allegory of white Southern fears regarding slave insurrections” spurred by Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 (Rowe, “Antebellum” 912).

Employing the Manichean oppositions and “demonology” that John Gray links with both Christian theology and Enlightenment political utopias (25), Poe associates Tsalal with Satan and hell. Scorpions and reptiles—Christian symbols of evil—abound on the island, and Poe adds in his closing note that Tsalal is pronounced with “a prolonged hissing sound” (290). In “Hell and Dystopia,” Dennis Rohatyn argues that twentieth-century dystopias are secular versions of the religious thought experiment known as “hell”: “when . . . a novelist creates a dystopia (s)he is doing just what a patristic theologian did in describing Hell” (95), envisioning “the worst of all possible worlds” (94) in opposition to utopia or heaven, and inviting reflection on the present human world.8 Although Poe is certainly no “patristic theologian,” he draws upon the Christian rhetoric of hell to serve as a contrast to his vision of a utopic Eden, or ideal Heaven on earth, evoked in the closing of the novel.

The black hell of Tsalal provides a stark rhetorical contrast to Poe’s representation of Antarctica as a white utopian frontier to which Pym escapes. Scholars have analyzed a number of Poe’s short stories as expressions of manifest destiny, of “conquering the unknown, those ‘white’ places on the map that are so seemingly unpopulated and are awaiting their ‘white’ domination” (Weissberg 148).9 Toni Morrison argues that Antarctica takes on a similar symbolic and utopic resonance as “limitless empty frontier” in Poe’s novel (51). Poe concludes the tale with an enigmatic vision of Pym, his shipmate Dirk Peters, and a captive black Tsalalian drifting into the enveloping whiteness of the southernmost continent. In stark contrast to the blackness of Tsalal, the imagery of the Antarctic scene is all white, with a “milky” ocean, a “white curtain” of vapor, and all-white birds and animals (Poe 173, 174). Seeing so many taboo white objects causes the black Tsalalian to die from fright, but the white imagery provokes a feeling of sublime awe in Pym, as the “sullen darkness” is repelled by a “luminous glare” and a “white ashy shower” (174). The final sentences of Pym’s journal read: “And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow” (175). The evocations of terror at the imposing shrouded figure in the path are commingled with hope and desire, as the cataract and the perfect white figure offer an “embrace” to welcome and “receive” Pym, providing a healing balm for his tortured soul. After Pym’s near-death encounter with blackness, Poe’s ending describes a white man’s fantasy of Eden, a prelapsarian state of innocence before the “fall” of slavery, as Pym envisions a monoracial, “perfect” utopic space without racial conflict. It is significant that the black Tsalalian Nu-Nu dies upon arrival in this white landscape, and Pym’s companion Dirk Peters, earlier described as a “half-breed” American Indian, has been remade in Pym’s mind as a “white man” (151), thus reinforcing white versus black segregationist logic. Echoing a staple plot element of early modern utopias, Poe’s novel racializes the figurative “journey from darkness to light” (Morson 89), connecting sublime enlightenment with whiteness.

Mat Johnson’s reinvention of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym builds on the critical whiteness theories of Toni Morrison and her analysis of Poe’s racist imagination. The main character of Johnson’s Pym is an English professor, Chris Jaynes, a self-dubbed “blackademic” who teaches a course called “Dancing with the Darkies: Whiteness in the Literary Mind” (7), a direct allusion to Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Echoing Morrison’s investigation of the “Africanist presence” (5) in Poe’s tale, Chris offers a literary critical analysis of Poe’s dichotomous racial imagery and his championing of the “Enlightenment European intellect” as superior, civilized, and rational (Johnson, Pym 25). Although Poe depicts the Tsalalians as “harmless dark[ies]” (Johnson, Pym 31) and then as murderous demons, Chris reads against the grain, celebrating the Tsalalians as intelligent heroes who resist colonization. Yet Chris values Poe because his work offers a primer on “Whiteness, as a pathology. . . . the primal American subconscious, the foundation on which all our visible systems and structures were built” (Pym 33–34). “If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed,” he believes, “then we can learn how to dismantle it” (14). The source material of Poe’s text, then, becomes a vehicle for Johnson to investigate the legacy of the nineteenth-century racial systems that continue to undergird contemporary racial hierarchies and utopian ideologies.

Beginning his novel in the near-future of the United States, Johnson draws not only on the intertexts of Poe’s tale and Morrison’s theories, but also on the genres of speculative fiction, racial allegory, and the slave narrative. The plot rests upon a central speculative question: what if Poe’s tale were fact, not fiction? Professor Chris Jaynes uncovers manuscript evidence suggesting that Arthur Gordon Pym and Dirk Peters were real rather than fictional men, so he sets sail for the south polar region with an all-black mining company, secretly planning to locate and recover Tsalal as a lost black homeland. In Antarctica, the black crew discovers that Arthur Gordon Pym has kept himself alive for two hundred years by drinking an elixir of whale urine. Through Pym’s defiance of mortality, Johnson symbolically implies that white privilege dies hard, just as remnants of antebellum racial ideologies persist into the American present. The plot veers further into the realm of the fantastic as the black crew discovers that Pym has been adopted by the giant white figures of Poe’s imaginary Antarctica, humorously reimagined by Johnson as a race of albino humanoid beasts (Tekelians) that Chris Jaynes’s cousin, Captain Booker Jaynes, refers to as “snow honk[ies]” (105). Echoing the language of Poe’s closing sentences, Johnson’s character Pym believes the snow monsters are “Gods,” “perfection incarnate” (140), but Johnson renders them instead as embodiments of the brutal power of whiteness and as caricatures of antebellum slaveholders. Johnson here adopts a common strategy of satire, to “reduce[ ] man from the godlike to the animal” (Hodgart 118), in order to mock Poe’s racist fantasies of white supremacy. What Pym calls a utopic “Heaven” (Johnson, Pym 141) is in fact a version of hell for the crew of black explorers who are immediately enslaved by the bestial Tekelians, who think nothing of stabbing out the eye of a slave for the crime of insolence. Johnson thus echoes Lucy Sargisson’s observation that “[s]ometimes a society that is eutopic for some participants is dystopic for others” (Fool’s Gold? 10), a point that slave narratives make abundantly clear.

