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A Darkness Shines Through
Wednesday, June 28, 2006   By: Mahone Dunbar

A book review

Title: A Darkness Shines Through, William Harkan, 2004, Harbor Hill, Ltd.

I was recently perusing the science fiction section in a used-book store when, as often happens, a snappy cover caught my eye: A red-eyed skull was emerging from a section of space. After glancing at the blurb on the book's back cover, I realized that the skull represented the personification of death in the form of a comet. Nothing new there. Apocalyptic comets and asteroids are the meat and potatoes of science fiction. Then I read a little more of the blurb, was intrigued, and, since the price was right, took the volume home to read.

Most of us do not think of science fiction as a format for presenting controversial political and social theories. Nonetheless, the genre has often been the driving force for topical social and political viewpoints. This extends from the tepid unifying social themes of Ray Bradbury to the Libertarian politics of Robert Heinlein. Nor has science fiction shied away from strictly moral issues, such as the pros and cons of cloning or the wisdom of exporting, via colonization, earth-bound theologies and politics into space. However, perhaps because of either squeamish or politically correct publishers, most authors have skirted directly addressing the issue of race relations by drawing analogies between humans and aliens. Few have dealt with negative racial aspects of society in stark black and white. For whatever reason, the grittier aspects of racial relationships have been taboo-until author William Harkan bravely dipped his pen into the roiling waters of racial contention and put on paper what promises to be The Bell Curve of science fiction.

The premise of A Darkness Shines Through is fairly simple. A mysterious comet emerges from space and does a close fly-by of the earth. A few weeks after the comet's tail brushes the atmosphere, white people all over the planet start dying of an AIDS-like illness. The plotting is admittedly a little weak here-a plausible hypothesis as to exactly what properties in a comet's tail might affect humans with only a particular genetic heritage is never ventured-but the tale does not suffer from it. As in a Stephen King novel, the quicker the reader accepts the central premise the happier he will be. And it is the effects of the illness, not the cause, that is the central motivation for the actions of the characters. For the rest of the book deals with how non-white peoples, particular black Americans (the author uses the term instead of African-American) respond to the devastation. And it is this peek into the Black psyche that will prove alarming for some readers.

The novel is presented in an episodic format, a series of individual stories relating to a central event, with the POV changing with each story. There are two pivotal characters, however, that recur throughout, so as to allow the reader to experience character growth and get in-depth look at motivation. One is Jerareesus, titular leader of a group of self-styled black Muslims-an offshoot of an equally obscure proto-black-Muslim group called the Moorish Science Temple of America - who lives in a housing project in Tampa, Florida. Jerareesus and his fellow devotees know little of actual Islam, and are apparently drawn to this faction because of its emphasis on racial violence against whites. The fact that Jerareesus has had little actual contact with white people, and certainly no negative experience with them, does nothing to dissuade his passionate religious view point, which is, that without the existence of white people, each and every black person would magically be wealthier, smarter, and more powerful. Once out of the shadow of the white man, the black man will flourish. This is their gospel. Such a simple and inflexible attitude is easy to disdain, or dismiss as a unrealistic literary convention - until one reflects on the history of the Jews in Germany circa WWII. Scape-goating is a staple of politics and religion. As Jerareesus exclaims early on, reflecting the prevailing opinion among his peers, "The onliest thing the white man can do for me is to die and leave me all his shit!" Thus, after whites start dying in the wake of the comet's passing, Jerareesus and his crew take it as divine confirmation of all they hold dear. Their hatred, and that of others similarly situated in their culture, is energized. If God wants white devils dead, they are more than willing to help. Hence, Jerareesus has no trouble convincing his cronies that they should take up the sword against the surviving whites . . . and reap their just reward.

