Black masculinity, in all of its possible shapes and expressions, is an important and complex theme in contemporary fiction. As we grapple with the tension in our country around the senseless deaths of young Black men and some wonder how we ever got to this place, stories like Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors are all the more essential to hear.
Farria’s novel spans four generations of two interconnected families, from the early 1970s to the present day. The story opens with Ettie Moten’s return to the True Vine Baptist Church in New Orleans, three years after her mother’s death. She meets Troy Shaw, organizer of a newly-formed local chapter of the Black Panther Party, to whom she becomes attracted. Ettie’s failure to warn him of the Party’s infiltration by an informant and a planned police raid leads to Troy’s arrest and imprisonment. Seven years later, Ettie reunites with Troy while he is serving time for a bank robbery, and they have a son together, Simon. Ettie later moves to Antoine, Oklahoma, where she works as a counselor at a state prison and becomes close friends with Frank, the warden, and a Vietnam vet. Frank informally adopts Simon, who becomes close friends with Frank’s sons, Michael and Gabriel.
The centerpiece of the novel is the maturation of Simon, Michael, and Gabriel. They share the background of being young Black men from the same small town, but they have distinct voices. Farria rotates the narration of the bulk of the story between Simon and Gabriel, who each wander from one unsatisfying vocation to another. Simon enlists in the military and does two tours in Afghanistan, then becomes a combat medic in Somalia, and later an aspiring amateur boxer. He narrates his portion of the novel in second-person, allowing him to breathe a cold, emotionless detachment into the story while avoiding his pain. Gabriel, a once-aspiring dancer who was shamed out of pursuing an artistic career, settles for teaching English at a school in Ukraine and drinking excessively. He tells his part in first-person, sharing his most intimate thoughts and secrets. Michael, who moves to New York, is never given a narrative voice. He keeps a comfortable distance from his brother and Simon. His success and stability relative to the other two are apparent yet fragile; his father’s constant disapproval, his experience of being bullied as a boy, and his closeted bisexuality have left silent scars.
Part of Farria’s mastery is preserving the three men’s sense of detachment while also engaging them with vibrant supporting characters. Frank is the strong father figure who puts aside his own damage and tries to keeps the three grounded, not approving of their reckless behavior and occasional irresponsibility, but nonetheless affirming their manhood. The women in their lives are as independent as the men themselves. Daphne, a stripper who befriends Gabriel and eventually has a son, Marlon, with Simon, maintains her unshakeable moral compass. Tamara, a weapons trafficker who is often mistaken for her boss’s son’s nanny, coaxes Gabriel to find his voice and eventually write his own story. Ettie, who unfortunately disappears into the backdrop of the novel all too soon, refuses to emulate her late middle-class-aspirant mother and is proudly self-sufficient, her spirit seeding Simon’s defiant independence.
The settings are diverse and reflective of the harshness of the men’s experience. Early in the story, Farria pulls the reader into a New Orleans housing project named – appropriately – Desire, where the Panthers have set up their headquarters. Its grittiness reflects a loss of hope; where people step “through a swarm of gnats dancing above an overflowing storm drain,” where there are “women with chemically treated bruised hair peeking out of head wraps, dressed in the thick grays and plaids of janitorial staff, men in work boots and Dickies or vigilantly maintained threadbare suits; ashy-kneed children who sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because the bills ate first.” When one of the Panthers, a nineteen-year-old man named KJ is killed by police, Ettie visualizes the looks of Black children exchanged with the officers as a “moment of absolute clarity, when everyone present understood the precise difference between being a citizen of a state and a ward of it.” These are “the stories communities do not forget.”
Farria is not afraid to surprise the reader with hard-hitting and sometimes disturbing scenes. In one episode, Simon faces down a brutal Somalian warlord who is abruptly blown to pieces in his presence. “You’re still half smiling at Abdullahi-Deere’s comment when bits of his head splatter onto your face – some mushy, others spiky and sharp. Understanding takes a moment to catch up. Half of Abdullahi-Deere’s head has exploded. Like an overripe jack-o’-lantern – mouth open, teeth broken, cheekbone demolished.” In another memorable scene, Gabriel engages in a sexual experience with Simon and Daphne. The intensity of the encounter is captured as his body comes into contact with Simon’s, awakening an odd sense of arousal. “Yearning to feel close to him and unawed by her – I dove in . . . I dropped my forehead onto his trapezius, just below his ear, shuddered there, tasted his sweat.” He allows himself to cross a line, after which “[s]ome barrier lay decimated there, on Daphne’s bed.” Michael, mostly staid and self-controlled, melts down when Simon opts out of attending Frank’s funeral to compete in a boxing match, lashing out at him for fathering a son he has never met. “He was your father too. Closest thing you had. But fatherhood doesn’t mean shit to you, does it?” he yells, digging into Simon’s fear that Daphne has transformed him “into another absentee black father.”
Simon, Gabriel, and Michael cannot escape being Black men living in a hostile world. As Gabriel writes in the first chapter of his book, “the world hunts all brown boys, but none more ruthlessly than the very brave.” Ironically, these men must stand up for and be themselves, yet by doing so, they become targets. The vulnerability created by this dynamic is both sociological and deeply personal. Simon, more extroverted and assertive than the other two, purposefully gravitates toward violent situations, as if daring the world to mess with him. Gabriel, more reflective and quietly creative, is nonetheless stunned by the reality that he is just another Black man to Tamara, a white woman, when she purposefully directs a racial slur at him. Being Black and male is a reality that they share, in Antoine, Oklahoma, or Somalia, or Ukraine, or anywhere else.
As Frank reminds the boys after witnessing the killing of a local youth, “the only difference between you three and that kid in the morgue is timing.” The harsh reality that Revolutions of All Colors portrays is that time for these men may indeed be short, and that navigating the challenges of racism will consume a significant portion of that time. It is, in Ettie’s words, a story that communities do not forget.
Revolutions of All Colors
By Dewaine Farria
Syracuse University Press
December 15, 2020