While the slave narrative chapters of Pym satirize antebellum whites’ conceptions of utopia as fundamentally racist, Johnson is also laying the groundwork for the broader anti-utopian argument that emerges later in the novel. Johnson exposes Pym’s tactics of denial and his willful blindness to black people’s humanity as constitutive strategies of whiteness that are linked with utopian ideologies. Allied with the slave-owning Tekelians, Pym chastises Chris for escaping his bondage and believes Chris will be justly punished by death for the “theft of yourself” (224). Calling Pym an “exceptionally delusional white man . . . one of the most dangerous things in the world” (141), Chris muses, That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent, whipping away all traces of our existence from this pristine landscape.(225)

Riffing on Poe’s final line about the perfect whiteness of the snow, Johnson employs snow as a metaphor for the erasure of truth, as whites of the past and present deny culpability for the wrongs of history and abnegate responsibility for achieving a more equitable future. The white landscape is also a potent symbol of the desire for racial purity and white supremacy, recalling Weitz’s arguments about utopian totalitarian societies, such as Nazi Germany, that were obsessed with the “erasure” of human “blemishes.” By representing whiteness as a strategic denial of “history,” Johnson also echoes Morson’s claim that “whereas utopias describe an escape from history, . . . anti-utopias describe an escape, or attempted escape, to history, which is to say, to the world of contingency, conflict, and uncertainty” (128). Morson and Johnson both suggest that utopias often deny the messy truths of human history in their pursuit of a “pristine” myth.

Keeping history at the forefront of this futuristic tale, Johnson sets his novel in the frontier landscape of Antarctica in order to draw parallels to the European/American obsession with seeking a pure “new world” on which to write one’s own desires. In his earlier non-fiction work The Great Negro Plot (2007), which investigates an eighteenth-century slave revolt in New York, Johnson comments with droll irony that many of the American colonies were focused on “the building of a utopia, or other nonsense” (93; emphasis added), all the while exterminating natives or enslaving Africans. In Pym, Johnson depicts the brutal leader of the “snow honkies” as a creature who “clearly felt ownership of everything he could see” (289), including the land and the black visitors who dared to encroach upon Tekelian territory. As one of the black crew says of the Tekelians, “They’re white folks. Eventually they’ll try to take everything” (150). Johnson draws a parallel here to the history of imperialism but also thwarts readers’ expectations with an ironic twist. Although he likens the snow “honkies” to European slave-owners and settlers who felt entitled to claim ownership of the new world, the Tekelians also bear similarities to native peoples defending themselves against invaders. It is important to remember that the official mission of the black American expedition, led by Captain Booker Jaynes, is to mine Antarctica’s ice to sell as expensive bottled water, much like Poe’s colonialist British sailors aboard the Jane Guy seek to reap the natural resources of Tsalal for profit. Although Johnson alludes to the historical linkages between colonialism and European/American whiteness, he includes these ironic details to imply that human acquisitiveness and territorial aggression can transcend race. He also underscores how the hoarding of land and resources fuels utopian projects of nation-building; the bellicose Tekelians utter “mindless syllables of nationalism” (196) as they prepare to wage war upon an equally patriotic intruder, Thomas Karvel and his BioDome.

To shed further light on the legacy of white utopian rhetoric in the present, Johnson departs from Poe’s source tale to create a contemporary character, Thomas Karvel, who is a parody of Thomas Kinkade, the popular painter of mass-produced kitschy landscapes. In the novel, Chris’s childhood friend Garth has accompanied Chris to Antarctica on his own quest to find his artistic hero Karvel, who has painted a new series set in the frozen wilderness. In Johnson’s view, kitschy “art” like that produced by Karvel/Kinkade is a manifestation of utopian longings for sanitized perfection. Garth loves Karvel’s mass-produced landscapes because they “make you all peaceful” (15) as you “pretend to climb into a better world” (44). Chris, however, sarcastically likens the paintings to a “view up a Care Bear’s ass” (15) and “a window to a Eurocentric fantasy world where black people couldn’t even exist” (58). To escape an impending apocalypse in a world rife with pollution and terrorism, Karvel has created a utopic BioDome on Antarctica that is a detailed simulation of one of his paintings, evoking Jean Baudrillard’s depiction of the “Disneyfication” of America.10 Karvel’s BioDome is thus a contemporary manifestation of the imperialist impulse to write one’s desires on the landscape of the new world. When Chris escapes from his enslavement by the Tekelians, he and Garth take refuge in the “3.2 Ultra BioDome,” a Disney-like world set at “a perfect seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit” (266), with babbling brooks full of Koolaid, lavender perfume piped into the air, and white “albino” bunnies as the only fauna. Although Karvel sees his fake habitat as an “improve[ment]” on nature (241), it is not self-sustaining but rather utterly dependent on vast imports of natural gas and processed food. When an apocalyptic global event later in the novel cuts off communication and their food and power supply, the Bio-Dome is doomed, a mockery of white hubris and misplaced faith in technological progress.

Johnson’s portrait of Karvel provides another vehicle for his critique of perfection-seeking utopias that often result in an obsession with purity and the exclusion of “imperfect” others. In this sense, Karvel could be called the spiritual descendant of Poe’s character Pym, carrying on the tradition of white xenophobia. Seeking to create “the safest place on the earth” (240) in a world plagued by terrorism and environmental catastrophe, Karvel makes explicit his utopian philosophy: “I created this free land. . . . As blank as the morning snow. A clean canvas. A place with no violence and no disease, no poverty and no crime. . . . This is a place without history. A place without stain. No yesterday, only tomorrow” (241). Significantly, the things he wants to exclude from his utopia—dirt, violence, stain, disease, poverty, crime, and history—are often associated with blackness or otherness, whereas Karvel sees perfection as pure like snow, clean, safe, future-oriented, and technological— in short, white. In Karvel’s utopia, “[t]here is only one vision” and “[p]erfection isn’t about change, diversity” (251). Johnson critiques a version of utopia that stifles freedom and heterogeneity by exchanging the chaos and diversity of reality for safety and manufactured sameness. Ironically, the BioDome is hardly the “free land” that Karvel purports it to be, since a woman (Mrs. Karvel) and black people (Chris and Garth) are the ones who work to sustain the habitat while the white male lounges as lord of his domain.

