Review: Harry Sylvester Bird by Chinelo Okparanta

HARRY SYLVESTER BIRD, by Chinelo Okparanta

The eponymous protagonist of Chinelo Okparanta’s second novel is racist. And the author wants her readers to find him a spectacular, fascinating racist by offering 300 pages of meticulous detail on every microaggression he commits in the first few decades of his life.

In the first half of the novel, we are given sketches of Harry’s young, wealthy, white childhood in Edward, Pennsylvania, a town where “elephant stickers, posters, and bumper stickers adorned front yards.” Although the reader knows better, the young narrator is wonderfully sure of his superiority as a genuinely anti-racist and wonderfully despises his genuinely racist parents. Opening in December 2016 on the Birds’ family vacation in a Tanzanian resort, we’re treated to plenty of fodder for liberals like Harry to hiss and boo. His father, Wayne, says of a black hotel worker’s dark complexion, “If that ain’t ugliness, I don’t know what it is.” Chevy, his mother, is shocked that an African bathroom has “a real flush toilet with running water.” Has.

In the second half it is 2021 and Harry, driven by disgust at such depictions, has fled to New York. There he seeks to live a life unsullied by the heavy-handed anti-blackness that is his legacy. Of course he fails. Harry Sylvester Bird presents itself as an anthropological study of a contemporary white liberalism that invests far less in the eradication of evil than in the ridiculous self-flagellation of the ruling classes. But it flattens its subjects, stripping them of both familiarity and farce. The result is a profound hollowness of character and form that undermines the honorable ambition of the novelist.

The novel’s racists – including both classic fanatics 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 tense, tentative narrator of such “online activism.” Both anti-blackness and anti-racism—and people—are far trickier than the simple instruction manuals that guide mainstream racial discourse will allow. But in Harry Sylvester Bird, that gimmick feels overly smooth and streamlined. The richness of human behavior, especially at its worst, is being lost.

Of course, sophisticated realism isn’t the only route to aesthetic success; There is always satire. But “Harry Sylvester Bird” also lacks the stirring surrealism that enlivens successful racial caricatures. The clumsy idiots of these characters are mostly devoid of any sense of absurdity. They are presented as apparently immoral, apparently stupid, apparently Is correct; but satire works by making the familiar unfamiliar, the obvious unbelievable.

Harry himself, as the only obviously flawed narrator, deserves some of the blame for those flaws. He despairs of sneering at the lineage of prejudice imposed on him while simultaneously spouting eye-rolling silliness like, “Racism won’t get a grip on you after you make 1,000 right decisions in a row. A thousand anti-racist decisions and surely something had to change.” As the novel progresses, these harmless feelings grow darker and darker.

A fundamental step in this development – a twist that emerges at the heart of the novel – makes it clear that Okparanta is the opposite of a superficial author. This narrative beat, which gives the book a truly satirical, even anarchic, energy, is a full testament to the author’s wit and sheer bravery. Somewhere in Harry Sylvester Bird is a more stimulating book that disorganizes the world rather than petrifying it into hackneyed ideological narratives. This alternative book struggles to breathe beneath the one we have and occasionally manages to surface.

For example, upon his return to Africa (this time to Ghana) in 2025, Harry coos at a group of local children, “So cute little monkeys!” His black friend reacts in shock and disgust, but says no more than “Oh God” and storms off; she never articulates her perception of Bird’s racism to him or the reader.

Okparanta could have turned that moment into an opportunity to take a keen look at our protagonist’s blindness and a more subtle display of Bird’s wisdom. Instead, Bird just drones on about the usual anti-racist talking points and speaks from an unacknowledged future perspective. “Something tells me she must have seen and understood me at best as a man who was nothing but a parasite on her,” he thinks. “And at worst, well … I was exactly the white stereotype, a man who saw her and people like her as less human than himself.”

Not only is this explanation reminiscent of the idiotic punishments rehearsed in corporate anti-racist training courses, it also makes no sense. Why would Bird say that? Who is he saying it to? Where does this insight come from? And if the point here is to laugh at Bird’s ridiculousness, why is the oblivion that is its very source immediately snatched away?

Harry Sylvester Bird finds itself in an ominous trend: its satirical indictments of white liberalism read only as a sort of routine gymnastics dictated by the canons of anti-racist art, rather than inspired by an internal impulse drawn from the story itself be. The more ubiquitous such art becomes, the more toothless it becomes. This betrays not so much the cowardice of the modern artist as the racial politics that dominate the sleazy, self-aware world of modern liberalism.

This is the world Okparanta wants to tear up. But in its ultimate smugness, the novel reveals the stickiness of this selfish “anti-racism,” the way it secretly insists on structuring and constraining our art and our politics. Resigned to one’s own self-reflection, “Harry Sylvester Bird” doesn’t have much to say worth mentioning.

HARRY SYLVESTER BIRD, by Chinelo Okparanta | 310 p. | sailor | $27.99

Nicholas Whittaker is a Ph.D. Candidate at CUNY. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift, and The Point.

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