The author attempts to create some sympathy for Jerareesus through his relationship with his young cousin, Mof'daddi, a paraplegic who seems to be the only person Jerareesus has an honest emotional relationship with. Jerareesus dotes on his cousin, rewarding him with loot liberated from the whites. This humanizes Jerareesus and gives him a needed, but paradoxical, sympathetic side. Yet, even in this streak of compassion, the blackness (used as a metaphor for ignorance here) shines through; though Mof'daddi's accident - he was run over in the parking lot of a McDonald's by a felon fleeing the police in a stolen car - was not ostensibly the fault of the dreaded and evil "whitey," since both felon and police in the incident were black, it is still, according to the pretzel-logic of the paranoid that Jerareesus employs, somehow the fault of the white power structure. This is lite motif that recurs often in the novel: With mythology, facts are not just bothersome, but incidental; belief, and the stronger the better, is the only thing that matters, since belief makes reality come to pass. Reality is plastic in the presence of strong belief.

"White devils" must be expunged from the face of the earth; and a majority of the novel, in grim detail, concerns this process--a Hitleresque purge of the surviving whites around the planet, and the savage glee with which the slaughter is carried out. Here, author Harkan achieves chilling heights of terror by depicting violence with an almost poetic lyricism. The brutal simplicity of his narrative approaches that of Gibson recounting the fall of the Roman Empire.

The other primary black character in the novel who presents a recurring POV is Dr. Amos Pike, a research biologist at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Pike, who represents the other end of the black social-political spectrum in America and personifies the process of reason, heads a team of scientists who are laboriously working to solve a biological puzzle and save the remaining whites. Over morning coffee, Pike, speculates to a colleague, who has recounted the morning news concerning yet another massacre of whites, that perhaps it isn't a feeling of superiority over the white race that is driving the hatred, but a deep-seated feeling of inferiority. Yet, as the story progresses and we get more glimpses of Pike, his eloquent defense of racial equality starts breaking down before peer pressure and the seeming inevitability of events - or, perhaps because of something deeper. "One can not stand forever against the tide of history," a colleague suggests to him. "Maybe it's not intended that we isolate the genetic factor that is killing whites." Thus, Dr. Pike, in spite of his success in the "white" world and despite his affinity for "white" culture and his passion of "truth though the scientific process," slowly embraces the result of racial hatred, if not its rhetoric

Eventually, Pike comes to represent a negative apostle of race relations, a sort of opposite of Paul of Tarsus, whose conversion shifts him from a philosophy of acceptance of intellectual and cultural diversity to one based strictly on racial priorities. Pike's conversion is a long slow process, seen in snippets of conversion with his peers and with debates with his adversaries. By the final time we meet Pike in the narrative, he is a different being from when we first encounter him. Symbolic of this inner change, he shows up to work wearing a Kente cloth Dashiki and a matching kufi. He has purged himself of the sin of objectivity and, as an associate of his puts it, found freedom by "casting off the fetters of reason."

When the reader finally experiences the fullness of Pike's personality change, he becomes a far more repugnant character than Jerareesus; for while Jerareesus' hatred is molded by no real experience with whites, but was forged in the cauldron of the ghetto, where an anti-white mythology is part of nurturing, Dr. Pike has existed in the white community and has only been subjected to positive experiences with them.

Jerareesus also evolves, if at an infinitesimal rate, as he watches things not change for the better in his new white-less paradise: as the comet's passing recedes in time, and as white people increasingly disappear, he finds that societies' stalwart companions - hunger, poverty, corruption, crime, and disease - have not absented themselves with the dreaded white people as he expected. It confounds him to no end that in this new paradise, even the buses don't run on time.

By the end of the novel the reader is forced to ask himself: From the bowels of what beast does such racial hatred arise? Does racial animus stalk us all? Is it twined around the coils of our respective DNA strands? And when sufficient repression disappears, is it merely a process of nature for it to rise from the depths once again?