Johnson offers numerous connections between the BioDome and the hypocrisies of contemporary America as a purportedly free and ideal society. In a cartoonlike image of American patriotism and exceptionalism, Karvel has painted a giant U.S. flag on the roof of the BioDome. The fact that the native Tekelians view the BioDome as a destructive encroachment on their territory alludes to the U.S. takeover of Native American land. Johnson alludes not only to the hypocrisies of the American past but also to its present by offering a parody of the Christian New Right. Mrs. Karvel is awaiting the “Rapture” when Jesus will come to “take [them] with the righteous” (238). Her husband, who fears being “enslav[ed]” (241) by taxes and big government, stokes his right-wing ideology by installing speakers to pipe in the voices of media personalities Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, who assert idealized visions of America as a beacon of liberty and opportunity. Yet when two African American men seek refuge in this American colony, it becomes clear that this utopian world is inextricably tied to the American history of racial oppression. Because the food stock is low, Garth and Chris are encouraged to become farm laborers, like sharecroppers in the U.S. South, in order to earn their keep. On this futuristic “plantation” (249), the black laborers sleep in an unfinished outbuilding that Chris calls “three-fifths of a house” (244) to recall the Constitution’s designation of a slave as three-fifths of a person. After escaping slavery under the Tekelians, Chris’s experience in the BioDome thus mirrors that of many former slaves after Reconstruction, when their utopian dreams of freedom were erased by another system that served white power. The BioDome’s replication of a plantation hierarchy also drives home Johnson’s point about the staying power of institutionalized racial inequality in the present and near-future. Johnson’s depiction of this New Right mini-society resonates with the arguments of Levitas, who notes that “utopias are not the monopoly of the Left” but can also work to “increas[e] the power of already powerful groups and further subordinat[e] the powerless” (Concept 185, 186). Johnson implies that utopian attempts to imagine a better world are perhaps inevitably constrained by foundational patterns of human behavior, namely the establishment of status hierarchies to control access to power.

Another recurrent historical pattern that Johnson satirizes is the seemingly symbiotic relationship between utopian nationalism, war, and xenophobia. Utopian worlds collide and crumble when the snow beasts, satiric caricatures of racist antebellum whites who have achieved monoracial isolation, attack the technological utopia of the BioDome because it is melting their ice habitat. The humans (blacks and whites in coalition) retaliate by attempting to exterminate the Tekelians. Negotiation and peaceful coexistence are not even considered as options, particularly since both parties fear difference and believe in their own innate superiority. Examining how competition for land and fear of the other fuel war and genocide, Johnson’s novel responds to the recent debate about the relationship between utopia and totalitarian nationalism. While Weitz uncovers the “utopian visions” (2) of “race and nation” (15) fueling numerous genocidal state programs, Russell Jacoby counters that societies based on “racial purity, war, and nation” should not rightly be considered utopias at all; Jacoby reserves that designation for imagined worlds based on “universal brotherhood” (x). Johnson’s allegorical treatment of genocide reveals his skepticism that universal brotherhood is possible given the historical tenacity of race, tribe, and nation as ways of dividing and “protecting” humans from each other.

It is crucial to Johnson’s satirical design that he initially encourages readers to justify, laugh at, and even root for the genocide of the Tekelians, who have previously been depicted as bestial and oppressive white slaveholders. When Mrs. Karvel hatches a plot to mix rat poison into a Betty Crocker feast that they will feed to the gluttonous Tekelians, including their children, almost all the black characters readily assent to the plan for reasons of “revenge and survival” (291). Only Garth speaks against the poisoning, calling it “some anti-Geneva conventions shit” (280), but his black friends dismiss his moral objections because he has never been enslaved by this race of white giants. The “black humor” of this macabre revenge plot participates in the African American literary genre that Kali Tal calls “kill-the-white-folks” futurist fiction. Among this genre’s practitioners is George Schuyler; his novel Black Empire depicts a black dictator’s plan to defeat white supremacy by murdering whites all over the world, and Black No More ends with a black racial fantasy in which two seemingly white characters are lynched. Both Schuyler and Johnson use satire to raise moral questions about African Americans’ murderous revenge fantasies against whites and to highlight the irony of disempowered people adopting the brutal strategies of the oppressor. Schuyler depicts the corrupting effects of power in Black No More when all of his black characters become amoral, money-grubbing opportunists once the opportunity for a racechange to whiteness is made commercially available. Invoking the trope of whitening as moral stain, Johnson’s Pym explicitly connects genocidal power with the wearing of “whiteface.” Garth, the only character in Pym who had qualms about murdering the Tekelians, tosses aside his moral concerns and puts on “teeth-whitening toothpaste” (298) to fool the Tekelians into mistaking him for their leader. Paying homage to Schuyler as a key precursor in the literary history of racial satire, Johnson’s novel suggests that the black characters have been corrupted and metaphorically whitened by taking on the violent ways of the powerful. In this episode of Pym, white and black humans work collaboratively in multiracial coalition, yet they only do so with the goal of destroying a dehumanized third group.

Only after the humans have succeeded in killing two sympathetic Tekelians, an innocent child and an ally who had helped the slaves, does Chris acknowledge his complicity in fostering genocidal ideology: “These were living creatures, regardless of how abhorrent I found their social values to be. It was so easy to let that xenophobic element within me, that part inclined to dehumanize those different from myself, have its way” (282). “I was no less morally responsible,” he continues, “than those that sat by while European traders sold infected blankets to Indians, or the first guns were traded for slaves on the West African coast. . . . [M]y only defense is that I was motivated by my own fear, which of course is no defense at all” (285–86). Since the first-person narrative construction encourages readers to identify with Chris, Johnson pushes his readers into a discomfiting recognition of their own complicit participation in discourses of “othering.” Patricia Meyer Spacks points to this strategy as key to satire’s effect on readers: satirical texts “encourage complacent superiority only to shatter it” (152) by forcing readers into “recognizing our involvement in the evil to which we have earlier felt superior” (149). While his critique of whiteness may be designed to cause psychic disturbance among white readers, Johnson also discomfits African American readers by disrupting the victim-oppressor dichotomy. In his depiction of black complicity with genocide, he demonstrates how people who have once been oppressed can easily adopt the violent tactics and the moral indifference of the oppressor. Whereas Jacoby posits “universal brotherhood” as a desire worthy of utopia, Johnson implies that such a lofty goal would be undermined by the ubiquity of fear—and particularly a fear of racialized others—as a motivator for human behavior.

