The narrator’s father was a social scientist, the inventor and “sole practitioner” of what he called Liberation Psychology. They lived on a farm in Dickens, a “ghetto community” on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator’s father spent twenty years as the interim dean in the psychology department of West Riverside Community College. Although he loved living on a farm, he was a far better psychologist than he was a steward of animals. The narrator served as his father’s “case study,” the subject of his experiments.
The phrase “Liberation Psychology” is an adaptation of Liberation Theology, a movement of Christian theology that uses Christian doctrine to advocate for the empowerment of the poor and oppressed through radical changes to the structure of society. The application of this idea to psychology suggests that the narrator’s father uses his scientific research in order to fight against racism.
When the narrator was a baby, his father placed objects representing whiteness into his cot while firing a gun and shouting racist insults, in order to teach the narrator to associate these symbols of whiteness with racism. When the narrator was eight, his father used him to test how the “bystander effect” works within the black community. He dressed the narrator in stereotypical clothing and then beat him in the middle of a busy intersection. Rather than standing by, strangers got involved and started beating the narrator also. After the experiment was over, the narrator’s father apologized for not accounting for the “bandwagon effect.”
The narrator’s father’s desire to fight racism through scientific experiments ironically causes him to abuse his own black son. The “bandwagon effect” shows that black people not only have to deal with the cruel indifference of strangers (described by the bystander effect) but an extra level of violent hatred. (The bystander effect is when people witness a crime being committed or someone being hurt and do nothing, assuming that someone else already has intervened.)
During another experiment, the narrator’s father donned a Ronald Reagan mask, posing as a “white authority figure.” He then interrogated his son about black history, and when the narrator got anything wrong or was too slow to answer, his father gave him an electric shock. The narrator began to bleed, and he fantasized about Batman saving him from his father’s cruelty. Eventually the narrator pooped his pants.
This is one of the moments in the novel where satire is blended with genuinely disturbing content. While the narrator’s father’s experiment is comically absurd, it also points to very serious and real issues surrounding parental abuse of children. Notably, Batman is another kind of “white authority figure,” but one that the narrator now dreams of saving him from his black father.
When the narrator was twelve, his father replicated a famous study of racial consciousness in black children using black and white dolls. The narrator’s father made the test more elaborate by asking the narrator to pick between two entire doll worlds. One featured Ken and Malibu Barbie in the Barbie Dream House, and the other featured Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman running through a swamp chased by a pack of dogs and members of the KKK. The father explained that the figures in the second world were running “toward freedom.” He had made Harriet Tubman by painting a Barbie black, turning her into “Plantation Barbie.”
Throughout the novel, many of the most serious moments and figures from black history are lampooned and made ridiculous. This challenges the idea that such moments and figures need to always be treated with solemnity. While the book obviously does not question the importance or brilliance of figures such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, it suggests that sometimes their legacy can be regarded with humor rather than only somberness.
The narrator picked the white doll world because the white dolls had better accessories. Crushed, the narrator’s father burned his findings. Shortly after, he began to teach his son about farming. The narrator stresses that not all his memories of his father are bad. In Dickens, the narrator’s father was known as “the Nigger Whisperer.” When a Dickens resident was in a bad way, he would approach the person and embrace them like an old friend. The narrator says his father had a talent for “approaching the unapproachable.”
The narrator’s father may not have been a particularly scrupulous scientist, but—like his son—he possessed unusual skills that made him exceptional within his community. The phrase “Nigger Whisperer” is a deliberately scandalous reframing of horse whispering, a practice of communicating with horses through knowledge of horse psychology.
The narrator claims that when he was six, he witnessed the birth of gangster rap. The rapper Kilo G, who was high on crack, began reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson verses turned into rap lyrics while firing his gun. A SWAT team arrived but couldn’t stop laughing and thus failed to shoot him. The narrator’s father arrived and calmly whispered to Kilo G, who immediately handed over his gun. His father refused to allow the police to arrest him until he had finished reciting the poem. The narrator’s father explained that he had whispered that Kilo G needed to ask himself two questions: “Who am I?” and “How may I become myself?”
In this passage, the narrator reinvents the birth of gangster rap. Kilo G was a real rapper signed to Cash Money Records in the early 1990s. While the story the narrator tells about him isn’t real, it contains elements that are comparable to the true history of how gangster rap evolved as a genre, from the diverse range of its influences (from poetry to the crack epidemic) and the repressive, hostile reaction of the authorities.
The narrator assumed that he would stay in Dickens and live an average life. He hoped to marry Marpessa Delissa Dawson, his childhood sweetheart and “one and only love.” He felt that the questions “Who am I?” and “How may I become myself?” did not apply to him. The narrator was a product of his father and of Dickens, but then one day both his father and Dickens disappeared—leaving him with no sense of who he was or how to become himself.
The search for a lost home is one of the most important themes of the book. It takes on literal significance in the plot through the disappearance of the narrator’s father and of Dickens, but is also a broader theme common in African American literature. Due to the legacy of slavery, much of the black literary tradition addresses the loss of origins and home.