“Control Negro,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“Control Negro,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.
Short story. Published in Guernica, July 2017.

This story was recommended for discussion by @Cecily_Kane:

It’s an intriguing story, an excellent recommendation, and there’s certainly plenty in it to discuss!

5 thoughts on ““Control Negro,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson”

  1. There’s a class of speculative fiction story that works by taking a metaphor or an emotion, and making it literal, solid.

    I read “Control Negro” as doing precisely that: literalizing the idea that black people are constantly demanded to prove their worth, to prove their innocence, to prove their harmlessness — with the implication that there’s some level of “proof” and “certainty” at which they will no longer suffer racism, harassment and violence. Essentially, the feeling that the onus is on black people, on all black people, to conclusively convince white people (and society at large) that coexistence is even possible.

    I find it a compelling concept. I can see why Cecily describes this as maybe “SF-adjacent.” The “make the metaphorical literal” is very much a tool in the SF toolbox, just like Buffy and her friends fighting physical manifestations of high-school anxieties. So even when this story doesn’t have a fantastical concept, beyond the scope and eccentricity the narrator’s experiment, it definitely feels speculative to me — it uses the tools of speculation.

    1. Ziv, this is well-said, especially in distinguishing the tools of speculative fiction from “SF” as a genre/category.

      Something I’ve been thinking about in light of your comments is how this story transforms a trope of “literary fiction” — a professor having an affair with a student. It’s this narrative’s backstory rather than subject; perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice it until now. (Though I suspect it’s because this trope is usually employed in stories which examine white navels, while “Control Negro” is maybe the best thing I’ve read this year.) While this premise is not outlandish, I can’t help but see it as a deliberate choice, in a story that demands so much distance between narrator and main character, parent and child, set in a country in which white supremacy systematically and intentionally severs bonds between black families. So, while my interpretation is likely flawed, I’m reading it as perhaps making the literal metaphorical as well? Or something?

  2. I really like the portrayal of the narrator shaping his son, conducting his experiment. It’s a very calculated, hyperaware effort at assimilation, at blending in, at being non-provocative, that really spoke to me.

    I’m not black; I’m Jewish, in a time and a place where I enjoy practically every privilege in the book. But it isn’t very far from where, or long since when, Jews are/were considered dangerous, malevolent, abhorrent. I identify with a heck of a lot of this sense of assimilating as much as humanly possibly, because that’s the safest thing to do — and yet knowing that however much you assimilate, you’re not very safe at all.

    Obviously, the shape and nuances of antisemitism are very different than those of racism suffered by black people, and “Control Negro” is deeply rooted in the specific, current shape of black experience in America. But I think it’s easy to connect other experiences of minority and other-ness into a strong portrayal like this one.

    1. *nods*

      What really stuck out to me was the extent to which the narrator micromanaged his son’s extracurriculars and academic life across a cavernous emotional distance. Shows starkly how flawed the “individualist” model is — no matter how many individual variables a person controls for, the system of white supremacy can still meet them with violence.

  3. Structurally, a story focusing on a fictional experiment can be on shaky ground. The outcome is ostensibly a point of tension and suspense, but the ultimate result will be “whatever the author chooses.”

    This could be seen as even more of an issue when the “experiment” is a social one, rather than experimenting with imaginary science or in a fictional setting. There is, after all, no shortage of people who would disagree vehemently that this “experiment” is how things would turn out in real life.

    I think, though, that this story isn’t for those people. It’s not trying to persuade. If you’re not already sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, if you aren’t aware of the dangers of living in a country full of people biased against you in ways large and small, you’re not going to go, “Oh wow, but in this story Professor Adams conducted an imaginary experiment and it turned out racism is real”.

    The story works based on the assumption that the experiment has a forgone conclusion. That you know precisely how this is going to turn out, because you don’t need an experiment to know this. That’s precisely the point — that even the idea of needing an experiment for this is warped and tragic. And, perhaps in the conclusion, that acknowledging this is the first step to being able to struggle against it.

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