Theme: Rationalization

As one white character lies dying from knife wounds delivered by a black youth, a neighbor whose bike the white character had repaired numerous times when his attacker was younger, he exclaims, "I don't . . . blame you. Your hands . . . but the collective-Negro killed me." This apparent Jungian concept is also reiterated by Dr. Pike, who, as he marvels at society's descent into violence, explains to a colleague that the Racial-ID has taken over, as it did in Germany. He then muses, "Did a similar circumstance result in the demise of the Neanderthals? Perhaps they were in a weakened state from disease, and Cro-Magnon came in and finished them off?" He ends his soliloquy by noting that nature is both cruel and practical and " . . . she does not tolerate weakness." This is one rationalism of racial animus that the novel offers. Conscious human motivation is subservient to the deep undercurrents of the subconscious beast within.

Rationalization seems important to Harkan. "Why do good men do nothing?" Pike asks a friend. "Because thy rationalize evil," is his rhetorical answer. Another attempt to propound this point occurs in a scene where a black Baptist preacher, whose parishioners are debating whether they should intervene in their neighborhoods to protect the few remaining whites from violence, likens the comet's actions to God's will and concludes by saying, "Who are we to stay God's hand?" This point of view echoes the fundamentalist view on AIDS, which sees in the demise of one's ideological and cultural enemies not a random process of nature, but the will of God. But then someone in the congregation murmurs something about sickle cell anemia - and the point is well taken. Why is it that when nature devastates one's social, political, religious or racial antithesis, it is God's vengeance; but when the scythe sweeps on our direction, it is only a blind process of nature? Does it or does it not rain on the just and the unjust alike? A bit too much moralizing, perhaps, but in context, it proves effective. Thankfully, author Harkan has a Dean Koontzish ability with similes and metaphors that keeps the reader delightfully engaged with the language, in spite of the continuing violence and no matter how far-fetched the plot - or how heavy-handed the moralizing is at times.

In the final analysis, the reader has to consider the questions: is this an accurate portrayal of a subtext in racial relations in America? Is it an accurate expression of a wish fulfillment fantasy on the part of some Black Americans? Or is it merely fictional excess?

Addendum: A Word About The Author

After reading the book I was curious to see if it impacted others as it had me and did a web search on both title and author. I found a couple of other reviews, (one from a college newspaper, the other from a web site devoted to reviews of "fringe literature"), both negative, which basically accused the author of pandering to a racist element by trying to frame black consciousness in America as anti-white. Whatever literary merit the author possessed was overwhelmed, according to the critics, by an unrealistic and unsupported view of Black American society that was due, not doubt, to his lack of racial fraternization. It was all but suggested that this was not to be considered a work of speculative fiction, but propaganda from a paranoid hate-monger. Perhaps this is why the work was not published by a main-stream publisher (Harbor Hill, Ltd., turned out to be a division of Hillsborough University Press that handles fiction), and why copies are so hard to find.

Now, more curious about the author than ever, I engaged in a bit of deeper research, not sure what I expected to find. Eventually, by connecting some threads and making a couple of phone calls, I found out that William Harkan is the pseudonym of one Jonathan H. Wilson, a tenured professor of literature at Hillsborough University. Prior to this venture, Professor Wilson's publishing history consisted of several academic papers on literary deconstruction and a two-volume work of epic poetry. I also turned up a short story entitled "The last White Man," which was published in a web-zine, in 1990. The story's author is listed as J. H. Wilson.

Professor Wilson, a search of the archives of Hillsborough University quickly verified for me, is a Black American. I'm not sure how this knowledge would affect the comforting assumptions about race that the other critics of the book made. Does the simple fact of the author's race and position in society modify how one takes the novel's themes? Is the credibility of the character's views modified? Only the reader can decide. One can legitimately ask, Which character's voice accurately represents that of the author? Is this a wish fulfillment tome? Or a not-so-subtle indictment of all of our assumptions about racism? Finally, things began to make a little sense to me. A white man in America could never get a publisher to print and distribute a novel reflecting negative and racist characters who are black, nor be allowed the intellectual luxury of indulging in the ultimate egalitarian assumption, which is that as all races of humanity can be said to be capable of the highest aspirations and ideals, so too does each harbor bestial racial archetypes which lurk within, just waiting for the right alignment of stars to be released upon the world once again.


(c)1968- today j.e. simmons or michael warren