Book review: ‘Friday Black’ by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

(no spoilers)

From the first to the last, Adjei-Brenyah’s ‘Friday Black’ collection of short stories holds rank among some of the most visually-thrilling, inflammatory and enriching ones I’ve ever read. It’s a provoking and daring look at the lives and experiences of black men and women today and every day before, wrapped up in deliciously clever language.

Taking a deliberate swing at racism, culture, unrest and humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s stories roll you from one strange, crazy, essential nugget to another. Some stories are based on lived-experiences, some are conceptual thinkpieces, some are seemingly a conversation between yourself and the author as he takes you by the hand and urges you to peer into the ugly side of humanity and the ways in which we treat each other and ourselves. Dark humor and absurdity are themes which run from cover to cover, delivering witty style alongside lessons which are cleverly delivered without being preachy.

A cover you can’t ignore!

Though I liked every piece, I did return to some more than once – both: “The Finkelstein 5” and “Lark Street”. All of his stories focus on male protagonists who are deemed to be, or claim to be, ‘outsiders’. They are stuck, frustrated in a society that limits them, suffering.

“The Finkelstein 5” is an atomic bomb of a first lesson in this debut collection. Our protagonist, Emmanuel, spends time detailing how he needs to dial up or down his “Blackness” depending on the situation. Most situations, including talking on the phone, finding himself a job (one he is passed over for as they already have their “urban” choice), and simply walking on the street requires him to ‘tone down’ his Blackness so as to not put himself in danger, or make the white population uncomfortable. Uncomfortable truths for us, as readers, start with the very first page: “Like every morning, the first decision he made regarded his Blackness […] If he wore a tie, wing-tipped shoes, smiled constantly, used his indoor voice, and kept his hands strapped and calm at his sides, he could get his Blackness as low as a 4.0.” But as Emmanuel goes on to detail, when he dresses in similar clothes to the Finkelstein 5 (a hoodie and a cap), it brings his blackness up to a “solid 7.6” which leaves him feeling like he is “Evel Kneival at the top of a ramp”. It is a really devastating opening conversation, and an example of where Adjei-Brenyah’s command of language and subject matter is particularly interesting. 

This self-moderation and self-policing is something that exists within many minorities, as we try to ensure that we are acceptably ‘packaged up’ for the day’s events. As a very privileged white female, my only experience in being part of a minority comes from being hella gay which brings up separate but similar questions: Is this too gay for that event? How gay can I look without risking a bigot coming up to me and my girlfriend on a bus and punching us both in the face? Still, I have the privilege even within that of pushing my Gayness down to 0.0 if I need to. Emmanuel says that he could never clear below 1.5 Blackness with his “deep, constant brown” skin, and so he is doomed to continually manage and amend his appearance, and risks far more violent reactions from the public. 

We learn about the Finkelstein 5 almost immediately – Emmanuel wakes from a nightmare where he’s seen a girl whose neck is “jagged with red savagery”. We learn quickly that she was one of five innocent black children who were murdered by a white man who cuts off their heads with a chainsaw and is given the floor to justify those actions in court. It is a terrifying and satirical attack on American society (white privilege to the extreme – something which doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched in the Trump political climate) and leaves you appalled. Emmanuel and other similarly-horrified individuals start to rise up amidst the unrest caused by this court case, embracing elements of their Blackness to seek justice. It is, like many of his stories, a violent one – but for all the bloody and gory scenes, we know that it is not gratuitous and that everything in this collection serves a purpose. 

“Lark Street” is one of the more crazy and unusual stories in the collection, with the starting sentences: “An impossible hand punched my earlobe. An unborn fetus, aborted the day before, was standing at my bedside.” Safe to say, we’re all immediately intrigued. 

There are two foetuses – Jackie and Jamie Lou Gunner, twins, and they are little bigger than shadows – described in a way that reminds you of every anti-abortion poster ever seen. Not fully-formed, entirely too-small, not viable and out of proportion. And yet, they’re completely articulate and personable. They serve as a curious personification of his feelings around the abortion, and deliver gallows humor one minute: “I think I have more balls that you and I’m still, like a trimester from genitalia”, and sad reality the next: “We’re not gonna be people.”

Delivered seemingly without judgment, “Lark Street” serves to show us the crazed conversations and scenarios that humans can dream up when presented with such a decision – and again, it does so in an entirely unique way.

If you’re searching for a new versatile, political debut writer, then you’ve found him. I’m excited to see what he brings out next.


So, hit me – have you read ‘Friday Black’? What did you think? What was your favourite short?

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