We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

This is a novel about a black family, hired by a white institute, to live with a chimpanzee, and treat it like a brother. They earn the contract because they know sign language – the whole family does – so they can teach it to the chimp. Also because they’re black, and for centuries racist white scientists have been obsessed with comparing black humans to monkeys. This novel is hard to believe. This novel is not unrealistic.

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(Photo: Amy Attas)

It’s hard to imagine a world in which this type of experiment is OK, but that world is our world. Greenidge makes it easier to understand how such racism could develop by beginning with an ordinary family in an ordinary car, and introducing the oddities and injustices gradually. They hardly seem like injustices. Unorthodox, sure, but aren’t we all a little weird? As the conflicts and compromises mount, though, so too does our discomfort.

I think this book is too smart for me. I’m not sure though, because I do not understand what I don’t understand. I felt like a twelve-year-old watching C-SPAN: I understood all the words, I even understood the emotions, but I lacked the background to follow. I know only a little about African-American history. I know even less about African-American art. I got the sense that this novel paid homage to deep wells of research and creativity, but I didn’t catch on. Some archetypes were familiar: the woke friend with a free and spirited mother; the uptight white female who means well, means to avoid conflict, but fails at both; the family that’s too exhausted by individual trials to stay connected. But other character’s motivations were harder to place. Most of them were seeking love and acceptance, and permitted extreme sacrifices in the hopes of getting it. But it was hard to empathize with such sacrifice.

In the storytelling, I most appreciated when the black author wrote in the voice of an ignorant, earnest white scientist begging for forgiveness from “African American people.” This was the most fun. Seeing her fetishize African culture, apologize by droning endless justifications for her racism, totally miss the point – and to know all of it was written by a sharp-witted black woman, it felt like a real coup.

It is important to read literature centering the oppressed, which does not simply re-oppress. There are too many books about slavery and precious kids from the ghetto, which force the collective imagination to continue thinking of blacks as slaves and gangsters. We Love You, Charlie Freeman finds a new way to talk about race, and a better representation of one black family where characters are allowed to be more nuanced than the weary, stoic African-American cliché. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading. And the other reasons, well, I just haven’t managed to comprehend them yet.

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