Critiquing Black and Brown Utopias

As I have argued, Johnson pointedly satirizes two white utopian societies—the world of the Tekelians (symbolic of antebellum whiteness) and Karvel’s highly technological, neoconservative Bio-Dome—where fear and the desires for perfection, exclusion, safety, and power end up threatening the lives and freedoms of others. In a self-critical move typical of post-soul and Harlem Renaissance satirists, Johnson’s work also examines how black utopian imaginings suffer from many of the same human weaknesses and desires. Hunting in Harlem, for example, offers a satirical critique of a utopian experiment in which a black-owned realty company kills off undesirables such as child abusers, drug lords, and pimps in a scheme to improve the community and raise the value of Harlem’s housing stock. The black messianic leader of the company, Cyrus Marks, employs African American “uplift” rhetoric in his quest to remake Harlem as a “shining jewel” (121), and uses some of his profits to establish an orphanage for neglected black children. Johnson’s protagonist, Cedric Snowden, is at first horrified but later seduced into becoming a murderous agent of Marks’s “social gardening” scheme (118), closing the novel with his realization that “[w]hen you believe in what you do, what you can do you won’t believe” (283). Hunting in Harlem satirizes a blind adherence to black utopian projects that would murder humans to achieve “perfection.” In defense of his novel’s attack on black bourgeois ideology and the gentrification process, Johnson commented, “if my work is about anything, it’s about self-criticism, which doesn’t happen enough in the black community” (qtd. in M. M. 283).

The critique of black utopian thought central to Hunting in Harlem resurfaces in Pym. In Pym, Garth’s utopian longing for the “improbable vision” (121) of Karvel’s imagined Eurocentric landscapes is explicitly compared to Chris’s search for Poe’s mythic island of “Tsalal, the great undiscovered African Diasporan homeland . . . uncorrupted by Whiteness. . . . escaping completely from the progression of Westernization and colonization to form a society outside of time and history” (39). Inverting Poe’s racial biases, Chris dreams of an African Eden, a “hidden tropical utopia” (67) that recalls the mythology of the Back-to-Africa and Black Power movements. As Wilson Jeremiah Moses argues in his book Afrotopia, Afrocentrism often displays a romantic primitivism that “fixates on an idealized past before the white man’s ‘Destruction of Black Civilization,’ and predicts an Ethiopian revival, a messianic era of peace and good-will” (33). Chris sympathetically explains the powerful draw of such myths for African Americans: “This is a black American thing: to wish to be in the majority within a nation you could call your own, to wish for the complete power of that state behind you. It was the story of the maroons and black towns on the frontier, it was the dream of every Harlem Pan-Africanist” (30). Levitas defines such fantasies as “compensatory” utopias that offer escape from “a hostile world” (Levitas and Sargisson 14). While Johnson recognizes the appeal of Afrocentrist utopias, he also draws attention to the blinding effects of their mythic ideology. Shifting from an empathetic to a more critical stance, Chris admits that African American tourists often “failed to see the real Africa before them. They wanted only the Africa where everyone was either a king [or] queen. . . . Where a Wakandian fantasy civilization hid just beyond the palms. Where black diasporans would be greeted at the airport as long-lost offspring” (184–85). Johnson provides a footnote to remind readers that “Wakanda is the African utopia of the Black Panther comic books,” an “Afrocentric romanticization” (184). These mythic comics are cherished by both Chris and his cousin Booker Jaynes, the character described as an Afrocentric “Race Man” (99). Johnson makes readers aware of the delusions fueling Afrocentric utopian desires and of the resulting blindness to the “real Africa” that includes inter-ethnic conflict among African peoples.

If Afrocentrism often operates in a nostalgic mode, the contemporary movement of Afrofuturism rewrites Afrocentric ideology in a future tense. Although Pym shares many of the thematic and political concerns of the diverse aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism, it also offers a self-critical glance at utopian strains of Afrofuturist thought. Rather than engaging in Afrocentric fantasies of “an uncomplicated return to ancient culture” (Nelson, “Introduction” 8), Afrofuturist cultural producers of art, literature, and music aim to “press [technology and] the future into the service of black liberation” (Eshun 294).11 Afrofuturists often create new mythologies that pay homage to black history but also draw on science and technology to imagine a brave new world. Many Afrofuturist texts rework the classic themes of science fiction culture—estrangement, invasion, abduction, and encounters with alien otherness—to reflect the kindred experiences of dislocation and alienation suffered by black diasporic subjects as a result of the slave trade (Eshun 298–99). The movement is thus bidirectional, reinterpreting the past through a technological lens as well as imagining alternative futures in which people of color are no longer erased, as they have been in most science-fiction writing. As Kodwo Eshun argues, Afrofuturists are both “critical and utopian” (293), yet some lean more toward one pole than the other. While some Afrofuturists such as Octavia Butler offer a dystopian critique of race, xenophobia, and hierarchies of power in present and future worlds, others aim to provide a more uplifting experience of “disalienation” (Eshun 298) and a “new and more promising alien future” (Yaszek).12

Johnson’s Pym could be categorized as Afrofuturist if one emphasizes the critical rather than the utopian aspects of the movement. Although Johnson’s novel mocks the “Wakandian fantas[ies]” that characterize Afrotopianism, Pym shares much ideological terrain with Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series and Walter Mosley’s 47, a slave narrative set in a science fiction landscape. Afrofuturist themes in Pym include the alienation and captivity of black subjects, the uncanny repetitions of the past in the future, and the human longing for utopias, both primitive and futuristic. In 2013, Johnson also collaborated with Afrofuturist illustrator Robert Pruitt to produce a comic book art installation, Fantastic Sagas. Set in a future world based on African matriarchal systems, Fantastic Sagas reflects the Afrofuturist investment in projecting the legacy of black collective history into a futuristic science fiction landscape.13 While it participates in the creative project of Afrofuturism, Pym offers a self-reflexive commentary on problematic elements of Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism alike. By subtly poking fun at the “Wakandian fantasy civilization” of the Black Panther comics, Johnson invites readers to question the illusory nature of its mythic representation of African independence in an isolated, technologically sophisticated kingdom.

