During finals week, right before the semester was over, I was given the opportunity to talk to Percival Everett about his new book, The Book of Training by Colonel Hap Thompson of Roanoke, VA, 1843: Annotated, From the Library of John C. Calhoun. As evident from the title, this book is a mock manual for breaking slaves and is written from the point of view of Colonel Hap Thompson, a slave-breaker. Reading the text, I was amazed by how well Everett could capture the removed, clinical precision of slave-breaking. I kept wondering about the massive act of empathy it would take for a black author to conjure this voice so soundly.
As a black writer myself, the language of the oppressor always feels so sour in my mouth, and I wondered if this was the same for Everett. I was curious: why this book, and why now? I wanted to tap into Everett’s headspace and get a glimpse into the brain of the man who not only gave us this text but also Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and so many more powerful and complicated books.
The Rumpus: Word around town is that you’re an accomplished rancher and you have the most well-trained dog in documented history. Is that personal experience with breaking and training animals something you tapped into and utilized in order to limn Colonel Hap Thompson’s dehumanizing, to say the least, occupation?
Percival Everett: Well, I’ve read many manuals for training horses, and I’m pretty sure that was where the idea came from.
Rumpus: That’s exactly what I thought about when I read this manuscript. Honestly, there’ve been stories in the department about how when your dog is on campus, it follows your every command and doesn’t go anywhere. People say it’s just perfect, does whatever you say. I thought about this image of your dog as I read the poem on page forty-two, where Thompson describes making the slave walk “quietly in circles at the end of a leash.”
Rumpus: Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s all right there. Reading this book, I found myself returning to your quote on the back of it, “Slave masters were people, too. From recent texts and films, we have learned that slavery was a bad thing. Colonel Hap Thompson was simply a man about his business. His business was training other people.”
This made me think of James Baldwin’s quote, “I am aware that no man is a villain in his own eyes.” What was the psychological journey of being able to write this character, in particular, from your subjective experience, and to inhabit a mind that dehumanizes on this level?
Everett: It was such an abstract exercise. I mean, I think we’re all pretty aware that in order to use people in that way you have to dehumanize them. I don’t think it’s much of an imaginative leap in order to figure out how to do it. The leap comes from actually doing it.
Because then it’s not only the humanity of the victim that’s being taken away. You have to deal with your own humanity being taken away.
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s exactly what Frederick Douglass talks about the whole time, right? I feel as though this text is kind of an act of empathy. And, considering our current political situation, how divided we are and how many of our old wounds have been scratched open, I was wondering why this book, and why now?
Everett: Well, a couple of reasons. I mean, I had white friends coming up to me and saying that they felt like their life was over because Trump was elected, and I said, “Well, that’s cause you’re white. The shit’s never hit the fan for you before.” So, part of it was thinking about how the shit has always been in the fan for us as blacks, and part of it was all these slave narratives being portrayed in pop culture and literature. 12 Years a Slave, give me a break! I am not interested in 12 Years a Slave. I’m interested in one hundred and eighty-five years a slave! And also, the film’s depiction of the idyllic north is fantasy. Really though, the huge thing is the film’s dehumanization of the slave. This character they created, this black northerner—why anyone would travel that far to get a black man, anyway? Seems kind of expensive.
Rumpus: Yeah, you could get brothers anywhere back then.
Everett: Of course! But then he arrives—this is all about language—and he is able to communicate with these newly acquired slaves. He shouldn’t be able to talk to them.
Rumpus: Yeah, he wouldn’t just naturally know their tongues.
Everett: Not only that, but because he can talk to them, this film erases how oppressed people learned to communicate in ways the oppressor couldn’t understand. That is an important function of their intelligence, and this movie strips them of that grace and acumen. So this whole project comes out of my watching this movie, and reading other novels about slavery. Ah, slavery novels! Yeah, slavery was bad. I get it! Who doesn’t get it?!
Rumpus: It totally seems like this is all fetishized in the American imagination.
Everett: It really is. Like, am I supposed to say at the end of one of these works, “Oh yeah, slavery is bad?” Duh.
I don’t get it. So, I kept saying to myself I was gonna write a novel entitled Percival Everett’s Long Overdue Slavery Novel, but this is what came out.
