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Let's Play White Paperback – April 26, 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
The stories here are split about 50/50 between previously published ones (dating back to 2004) and new entries (2011), and the latter show a huge increase in confidence and style. The stories are not presented chronologically, which makes reading the collection a very uneven one, but it's worth it to push through to the end. At her worst, Burke's prose is chunky and unconvincing, but when it works it has an appealing folksiness that immerses the reader in the world-weary, worked-past-exhaustion viewpoints of her characters.
<b>Walter and the Three-Legged King (2011)</b>
Walter, a down-on-his-luck black laborer, is about to be evicted from his apartment when he starts having conversations with a rat who has also taken up residence there. The recession is over, he keeps hearing, but that doesn't seem to have given him any more options for work - his white landlord, meanwhile, lives off of family money and suffers from agoraphobia - "one could afford to have a paralyzing fear if one had options in life." King, the rat (a by-product of the squalid environment Walter finds himself in), suggests that the solution to Walter's problems just might be "playing white" and he uses this advice to transition from non-existant factory work to the service economy. A smart, important story.
A quick conte cruel about a down-on-her-luck black woman riding the NYC subway and her descent into paranoia. Introduces the theme of black women's sexuality, which runs throughout many of the stories here, but also prose-wise a weak point of Burke's, who has a strange way of framing illicit subjects like sex and drugs, as in "She never thought that maybe, just maybe, he wanted to steal the priceless valuables that she kept safely hidden under her skirt and between her ebony legs. The one thing her husband had always called his 'special place.'"
<b>I Make People Do Bad Things (2011)</b>
Historical fiction slightly weirded - <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_St._Clair">Stephanie "Queenie" Saint-Clair</a>, a numbers-running gangster/Robin Hood-ish figure in Prohibition-era Harlem, was a real person, as was her associate <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bumpy_Johnson">Bumpy Johnson</a> and her rival <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Schultz">Dutch Schultz</a>, but here she's also paired up with the daughter of a prostitute who has the supernatural ability to make people kill themselves. Another story of Black Americans with few options in hopeless, miserable places, but this one kind of runs out of steam and falters into a rushed ending.
<b>The Unremembered (2010)</b>
A severely autistic girl is in the hospital because of increasingly-frequent seizures and self-inflicted(?) wounds, accompanied only by her distraught and harried mother. She serves as a metaphor for the black diaspora in the US - her grandmother had carried on the tradition of the griots, but her mother had turned her back on it (possibly in favor of a rather predatory Christianity). A series of dreams of Africa awakens her to reality.
<b>Chocolate Park (2004)</b>
A Rashomon-style mosaic story set in the projects, focusing on three orphaned sisters and a black magic woman navigating an environment of crime and prostitution and abject poverty. The low point of the collection - like I said, Burke has an odd way of talking about sex and "the drugs," which gives this story a deficit from which it never manages to recover.
<b>What She Saw When They Flew Away (2011)</b>
A mother mourns the loss of one of her twin daughters (who loved to run) while setting free their pet birds. The only strictly mimetic/realist piece here.
<b>He Who Takes Away the Pain (2004)</b>
A short, odd allegory about a misogynistic cult on a small island off the coast of Africa whose members focus on the titular deity(?) and resist the ministrations of a mysterious nurse even as they all die of smallpox. Like "The Unremembered," the suggestion seems to be that African American faith in Christianity is misplaced.
<b>CUE: Change (2011)</b>
In which Burke actually makes a zombie apocalypse interesting by presenting it through the eyes of characters whose lives already took place in a racist hellscape. I've avoided mentioning Butler so far because I think that's a lazy shortcut for people talking about black women writing in genre, but her work gets explicitly mentioned in this one, so... there you go. The apocalypse, it seems, started in the inner cities, wherein the zombies were initially somewhat camouflaged because of the outside (white) world's lack of attention. There's a twist that's thematically opposed to "Walter and the Three-Legged King," and while this was a great story (and kind of the heart of the collection), I think there's a tension resulting from it trying to be two different stories at once that never really gets resolved.
<b>The Room Where Ben Disappeared (2004)</b>
A white man returns to the town of his childhood, where his haunted house leads him to reexamine some repressed memories about race in the Jim Crow South. More Jackson/Aickmanish than the others.
<b>The Light of Cree (2006)</b>
A girl gets her first period and also the ability to see and guide dead people. This is like an unfinished rough draft of the next story.
<b>The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason (2011)</b>
The distillation of all the other stories into one novella; by far the best (and longest) work here, and manages to grapple convincingly with racism, misogyny, colorism, sisterhood, communitarianism, generational divides, untrustworthy churches, and agency and passivity, even while shephering along a well-paced and interesting plotline. A witch plies her trade in Colored Town, KY some time in the early 20th century, and finds a set of young twins who need her guidance in harnessing their powers (especially to see and guide dead people). Also, a creepy haunted house!
Several of her stories are non-genre stories with an eerie twist. "Walter and the Three-Legged King" is a social-economic story that happens to feature a talking rat in a key role. "I Make People Do Bad Things" is a gangland-style tale of whore houses and numbers games, and a little girl's eerie powers are the most powerful weapon. "Chocolate Park" is a story of drugs, prostitution, and revenge that's enacted by hoodoo.
Violence is very present in all of Burke's stories here -- even very depraved violence -- but the violence is not particularly graphic. She doesn't linger over the depravity, but she doesn't shy from it. I wouldn't recommend reading all the stories in one sitting, as I did: the violence loses its effectiveness from repetition.
Burke's stories at times make use of African (and African-American) folklore, and her characters are usually black, but the plots don't turn on race. Because the book was framed with quotes from Dunbar and DuBois, I thought that race was going to play a larger role. Even the title, "Let's Play White," announces some kind of racial opposition or masquerade that I just didn't feel was terribly present in the stories. I don't see this as a positive or negative; there is room for literature that confronts racial issues, and there is room for literature that has black folklore and black characters without becoming all about race. I feel that Burke's collection belongs to the latter.
A few of her stories fall short for me. "CUE: Change," a lighter zombie story, feels out-of-place. "The Room Where Ben Disappeared" feels like a Victorian ghost story, but without weight. "The Light of Cree" is too short to make much of an impact. And "Purse" (also very short) feels like a bad student writing exercise. That's four of the eleven stories, but the bulk of the page count is in the remaining seven, which I think are more successful.
Burke is at her best when she gives herself time to develop full characters. "Walter and the Three-Legged King" does this quickly and economically; "I Make People Do Bad Things" and "The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason" are longer. This last story is the standout of the collection -- it visits all her recurring themes (children with eerie powers, powerful women, dead babies, and violence), but does so against a backdrop of real character progression and a well-realized setting.