Furthermore, Johnson’s depiction of the fate of the BioDome satirizes Enlightenment notions of scientific progress on which futuristic liberation narratives often depend. Not only is the BioDome an unsustainable habitat, but the utopian refuge is destroyed by its own technological infrastructure. In order to protect themselves from attack, the humans have to turn up the boiler dangerously high in order to “melt” the ice-loving Tekelians and activate the poison they have ingested. But the overtaxed boiler explodes like a bomb, killing all the white and black humans inside and wiping out the entire species of Tekelians and their civilization.14 The explosion of the heat-producing boiler serves as a metaphor for deadly global warming engendered by the industrialized world. Although Karvel conceived the BioDome as a refuge from pollution and terrorist bombs, he becomes a victim of his own Enlightenment beliefs in technology as a tool for perfecting human civilization. Like many other dystopian and anti-utopian writers, Johnson warns of the perils of viewing technology as salvation.

Whereas some Afrofuturists employ Enlightenment progressivism for African American purposes, Johnson questions another legacy of the Enlightenment—the concept of race itself and the destructive purposes for which it has been employed by blacks as well as whites. As a post-soul and racially mixed writer, Johnson treats black nationalism and essentialism with skepticism, examining the ways that such tribalism results in an exclusionary policing of those deemed “not black enough.” In order to trouble essentialist assumptions, Johnson waits for over one hundred pages to tell readers that his protagonist Chris, who identifies ethnically and culturally as black, looks like a white man at first glance; Chris notes that “[o]ctoroon would have been the antebellum word for me” (135). Furthermore, the light-skinned Chris reveals that he was frequently bullied by black schoolmates during the “Black is Beautiful” era, as was Johnson himself (“UO Today”). Echoing Johnson’s comments about his own childhood, Chris laments that his peers saw him as “the symbol of Whiteness and all the negative connotations it held. . . . I stood out, and the wolves attack the weak separated from the herd. Because of the color of my skin, I was targeted for abuse” (135–36). Thus Chris is forced to “overcompensate for my pale skin to be accepted. I would have to learn to talk blacker, walk blacker, than even my peers. Or be rejected as other forever” (137). Not only does Johnson draw attention to race as performative and culturally constructed, but he also highlights how racial distinctions can lead to the oppression of those deemed other.

Johnson’s satiric exposé of the pack mentality of human tribes is crucial to understanding the final page of the novel, in which Chris and Garth escape from the BioDome disaster and finally reach the shores of Tsalal. Johnson deliberately inverts the racial iconography of Poe’s ending; whereas NuNu, the black native in Poe’s tale, expires upon arrival in a white landscape, in Johnson’s tale it is the white Pym who expires as he is overwhelmed by the horror of black symbols in Tsalal’s environs. Like Poe’s enigmatic ending depicting Pym’s arrival in Antarctica, Johnson offers scant description of Chris and Garth’s arrival in Tsalal and leaves his heroes’ fate in question. As Chris and Garth drift ashore into their own fantasy of a Negro utopia, they see a naked “brown” man who is “shaking his hand in the air, waving it” (322), a gesture that the new arrivals interpret as welcoming (“waving”) but could just as easily be intended as threatening (“shaking”). The novel ends with these ambiguous lines: “Whether this was Tsalal or not, however, Garth and I could make no judgments. On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (322). The ambiguity of these lines, I contend, is not a sign of the novel’s lack of ideological closure; rather, Johnson employs a strategy that Morson identifies as particular to parody and satire, a “double-voiced” utterance that echoes the language of the satirized ideology (in this case, discourses of racial utopia) yet implies a secondary voice—Johnson’s own authorial voice—standing in judgment of the original utterance (Morson 108).

In a short essay published in the Edgar Allan Poe Review, Poe scholar and editor Richard Kopley reads Johnson’s ending as an unironic inversion of Poe’s racial chauvinism. “[R]acism [is] defeated and the origins of the African peoples recovered” (41), Kopley writes; “[T]he Tsalalians in Johnson’s Pym are a black force for redemption[.] . . . In both novels, then, regardless of the racial view advanced, the conclusion offers an image of transformative purity” (44). As I have argued, Johnson’s novel is a satirical exposé of all visions of “transformative [racial] purity,” whether they be white or black. Racism has certainly not been “defeated” in the text, since the African American protagonists have participated in a figurative race war resulting in genocide a mere twenty pages earlier. Whereas Kopley sees redemption and peace, I argue that Johnson implies that this “collection of brown people”—depicted as a “majority” with the power of numbers—could treat the racially mixed, “pale” Chris (268) as an Other to be oppressed or expelled, just as Poe’s Tsalalians attempted to murder not only the whites but also the “half-breed” Dirk Peters, or as the black kids in their neighborhoods bullied the “octaroon” Chris Jaynes and the “mulatto” Mat Johnson. The word choice for Johnson’s last phrase—”a collection of brown people” who constitute the “majority” of the planet—intentionally echoes the rhetoric of world dominance by people of color that is a standard feature of Pan-Africanism and Afrocentrism.15 Reading this ending unironically, as does Kopley, misses Johnson’s “double-voiced” satiric intent.

Johnson’s exposure of negative human traits that his black characters share with whites—fear, opportunism, hypocrisy, violence— suggests that he views black supremacist rhetoric with skepticism.

As Dickson-Carr points out, African American satirists often show black people’s similarity to all humans “in being venal, greedy, selfish” and susceptible to “seduction by materialism” (African-American Satire 33). Johnson’s panoply of secondary black characters, including the “Morehouse Man” (174) Nathaniel, the gay adventurer Jeffree, and the fierce “Race Man” Booker Jaynes, exhibit common human flaws. Although claiming to be proud black men, Nathaniel and Booker are both hypocritically seduced by whiteness, as Nathaniel earns favorable treatment by serving the Tekelians as an interpreter and Booker falls in love with his “snow honky” owner Hunka. In a parodic inversion of a scene of European imperialists discovering natives, the black crew are disgusted by meeting the “bestial savage” Tekelians (126) and they claim naming rights and capitalist “rights of exploitation” (132) over the white beasts, imagining the cash possibilities for “[a]ction figure[ ]” tie-ins (129). The black crew’s later participation in genocide testifies to the fact that African Americans can be subject to the same greed, fear, violence, and drive for power as whites. Race does not divide us, Johnson implies, as much as we might think. His satiric parody of Poe’s novel offers more than simply an inversion of its racial symbolism and hierarchies, replacing white supremacy and utopian isolationism with a black version of the same. Rather, Pym attempts to dislodge the bedrock—the fictional concept of race itself—that has undergirded American society since its inception.

