Stereotypes are tricky things. When artists play with stereotypes, it is often difficult to tell if the stereotypes are being subverted or simply affirmed; one might set out to do one and end up doing the other. In James Hannaham’s sophomore novel, Delicious Foods, we are met with plenty of stereotypes that have been layered upon black Americans.
We have the absent father, the drug-addicted bad mother or prostitute, the abandoned child, the broken family, the alcoholic, the homeless man, and the slaves content in their slavery, gullible and duped. But in Hannaham’s hands, these tropes become not simple stereotype but political statement. Through frighteningly sharp characterization and analysis, Hannaham shows how white supremacy engendered the racial violence that brought black Americans into these situations. His chosen setting is a modern-day depiction of slavery on a forced-labor farm called Delicious Foods.
Our hero is 11-year-old Eddie, whose mother, Darlene, is desperate for money to feed both her son and her burgeoning drug addiction. Gullible enough to believe that a job offer is genuine and not a trap, Eddie’s mother is kidnapped by the overseers of Delicious Foods. Alone and missing his mother, Eddie becomes fed up with the inability of the police to take him seriously. He wanders the streets at night, questioning the night people about his mother’s whereabouts.
It takes months for Eddie to find a clue: A drunk homeless man remembers Darlene’s abduction and takes Eddie to the spot where she was kidnapped, and Eddie is snapped up by the Delicious Foods overseers, too. Eddie is not afraid; reunited with his mother, the boy is at peace.
Eddie and his mother are held captive at Delicious Foods for six years. But as Eddie grows into manhood, the overseers’ physical and sexual violence intensifies. Luckily, the return of the only successful escapee allows Eddie and his mother a chance to finally flee the farm. At this point, however, Eddie has been strung up and hanged by his chained hands as punishment. The solution? His hands are cut off, and Eddie manages to escape. Darlene, however, remains trapped.
With blood dripping from his recent wounds onto his wrists, Eddie manages to steer a car with his forearms. He is driving to St. Paul, Minn., on a quest to find his Aunt Bethella, the only family he has left. Although Aunt Bethella does not agree with Eddie’s desire to someday go back and rescue his mother, now kept docilely addicted to crack cocaine by the owners of Delicious Foods, Bethella still takes Eddie in and takes him to see a doctor.
Properly stitched up and dosed with antibiotics, Eddie gets a job as a handyman, then fashions a hook device for himself to replace his missing hands. Eddie could feel sorry for himself, but he does not. He is selfless, hardworking and plucky and loves his mother—all characteristics designed to have you rooting for him to succeed.
The same can be said for the author’s style. In lesser hands, Delicious Foods could easily have been a dark and dreary saga of misery and pain. Instead, Hannaham gleefully rides the lightness. There is no dwelling in sorry here—only movement to find a way forward to something better. No matter how bad things get, you are breathing, you are alive. Therein lies the joy.
Eddie gains a fan club of neighbors fascinated “by the fact that a physically disabled man could make a profession of such precise work, by the added hardship brought on by his color, and eventually by the minute detail he could accomplish using only the curved wooden hooks of his prosthetic hands.” Eddie’s business thrives: He falls in love, marries and has a son, but he still wakes up in the middle of the night haunted by what happened at Delicious Foods. Working tirelessly with the media and a crack legal team, Eddie manages to expose the ongoing horrors of the Delicious Foods farm, and Darlene and the rest of the forced laborers gain their freedom at last.
In Delicious Foods we have an ambitious, suspenseful novel articulating the legacy of racial violence and ongoing institutional racism upon the black community: the murdered black men, the assaulted black women and the thrown-away child who has slipped through the cracks unnoticed. In the months when Eddie is searching for his mother after she is kidnapped before he, too, is kidnapped, he understands:
The realization that nobody cared was both liberating and frightening—he saw that without even raising an eyebrow, he could fail that class and other classes, drop out of school, and graduate to hanging out and drinking Dixie beer while sitting on milk crates and playing dominoes in front of boarded up houses. He could disappear or die and it would take weeks or years for anybody to realize what had happened.
We see, in the Delicious Foods labor camp, an institution of modern-day slavery—the empty promises of freedom that combined with uncompensated labor and an overpriced company store to create a rigged game, leaving the workers owing money to the owners. We see the exploitation of black bodies and the lack of any medical care or social services to provide healing for moving forward from trauma. We see the devaluation of black lives and the miscarriage of justice. But we see, most of all, that black lives matter.
Editor’s note: Delicious Foods is due to be released March 17 but can be preordered now.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.