HARRY SYLVESTER BIRD, by Chinelo Okparanta
The eponymous protagonist of Chinelo Okparanta’s second novel is racist. And the author wants her reader to find him spectacularly, fascinatingly racist, offering up 300 pages of painstaking detail on every microaggression he commits in the first decades of his life.
In the novel’s first half, we’re given sketches of Harry’s young, rich, white boyhood in Edward, Pa., a town where “elephant stickers, posters and bumper stickers decorated front yards.” Though the reader knows better, the young narrator is marvelously secure in his superiority as a bona fide antiracist, and marvelously disdainful of his bona fide racist parents. We open in December 2016 on the Birds’ family vacation to a Tanzanian resort, and are treated with plenty of fodder for liberals like Harry to hiss and boo over. His father, Wayne, says of a Black hotel employee’s dark complexion: “If that isn’t ugliness, I don’t know what is.” Chevy, his mother, is shocked that an African bathroom has “a real flushing toilet and running water.”
By the second half, it’s 2021 and Harry, driven by disgust at such displays, has fled to New York. There he seeks to live a life untainted by the clumsy anti-Blackness that is his heritage. Of course, he fails. “Harry Sylvester Bird” fashions itself as an anthropological study of a contemporary white liberalism far less invested in the eradication of evil than in the ridiculous self-flagellations of the ruling classes. But it flattens its subjects, stripping them of both familiarity and farcicality. The result is a profound hollowness of character and form that destroys the novelist’s worthy ambition.
The novel’s racists — including both classic bigots, like Harry’s parents, and white liberals, like Harry — lack the nuance of real anti-blackness. Every white person in “Harry Sylvester Bird” sounds and acts the way Twitter threads and Instagram infographics tell me white people sound and act. In fact, every Black person sounds like the strained, tsk-ing narrators of such “online activism.” Both anti-Blackness and antiracism — and human beings — are far trickier than the pat instruction manuals guiding mainstream race discourse can allow. But in “Harry Sylvester Bird,” that trickiness feels unduly smoothed and streamlined. The richness of human behavior, especially at its worst, is lost.
Of course, refined realism is not the only route to aesthetic success; there’s always satire. But “Harry Sylvester Bird” also lacks the thrilling surrealism that animates successful racial caricature. The bumbling idiocies of these characters are, for the most part, devoid of any sense of absurdity. They’re presented as obviously immoral, obviously silly, obviously true; but satire works by making the familiar unfamiliar, the obvious unbelievable.
Harry himself, as the sole, obviously flawed narrative voice, deserves some of the blame for these failures. He sneeringly despairs of the lineage of prejudice he’s been dealt while also uttering eye-rolling inanities like, “Racism won’t have a hold on you after you’ve made 1,000 correct choices in a row. One thousand antiracist choices and, surely, something was bound to change.” As the novel progresses, these harmless sentiments turn more sinister.
One fundamental step in this progression — a twist that emerges at the novel’s center — makes clear that Okparanta is the opposite of a shallow writer. This narrative beat, injecting a genuinely satirical, even anarchic energy into the book, is full proof of the author’s wit and sheer bravery. Somewhere within “Harry Sylvester Bird” is a more bracing book that disorganizes the world, rather than congealing it into trite ideological narratives. This alternate book struggles for air underneath the one we’ve got, and occasionally manages to surface.
For example, upon returning to Africa (Ghana this time) in 2025, Harry coos over a group of local children: “Such cute little monkeys!” His Black girlfriend offers a reaction of shock and disgust, but says nothing more than “Oh God,” and storms away; she never articulates her perception of Bird’s racism for him or for the reader.
Okparanta could have turned this moment into an opportunity for a sharp look at the blindness of our protagonist, and a more subtle unfurling of Bird’s whiteness. Instead, Bird simply proceeds to mumble, drone-like, the standard antiracist talking points, speaking from some unacknowledged future perspective. “Something tells me that she must have thought of me, understood me, at the very best, as a man who was nothing but a parasite on her selfhood,” he thinks. “And at the worst, well… I was the very stereotype of whiteness, a man who saw her and people like her as less human than himself.”
Not only is this declaration reminiscent of the moronic castigations rehearsed in corporate antiracist training, it also doesn’t make any sense. Why would Bird say this? To whom is he saying it? Where does this insight come from? And if the point here is to laugh at Bird’s ludicrousness, then why is the obliviousness that is its very source immediately ripped away?
“Harry Sylvester Bird” finds itself caught up in an ominous trend: its satirical indictments of white liberalism reading as only so much rote gymnastics, mandated by the rules of antiracist art rather than inspired by any internal momentum from within the story itself. It seems as though the more ubiquitous such art becomes, the more toothless it grows. This reveals less about the cowardice of the modern artist than about the race politics that dominate the smarmy, self-assured world of modern liberalism.
This is the world Okparanta wants to tear open. But in its ultimate complacency, the novel reveals the stickiness of that egoistic “antiracism,” the way it sneakily persists in structuring, and limiting, our art and our politics. Resigned to its own self-reflexivity, “Harry Sylvester Bird” won’t let itself say much worth saying.
HARRY SYLVESTER BIRD, by Chinelo Okparanta | 310 pp. | Mariner | $27.99
Nicholas Whittaker is a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY. Their work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift and The Point.