Remember eighth grade? I don’t. Being 13 was embarrassing, and I’ve mostly blocked out my memories of that year. Until this week, when my eighth grade teacher—the only person to ever give me a C-plus in English—made headlines for insisting on staying in the Georgia Senate race. Matt Lieberman, son of former senator and notorious spoiler Joe Lieberman, is siphoning just enough support from Rev. Raphael Warnock, a progressive Black pastor, to boost the campaign of Republican incumbent and COVID-19 stock dumper Kelly Loeffler. Lieberman has withstood pleas from dozens of other Democratic politicians, multiple Jewish groups, and even Barack Obama, asking him to leave the race. He recently attacked celebrated voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams for “candidate suppression.”
Also, did I mention he is the only person to ever give me a C-plus in English?
Look, I’m not the kind of person who dwells on bad grades. I got C’s in math all the time. I cut class and lied to teachers and frequently considered homework optional. But English was my thing. As it happens, I am now a professional writer and editor. This is in no way thanks to him! He was the kind of English teacher who nitpicked about rules and sucked the joy out of reading and interpreting literature. He would dock you for every spelling or grammar error made in a paper—so if you could make a solid argument that the pig in Lord of the Flies was a metaphor for lost civilization but spelled civilization wrong throughout the paper, you’d get a D. He almost ruined books for me. Now, apparently, he’s moved on to trying to ruin democracy.
Now that he’s running for Senate in a close election with enormous implications, it’s come to light that Lieberman also wrote and self-published a novel. And my colleagues are pressuring me to take my revenge by grading the book. Is this petty? Sure. Let’s begin.
The book, Lucius, is a portrait of the narrator’s fraught friendship with an elderly white man who has an imaginary slave. According to HuffPost, it “regularly deploys the N-word.” I am not going to read this entire book, which was so offensive that it prompted the Georgia NAACP to demand he end his campaign. But I did read the first few pages available for free on Amazon, and they are bad.
The book starts with “Tree Weissman,” a thinly disguised Lieberman, musing about his mortality and studying an interracial couple on a plane—a pudgy white Jewish guy and a “brown-skinned” girl who’s “pretty in a mild way.” (I’m just going to go ahead and dock a grade point for cliché stereotyping right off the bat.) After dwelling on her appearance and speculating that she might just be with the white guy because he has money, he reflects on how she is watching Gone With the Wind on the plane, a film he’s quick to say he definitely did not like. There is a very dull baseball interlude where he recounts the “bygone day” of his youth. He then takes you, “dear reader” (docking another grade point for that one), to meet Benno Johnson, a 90-year-old white man in a nursing home where Weissman volunteers. Benno tells Weissman stories of his lifelong slave, Lucius, who is quickly revealed to be a figment of Benno’s imagination. Benno recounts things Lucius would say in a heavy, stereotypical dialect (“How is you up there, Mistuh Moon?”). Benno, meanwhile, gets a sensitive character study. He’s depicted as a friend, as complex as he may be.
The book is allegedly a meditation on “what it means to be Black, White; free, slave; and innocent, guilty or complicit in today’s America.” Lieberman has told the press that this book was his response to the violence in Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally. The narrative is infused with an inexplicable certainty that this is Lieberman’s story to tell (Lieberman being a white man from the North). Again and again, the protagonist takes the position of an outsider just struggling to understand racism in the South, rather than recognizing any complicity in white supremacy. “I have a story to tell, an unlikely story,” he writes. “It’s a story of love, and it’s a story of hope. One of the people is Black; the other, White.”
Of course, the Black person in this equation is not given agency, nor does he even amount to a fully fleshed-out character. The Black person is not, in fact, a person in this book. He is only sketched out through an old white character talking to another old white protagonist. There are no major Black characters besides Lucius. And Lucius is, as the NAACP’s James Woodall explained, a literal “Magical Negro,” the trope that refers to a Black character who shows up to illuminate something about a white character or help them along their journey. “If this is his imagination, if this is how he constructs a world, where he’s a white savior and he needs a magical Negro to help save him, I would urge him to reconsider his place in this world,” Woodall told HuffPost.
I mean, just look at this:
… my boy Lucius, he himself in some pertinent measure lived through each of those stages of evolution. From small amoeba-like critter to bigger critter to tadpole, frog, fish, and whatever else all the way on up to Negro human. You know, sprung legs somewhere along the way, went upright—the whole thing. And not only that—and, really, because of that—the Negro is connected in like a soul way to all those critters and all those animals he’s passed on through. And, he retained the ability to communicate with them, all of them seems like. So that’s what I’m meaning when I say he had connections in the swamp. He knew them. Not like I know you, but like we know other people we see. You understand? Like we know we share the same basic wiring and we can communicate somehow. That’s how it was. He shared wiring with all these creatures at some level and could communicate with them. Talk to them, really. And they’d understand and he’d understand, too.
“And this is the common understanding of Blacks?” I doubtfully asked.
I spot at least three racist tropes on that one page and accordingly will dock three grade points. We were already down two. I haven’t even addressed the prolific use of the N-word. Final grade: F. Clearly dropout material (we can all hope).
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