Rumpus: What do you want from your readers? What do you want your readers to think?
Everett: I’m not thinking about my reader! If the reader wants to get something out of the book, that’s fantastic. But, looking to a writer to understand the world, thinking I have a message—I mean, I write for a living. That’s evidence that I’m mentally deficient. So, don’t listen to me. You go find art. You consume it, and you create a picture of the world to help you understand it. It’s not about me as an artist telling anybody anything. It’s just up to me to make the world, to create the world and place as accurately as I can.
Rumpus: So, the most important thing for you was to limn a character and space that was authentic to the time?
Everett: Who the fuck knows what I was thinking? I have no idea. I mean, I made the book, and if all of this is part of the discussion that somebody wants to have about it, if somebody thinks, why did this crazy person write this thing, then that’s fine with me. That’s all part of the world of meaning that gets created when you write and publish something. I’ve already accepted all of this when I chose to become a writer.
Rumpus: Yeah, you don’t worry about that stuff. You let the critics handle that, let them throw some Reception Theory at it. Did you perform a lot of research for this book? Were you knee-deep in the Calhoun archives?
Everett: No, not at all. I didn’t need to do that to be an asshole!
Rumpus: That’s so real. Being a former athlete and a sports connoisseur, I was especially struck by the theme of athleticism in this text. Whenever I watch the NFL Combine, I feel a little uncomfortable and think of the slave auction block. Of course, these dudes will potentially get paid, but the whole scene still reeks of slavery to me. Did any this come to your mind when you were drafting this book, how the physicality of blacks has almost always been on display for the entertainment of white folks?
Everett: You hit it right on the head: that’s entertainment. That’s how it’s always been in entertainment. The college level of all this is what I’m more concerned about. At the pro level, somebody is choosing to sell themselves to do this for pretty handsome compensation.
Now if you’re concerned about who you’re entertaining, then there might be a problem. Simply said, all professional sports are businesses, and slavery was also a business. So, it’s easy to make the connections. Slavery was a very successful business model, so of course it would be the model for any business that hires people and exploits labor for profit. Pretty much, the employees are just well-compensated slaves in any business. Players can walk away anytime they’d like.
Rumpus: We can walk away from our academic jobs anytime we’d like.
Everett: Now, on the other hand, if I was really poor, I could not walk away from my job at Goodyear, which used to be here, because I have to worry about feeding my family. That’s why we need unions. That’s why I would need a union to help me get the things I need. We’re talking about businesses. Slavery and sports are both businesses. Slavery was a more disgusting business where the workers were treated like animals, but the line between the two is very slim.
Rumpus: I want to return to what you were saying about college athletes. When I think of some of the binds, the commodification of their bodies without equal compensation for their labor but also the power, influence, and privileges that some of these football players have, I just think something has to be done. We have to figure out how to pay them. I don’t know how to pay everybody, like Division 2 and 3 athletes and the sports that don’t generate that much money. But athletes in football, basketball, and baseball at D-1 schools, institutions are just making too much money off of them not to pay them. You know what I mean?
Everett: Well, first off, we should be more honest with them. Kids are coming and they’re playing ball. And you’re saying they can’t take money from boosters? Somebody’s always getting money from boosters anyway! If you deny it, you’re lying. So, if these rich people want to give money to the kids that are entertaining them, just let them give them money. But, just let them give it so that it gets split up between all of them.
Rumpus: Yeah, they should let some of money trickle down to them. They believe in trickle-down economics.
Everett: No, they believe in piss-on-you-economics. Ain’t no trickle down. We want what we want. That’s what that is. And, should these kids be paid—there is such a small percentage of these kids that play in college who are going to go pro. It’s easy to say they’re being treated well, but they’re really not. The stars get treated well, but the field-hands, they don’t. And they’re still on that rigorous and grinding schedule. So, their education suffers. And, they’re doing almost the exact thing as the guy who is gonna make millions of dollars in the future.
You could say, “Well, it’s a free education.” Yeah, but no. They’re working. They’re working hard, working hard at a university that’s making millions of dollars while they’re receiving a tuition waiver, a room, and some food. And, if they go out and get a part-time job, they’re breaking NCAA rules, and they’ll lose their benefits and privileges.