Also requiring further analysis are the connotations of Johnson’s choice, in this final paragraph, to use the word “brown” to describe the people of Tsalal, which Chris and Garth had earlier referred to as “black” (268) and “Negro” (296). In Poe’s novel, the Tsalalian people and their habitat are overdetermined by a repetitive use of the word “black.” Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym describes black albatrosses, mammals covered in “black wool” (138), and native “savages” with “black teeth” (174) and “jet black” (131) complexions who wear “dresses of black skin” (139). Johnson’s novel mockingly comments on the way Pym pronounces the word “black” to describe the Tsalalians: “This black had at least two syllables . . . and there was always enough emphasis on the second syllable to convey all of the anxiety the speaker had about my ethnic group as a whole. Ba-laaaaaaaak” (214). Johnson may be switching to the word “brown” in his final description of the Tsalalians to disrupt the racially dichotomous logic of Pym’s nineteenth-century worldview. “Brown” could also imply the presence of racial mixing, suggesting that Tsalal has not been as “uncorrupted by Whiteness” (39) as Chris had fantasized. Akin to the phrase “people of color,” the brown community of Tsalal could represent a more diverse and inclusive human array, a recognition of the reality of race mixing across the globe. Those readers intent on finding hope in the ending may interpret Johnson’s choice of “brown” to imply a multiracial utopia in which Chris would finally be at home. However, it is important to recall Johnson’s satirical treatment, earlier in Pym, of the racist tendencies of the “Native American Ancestry Collective of Gary” (52), whose racially mixed members fetishize their native heritage but deny their black roots. Johnson’s most recent novel, Loving Day (2015), explicitly counters a misreading of Pym’s ending as utopian, by exploring how “brown” or mixed-race “mulattopias” are often subject to the same flaws as black or white utopias. Rather than simply presenting a dystopian vision of one particular utopian project, Mat Johnson’s fictional body of work offers a more thoroughly anti-utopian critique of all societies that perpetuate race and tribe as categories that divide and limit human beings.

Mocking “Mulattopia” in Loving Day

In the essay “Utopia and the Problem of Race,” Edward K. Chan asserts that “[r]ace seems to pose a particular problem for the utopian imagination” (465). Because many utopias are based on a problematic emphasis on monoracial homogeneity, Chan celebrates the 1970s novels of Samuel R. Delany and Marge Piercy for envisioning pluralist and inclusive “heterotopias” that “eliminate the possibility for racial difference to be structured in hierarchy” (477). In Loving Day, Johnson investigates the viability of this premise by examining a multiracial utopian community founded on the principle of inclusivity and hybridity rather than purity. Given his own mixed-race experience, Johnson’s novel acknowledges the psychic benefits of such a pluralist society, yet he also gleefully satirizes the hypocrisies of the multiracial movement and the absurdity of its idealization of racial mixture. In the 1990s, the multiracial movement gathered steam in an effort to revise unitary constructions of racial identity on the 2000 U.S. Census, and many of its adherents heralded the new recognition of mixed-race identity as a move toward a “raceless” utopian future.16 In her satirical essay “The Mulatto Millenium,” Danzy Senna mocks the “Mulatto Nation” who want to declare “beige . . . the official color of the millennium” (12–13). In an era where “[p]ure breeds (at least the black ones) are out and hybridity is in” (12), Senna expresses concern that “all this celebration of mixture felt to me like a smoke screen . . . obscuring the fundamental issue of racism . . . [and] power” (20). Like Senna, Johnson asks readers to question whether utopian conceptions of multiracialism are likely to undo racism.

In Loving Day, Johnson’s semiautobiographical protagonist, Warren Duffy, is grappling with the disjunction between his self-identification as culturally black and his predominantly white appearance. Like Chris in Pym, Warren is a “racial optical illusion” (18) who must repeatedly perform blackness through elaborate handshakes and speech patterns in order to be accepted as part of “Team Blackie” (18). The main catalyst for the novel’s action is Warren’s attempt to build a relationship with Tal, his recently discovered teenaged daughter borne from his own teenaged coupling with a Jewish girl. Because Tal has been raised as a “casually racist” (39) white girl, Warren first seeks to give her an Afrocentric education but compromises by enrolling her in a school “themed for mixed kids” (64), the Mélange Center for Multiracial Life. Using Warren as his mouthpiece, Johnson gleefully mocks the absurdist and “hippie” (66) elements of the Mélange Center. Warren dubs the community Mulattopia, the schoolchildren “mixie pixies” (166), and the teachers “WASPafarian[s]” (100). The only languages taught at the school are creole hybrids, while their myopic curriculum focuses only on mixed people in American history. Their sacred holiday is Loving Day, in honor of the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws. The Loving Day carnival is fodder for Johnson’s wit, as it devolves into a ridiculous extravaganza, complete with a “multiracial marketing coordinator” (260) and a “Miss Cegenation Pageant” (267). A purported sighting of ghosts on the property quickly leads to the invention of a foundation myth, as the community holds a séance to connect with these “miscegenation angels” (240), ghosts of the interracial Adam and Eve. Johnson’s aim here is to poke fun at the multiracial movement’s idealization of ethnic fusion and its emphasis on the marketing of multiraciality as a new consumerist identity.17 Building on Pym’s satire of Afrocentrism, Loving Day makes deliberate connections between Afrocentrism and multiracialism, with terms like WASPafarian (standing in for Rastafarian) and “Mulatto Christmas” (referencing Kwanzaa [159]). Far from being a radical project of post-racial transcendence, Mulattopia draws upon familiar strategies of ethnic and racially defined pride movements.

