Atlanta entrepreneur Matt Lieberman had several things going for him when he became one of the first Democrats to announce his candidacy in the November special election to replace Senator Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons. He had an early start, some name ID thanks to his father’s fame, and a good fundraising base. But he had a largely unknown skeleton in his closet that probably should have kept him from making a Senate bid in a racially polarized state where he would depend heavily on Black voters: a novel he penned and self-published in 2018 that has now led the head of Georgia’s NAACP to call on him to withdraw from the contest, as reported by HuffPost:
A Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia wrote and self-published a deeply bizarre novel in 2018, featuring a main character who believes that for most of his life he owned an imaginary slave who could communicate with plants and animals …
The main character, an elderly white southern man named Benno, regularly deploys the N-word and says some members of the Ku Klux Klan were “basically good people.” The 213-page novel, in which the racist main character tells the story of his life to a narrator with a biography similar to Lieberman’s, ultimately suggests Lucius functioned as a sort of pet for Benno.
More problematically, the semi-autobiographical narrator exhibits a lot of sympathy for the old bigot, according to HuffPost.
“I know my approach to this delicate subject is not palatable for every reader,” Lieberman wrote in a statement. “I expected some readers to react with disgust.”
On that front, Lieberman was right. James Woodall, the president of the state NAACP chapter, told HuffPost in a phone interview the book contained “racist tropes.” He said Lieberman should drop out of the Senate race …
I haven’t read the novel and cannot personally make a judgment about it, but it certainly sounds like Lieberman deliberately leapt into troubled waters and swam a few unnecessary laps:
Benno characterizes Lucius not only as cheerful and obedient, “like my pup” and a “damned good slave,” but as having a supernatural ability to communicate with animals and insects, and to give Benno the power of comprehension by holding his hand. In fact, Benno claims, Lucius believes that Black people evolved along with the rest of the animal kingdom and sit at the top of the food chain, and white people evolved separately. Because they evolved along with the rest of the animals, he explains, “the Negro is connected in like a soul way to all those critters and all those animals he’s passed on through.”
Depicting Black people as having a closer connection to the animal kingdom and as having mystical powers they can impart to white protagonists is a textbook example of the magical Negro trope, in which Black characters are portrayed as vessels for wisdom or supernatural powers that can provide enlightenment or aid to white protagonists.
It most definitely sounds like Lieberman would have to spend a goodly portion of the short period left before November’s special election explaining himself:
Lucius’ own words, as performed by Benno, are written in a broad, stereotypical dialect. In one scene, Benno describes him making conversation with the moon: “‘How is you up there, Mistuh Moon?’ … And then maybe he’d say something like ‘What did da sun say to da moon? No … that’s not right, Mistuh Moon. Mistuh Sun said “wake up!” to da moon.’ And then he’d quietly laugh again. ‘Gotcha, Mistuh Moon. I gotcha on dat one.’”
Lord have mercy.
If he stays in the race, Lieberman will struggle against consensus party favorite Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, whose understanding of race relations in Georgia is a bit more personal and a lot less difficult to explain. In the current trajectory of the contest, one Democrat will likely face one Republican (either appointed senator Kelly Loeffler or Representative Doug Collins, engaged in a vicious contest to outflank each other to the Trumpian right) in a January 2021 runoff. Lieberman has a lot of explaining to do, or a campaign to fold.