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 candidate, Matt Lieberman, is a lawyer, former educator and the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Lieberman is running in the all-party special election to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired in 2018.
Lieberman told HuffPost he wrote the book, titled “Lucius” after the name of the imaginary slave, in the wake of the 2017 white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “an honest examination of enduring racism against Blacks — which is real, harmful and totally infuriating.”
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.
“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.
“In my personal opinion, this would just exacerbate a tough time for us as a state. He should drop out of the race,” Woodall said. “If he wants to be an author or a writer, he should just do that.”
Lieberman is one of two prominent Democrats running in the all-party primary, which is set for Election Day and also features two high-profile Republicans. If no candidate earns a majority of the vote ― the likely outcome ― the race will be decided by a January runoff between the top two vote-getters.
There are four major candidates in the race. Two well-known Republicans, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, have already spent millions of dollars attacking each other. But polling indicates Lieberman and the other Democratic candidate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, remain little-known in the state.
Democratic leaders, including Stacey Abrams and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have endorsed Warnock, who is Black.
One of the epigraphs Lieberman chose for Lucius is a famous passage from James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro”: “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘[N-word]’ in the first place, because I’m not a [N-word]. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a [N-word], it means you need it.” (The quote appears in the epigraph without expurgations.) “Lucius” seems to be Lieberman’s response, an attempt to promote racial healing by trying to understand why white people have enslaved, disenfranchised and dehumanized Black people.
In his statement, Lieberman testified to his good intentions: “However my book is dissected, let me be clear: my heart’s aim was to get people thinking about the centuries long scourge of slavery and racism and its impact in modern America. I was alarmed and deeply discouraged by what I saw in Charlottesville ― so much so that I wrote these 45,000 words as a response in story form.”
No amount of good intentions, however, would be enough to rescue “Lucius.” The book’s narrator, Mordecai “Tree” Weissman, is a middle-aged white Jewish man from Connecticut who lives in Atlanta in 2017, much like Lieberman. While volunteering at a nursing home in 2015, he meets Benno Johnson, a 90-year-old white man who believes that he owned a slave named Lucius for most of his life, despite the fact that slavery was abolished well before his birth. Most of the novel takes the form of Benno recalling his life with Lucius to Tree, describing how his parents “gave” him Lucius when both men were boys, and how the two spent their lives together before Lucius’ death.
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.
Woodall specifically pointed to the portrayal of Lucius as a magical Negro as “troubling.”
“If this is his imagination, if this is how he constructs a world, where he’s a white savior and he needs a magical Negro to help save him, I would urge him to reconsider his place in this world,” Woodall said.
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.’”
Lucius is ultimately killed by a hunter with a bow and arrow, shot through the neck while he and Benno are running through the man’s property with a herd of deer. After he dies, and Benno says an emotional goodbye, he tells Tree, “one of the first things I thought was that it was legal. Schiffer had the right. We were deer, and he was allowed to hunt us.”
Tree frequently interjects with his own musings on race. Though he takes pains to distance himself from Benno’s more troubling statements, his own views are also packed with racial stereotypes and appeals to colorblindness. In one passage, he remembers playing basketball with friends during his childhood in New Haven, describing himself and his white neighbor as “the more skilled shooters, more technique oriented defenders and rebounders,” while their Black playmates were “faster, jumped higher, and were slightly ― only slightly ― more aggressive.” He then reveals that one of his Black friends ended up serving time in prison.
Though Tree sometimes expresses discomfort internally with Benno’s more overly racist statements, he consistently excuses them. He even reasons, during Benno’s sympathetic description of the Klan, that a Black aide at the old age home who overheard the conversation probably “cut Benno some slack as a resident and an old man; that’s the world he came up in.” Tree upholds Benno as a charming and warm-hearted person, if emotionally stunted. Tree quickly begins to like Benno, who he describes as having “a spark in his eye that would appeal to anyone” and having “carried the sweetness of childhood with him all this way.”
Benno is also presented as admirable for his sincere affection for Lucius and the more genteel words in which he expresses his racist beliefs.
Though Benno does admit to demeaning treatment like having Lucius sleep on a pallet on the floor throughout his life, his conception of himself as a mythical good slave owner is rarely challenged in the book. Tree believes that he not only lacked racial animus, but “loved Lucius”; in a scene near the end of the book, and the end of their long lives, Benno tells Lucius, “You know I wouldn’t want to keep you if you wanted to go, right?” Lucius and Benno hold hands and call each other “brother.” This framing perpetuates the harmful idea that slavery could be practiced in a gentle and mutually beneficial way, whitewashing the reality of a system of violent, terroristic subjugation.
Tree also theorizes that Benno “secretly crave[d] the validation of that happy submission from our loved ones ― be they spouses or children or, as a last resort and most typically, a dog or a cat?” The idea of the slave, according to this argument, is to fulfill the same human emotional need as a pet.
In his statement, Lieberman defended his novel as “not palatable” because of “the sorts of racism reflected in ‘Lucius.’” However, it is ultimately a romanticized portrayal of white supremacy. Benno, Tree believes, “filled the world he made with a love for Lucius, which he imagined to be reciprocal. If Lucius wasn’t real in our world, and if Benno loved him and was loved by him in the only world in which the friendship lived, well, it’s hard for me to get upset.”