In the early stages of the novel, Johnson offers a skeptical treatment of Mulattopia from the perspective of Afrocentrism but later considers its merits. The “race man” Warren voices the familiar argument that mixed people are “oreos” “who hate being black, and the only reason they don’t try to be white is that white folks won’t have them” (65). His Afrocentric friend Tosha articulates a more politically pointed critique: “They’re trying to cut black America loose, so they can live in some post-racial fantasy. That shit is dangerous” (112), Tosha says, “How does them quitting blackness help the Trayvon Martins out there? How does it help the Michael Browns?” (239). Here Warren and Tosha echo Rainier Spencer’s concerns that the multiracial movement’s “principal motivation” is “moving away from blackness” (165), a move that leaves binary conceptions of race intact. As Warren spends more time at the Mélange Center as a teacher, however, he begins to defend some elements of the Mulattopia experiment. In response to Tosha’s cynicism, he retorts, “They have some valid goals. . . . Having people acknowledge all of their ethnic heritage doesn’t mean they’re abandoning social justice” (239). The ideology of Mulattopia has an increasingly powerful attraction for Warren and Tal as they try to find peace with their divided identities. The Mélange Center’s principal expresses the group’s utopian goal “to overcome the conflict of binary. To find the sacred balance. . . . that expresses all of who you are” (69). Warren comes to recognize the psychic benefits of an ideology of interracial wholeness: “it’s like the difference between the comfort of wearing shoes that fit as opposed to bearing the blisters of shoes just one size too small. . . . It does feel like a relief, an actual relief of pain” (240). He admires the Mulattopians for being “free” and “at peace with [themselves]” (28) in a way that he has never been. The Mélange Center thus resonates with scholarly definitions of utopia as a “celebration of emancipatory ways of being” (Moylan 12), a space “in which the problems which actually confront us are removed or resolved” (Levitas, Concept 191).

Although Johnson validates some of the utopian goals of Mulattopia, he also calls attention to how its obsession with “sacred balance” introduces an undermining flaw. In order for students and teachers to join the Mélange community, they are forced to take a “Balance Test” (72), with race-baiting questions like “Was O. J. Simpson guilty?” (73). The test results are then used to categorize newbies as Oreos or Sunflowers (black on the inside, yellow on the outside), and then to “realign” their racial allegiances for greater identity balance. This identity policing ironically becomes a new version of what Warren has already experienced as a liminal member of the black community. The Mélange Center thus exemplifies the flaws that often undermine utopian societies, whose faith in harmony is impossibly unrealistic given the ubiquity of human conflict, and whose pursuit of perfection can result in the oppression of imperfect others.

Johnson further exposes how the seductions of tribalism work against Mulattopia’s admirable efforts to disrupt binary racial categorizations. As a mouthpiece for Johnson, Warren asserts, “Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real” (18), and he expresses the powerful human desire to belong to a group where “you would never again feel alone,” a desire he undercuts with the self-mocking phrase, “I believe this insanity” (27). Uncovering the insanity of tribalism, Johnson shows how this supposedly pluralist society devolves into a new tribe that operates a lot like the old monoracial ones, complete with xenophobic tendencies, identity policing, and subgroups in conflict. In Johnson’s tale, the Mulattopia community splinters into subtribes practicing a form of racialized residential segregation. “Some of the biggest Oreos have parked in [Halfie Heights], possibly because it’s the end of the property closest to the whiteness of Chestnut Hill,” while the sunflowers set up camp “in a place they call Little Halfrica” (208). Even as their utopian community suffers from fracturing, they nonetheless assert a tribal identity that separates them from outsiders, grants them security, and satisfies their desire to “feel what it’s like to be in the majority” (174). Echoing the final line of Pym, Johnson once again implies that a conception of utopia as providing “majority” status depends on the oppression or expulsion of a minority, and thus perpetuates exclusion rather than being truly pluralist. Significantly, the Mélange Center relocates to a remote island in Maine, following in the footsteps of earlier mulatto communities that sought safety in separatist isolation. Here Johnson’s novel speaks to Sargisson’s point that separatist utopias risk political “impotence” because “separatism does not change the [larger] world” (Fool’s Gold? 241). Johnson recognizes the need to change the larger world, and to find more emancipatory ways of being that allow people to express their individuality while still feeling a sense of belonging. Yet he remains skeptical about the realization of such utopic hopes given the tenacity of human attraction to racial tribalism and the exclusions that seem to routinely result from such desires.

Despite all its criticism of multiracial utopia, Johnson’s Loving Day never fully abandons hope for a route out of the racial quagmire. Sargisson offers a modest definition of utopia as a narrative or project which “help[s] to change the way we think’ (Levitas and Sargisson 17), and in that more limited sense, Tal’s and Warren’s experiences with Mulattopia have certainly improved their self-conceptions for the better. Tal is no longer a “casually racist” white girl, and Warren has become a loving father to a confident biracial young woman. Loving Day ends with Warren and Tal embracing each other, sitting together on the edge of an empty hole that was the foundation of a ruined antique house Warren had inherited from his white father. Throughout the novel, the dilapidated eighteenth-century estate house operates as a Gothic symbol of the racist, colonialist legacy that oppresses Warren, an “artifact of rich white folks’ attempt at dynasty” (4). Here Johnson makes another allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, this time to his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As in Poe’s story, Warren’s inherited house has a crack down the middle, but in Johnson’s text the fissure represents the fracturing of our nation by racial dichotomies and racist hierarchies. In an important deviation from the fate that Poe devises for Roderick Usher, Johnson does not allow the house to collapse and kill Warren. After Warren attempts unsuccessfully to burn down the house of racist national history, Tal sells the decrepit building to the Mulattopians who plan to restore and relocate it to their island commune, re-inscribing it as a symbol of interracialism.