Rumpus: That’s one of the crazy things about academia, too. We go to grad school and learn all about Louis Althusser, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, and Michel Foucault and become suspicious of institutions and power relations, but then we also have to work within these very systems to survive. At times, it feels almost like double-speak, you know?
Everett: I enjoy Althusser, Butler, Hall, and Foucault as much as anyone, but you don’t have to look far to find those ideas in the world from the beginning. And, these ideas don’t need to be articulated in any way except to say, “Yeah, the shit sucks.” This all makes me think of my favorite quote from Papa Doc, François Duvalier, the Haitian dictator years ago. A reporter asked, “What’s the percentage of black people in Haiti?” Papa Doc said, ninety-five percent, or something like that. And then he asked the reporter how do you figure out if somebody is black in the United States. The reporter said something about the one-drop rule, and Papa Doc said, “We use the same rule. You’re not black if you have one drop of white in you.”
Rumpus: In 1903, in The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” I know we have to take notions of gender and class in consideration as well, but would you say that the problem of the twenty-first century is also the color-line?
Everett: No, it’s not the color-line.
Rumpus: Do you think it’s the problem of difference?
Everett: It’s difference; it’s class. But let’s go back to Pitchfork Ben Tillman, the racist South Carolina governor at the turn of the twentieth century. When discussing whether or not South Carolina should adopt the one-drop rule, Tillman said that they couldn’t have that rule. He said that if they had that rule then none of them would be able to own land. Now, he wasn’t being progressive. He was just describing the situation. Everybody’s mixed. If you want to talk about the color-line in that fashion: if you look black, you are black, but that’s not the only thing. Because if you have ever been identified as looking black, then you are black no matter how white you look.
Rumpus: Goodness, this all so messy. As you know, I just came back from Africa. And, in Egypt, the Egyptians I spoke to really wanted me to know that they weren’t black. Shit, even when I was in Eritrea, they wanted me to know that they were people of the Nomadic Semite Tribes and not really black. It’s a trip how mobile and flexible of our notions of race are and how these concepts alter as we move across cultures and borders.
Everett: Of course, and it’s very complicated and messy here as well. I mean, in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, there was this East Indian golfer, Vijay Singh, who was blacker than you and I are, and he could play anywhere.
Or, look at Adolph Rupp, the basketball coach for Kentucky years ago. He coached during segregation time. Well, he was watching a young kid play basketball, and the kid was really good. So, Rupp said that the longer he watched the kid play basketball the more Puerto Rican he looked. Because that was okay, that was a race he could deal with, that was a race that could play basketball for him.
Rumpus: Okay, you know how much I love Cane and Jean Toomer. Let’s add his ideas about not wanting to be labeled as a black writer to the mix. Part of me laments for him; I, too, felt fenced in by the burdens and privileges of writing as a black man. And, another part of me hates him for hating himself like that. You know what I mean?
Everett: Well, part of it is that it was different times. And, part of it is that Toomer was saying, “I don’t want anybody else telling me what I am.”
But, it was naïve. Because the fact of the matter is that black people—white people don’t understand this—don’t wake up one day and look in the mirror and think, “Oh yeah, I’m black.” That’s not the way anyone comes to know their identity, not the way anyone lives.
I know this is tautological. But, the only time race is an issue is when race becomes an issue. I mean, I would be stupid to think that I’m not seen as black man when I walk into a bar in Arizona, and I have to be on my guard. It’s the same if I see blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror. I don’t want my sons to forget that they are black men in America, but at the same time, I don’t believe the concept of race is a valid notion. There is no such thing as race. But if you go into the world not realizing that other people think a lot about race then you’re being stupid, and America and the rest of the world will let you know that really quickly.
Rumpus: And, that’s why I lament for Toomer because it just seems like he wanted that truth not to be the case so badly, you know?
Everett: Yeah, yeah, but he also wanted to be white.
Rumpus: And that’s when my haunches raise.
Everett: Yeah, that’s the part that I don’t understand either. I mean, I do understand it intellectually, but not physically. In my family, there’s a joke that my grandfather looked just like Strom Thurmond. If you saw him on the street, you’d just think that was a white dude. His brother passed for white his whole life. Who cares? Honestly, I don’t care what people think they are as long as when the shit hits the fan, they’re on the right side.