Given Johnson’s skepticism about isolationist utopias, I argue that the novel invests its hope not in the island commune, but in Warren’s and Tal’s personal efforts to heal and free themselves from limiting categories of selfhood. Abandoning his obsession with burning down the house and destroying the past, Warren is moved by his daughter to refocus on the future, to “build something, for her” (175), a new foundation for surviving as a mixed-race person in America. What that new American house might look like, however, is left for readers to imagine. The novel concludes with Warren once again sighting the interracial ghost couple that has been haunting his property for months, but now his vision of them is altered: “I see what they are, or what they were. Just lovers. Just people” (287). The last sentence of the novel thus negates race as a valid system of human classification, if not in American society then at least in Warren’s own consciousness. In “For Utopia,” Ruth Levitas concludes that perhaps “resistance and survival, rather than transformation and redemption, are the best that can be hoped for” (30) in these anti-utopian times. Mat Johnson’s Loving Day reveals how difficult it can be to transcend race and maintain a freedom uncorrupted by the human desire for tribal power. In the loving biracial family and self-acceptance forged by Warren and Tal, however, Loving Day provides readers with strategies of “resistance and survival” within the house that race has built.

Mat Johnson’s post-soul fiction participates in the tradition of racial satire that aims not only to critique white supremacy but also to expose the negative consequences of racial chauvinism of all stripes. Pym has often been reviewed as an examination of white supremacy, but reviewers and scholars have yet to address the novel’s in-group critique of black tribalism or Johnson’s anti-utopian sensibility. In Pym, his attitude toward utopian dreams can be glimpsed in one of Chris’s musings when he is suffering from physical enslavement: “we were in this moment because of the futures we imagined for ourselves. That even without the snow beasts, we were enslaved. By our greed, our lusts, our dreams . . . and delusions” (188–89). One concept to which we are often enslaved, Johnson implies, is race itself. Pym and Loving Day suggest that utopias—whether they be futuristic or nostalgic, monoracial or multiracial—are delusions that keep us from the more difficult task of reckoning with the racist realities of the present, the impossibility of purity, and the weaknesses of human nature. His anti-utopian sentiments, however, give way to a glimmer of hope at the end of Loving Day, a hope invested in attempts to free the individual self from over-determining racialization. This tonal shift suggests that Johnson recognizes the limits of his chosen genre of satire. In contrast to utopian fiction, satire is largely devoted to skewering the forces that the writer opposes, but rarely provides alternatives to the social problems it uncovers. Although Loving Day’s open ending is certainly not utopian, Johnson nonetheless affirms the value of ongoing human struggle against the constraining effects of race when it is used as an instrument of social control.

Bridgewater State University


  • Kimberly Chabot Davis, associate professor of English at Bridgewater State University, is the author of Beyond the White Negro: Empathy and Anti-Racist Reading (Illinois, 2014) and Postmodern Texts and Emotional Audiences (Purdue, 2007). She has published articles on white hip-hop artists and writers, Toni Morrison and “postmodern blackness,” and race and irony in film. Her current work focuses on contemporary African American satire and teaching racial satire.

  • 1 On Afrocentric utopias, see Wilson Jeremiah Moses, John Cullen Gruesser, and Christopher Strain; on nineteenth-century black literary utopias, see M. Giulia Fabi; on the heterotopias of Samuel R. Delany, see Robert Reid-Pharr; on the “bluetopias” of Sun Ra, see Graham Lock; on Toni Morrison’s critical treatment of black “paradises,” see Channette Romero.

  • 2 See Jason Parham and Simone Puff.

  • 3 For definitions of post-soul or post-black culture, see Trey Ellis, Bertram Ashe, and Paul C. Taylor.

  • 4 See Maus and Donahue’s essay collection, Post-Soul Satire.

  • 5 Although some critics have read Black Empire “straight” and missed its satirical intent, Gruesser offers a smart counter-reading of the work as “an anti-utopian text [that] . . . expose[s] the dangers of race chauvinism” (110).

  • 6 “Utopia in Dark Times” takes the form of an exchange of letters between Levitas and Sargisson; quoted passages are attributed in the text to the writer of the letter referenced. See also Levitas, “For Utopia,” and Sargisson, Fool’s Gold.

  • 7 Most critics view Poe’s Narrative as the product of a white supremacist worldview (see Jace Weaver, Terence Whalen, Toni Morrison, and John Carlos Rowe). In contrast, J. Gerald Kennedy reinterprets Poe’s novel as non-racist.

  • 8 Although both hell and dystopia can be seen as opposites of utopia, they are not coterminous. M. Keith Booker defines dystopia as an imperfect or oppressive imaginary society often purporting to be an ideal one, but clearly the concept of hell was never intended as utopic. Both heaven and hell are spaces beyond mortal human possibility whereas utopia and dystopia are often presented as realizable worlds. Yet other critics define dystopia as simply a worst-case scenario akin to hell, a place “considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived” (Sargent 9).

  • 9 See Rowe, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Imperial Fantasy and the American Frontier,” and Liliane Weissberg, “Black, White, and Gold.”

  • 10 See Baudrillard, “Disneyworld Company.” Johnson may also be alluding to Thomas Kinkade’s line of paintings inspired by animated Disney films.

  • 11 For definitions of Afrofuturism, see Alondra Nelson, Kodwo Eshun, Lisa Yaszek, and Ytasha L. Womack.

  • 12 Representing the utopian strain of Afrofuturism is the musician Sun Ra. Combining science fiction imagery with ancient Egyptian motifs, Sun Ra’s utopian cosmology is best exemplified in these lines from his song “Space Is the Place”: “Outer space is a pleasant place / a place that’s really free / there’s no limit to the things that you can do / there’s no limit to the things that you can be” (qtd. in Lock 28).

  • 13 Fantastic Sagas has not been published in book form, but some photos from the 2013 exhibition and a brief description were on display at robert-pruitt.

  • 14 This echoes Poe’s plot, in which the Tsalalians take over the British ship Jane Guy, but their unfamiliarity with gunpowder causes an explosion in which thousands of the natives are killed. Whereas Poe was asserting a white supremacist belief in the “primitive incapability to negotiate technology” (Johnson, Pym 32), Johnson shows how whites like Karvel are unable to control their own creation.

  • 15 For examples of this rhetoric in Afrocentric discourse, see Frances Cress Welsing and Pan-African scholar Runoko Rashidi.

  • 16 For a thorough history of the utopian elements of the multiracial movement, see Greg Carter, especially chapters 6 and 7, and Michele Elam’s The Souls of Mixed Folk; see Rainier Spencer for a view of the movement as “reactionary accommodation” (164).

  • 17 On the marketing of multiraciality, see Elam, Carter, and Robert Harrison et al.