The deliberate provocation in Hari Kunzru's White Tears is not just limited to the title of the novel. It begins as an integral part of the plot in the second chapter, when Carter Wallace, a young white man in his mid-twenties, makes his first appearance. Seth, one of the central characters, describes him so: “Blond dreadlocks, intricate tattoos, a trust fund he didn't hesitate to use to further the cause of good times” (p. 9). Dreadlocks, tattoos, trust fund: the embodiment of privilege and hipsterdom.
After the physical descriptions come Carter’s mannerisms, which radiate a sense of entitlement, mixed with obnoxious confidence and erratic behavior. Our first impression of him, one of indifferent amusement and slight annoyance, slowly changes to derision as we learn about his obsession with Black music—Seth notes that this is what Carter exclusively listens to, because it sounds more “intense and authentic” than anything made by white people—that, despite what at times appears to be genuine interest, amounts to little more than cultural appropriation (an act in which Seth is equally complicit). In the opening chapters of the novel, Carter plays Jamaican dub, soul and R & B, early hip hop, and free jazz. Later, all postwar music vanishes from his life and he becomes singly obsessed with the prewar blues and the figure of the bluesman, as he starts listening to “lone guitarists playing strange abstract figures, scraping the strings with knives and bottlenecks and singing in cracked, elemental voices about trouble and loss” (p. 31). Carter ignores the conditions under which the artists produced the music, the experience of being Black in America; his only concern is that the prewar blues sound more “authentic” than any records produced in the later decades.
Seth and Carter are not mere dilettantes. They have acquired considerable information on how the music was produced or created (John Coltrane overblowing his tenor in the middle section of A Love Supreme and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production techniques are mentioned). But as Seth notes at one point: “We worshipped music like Perry's but we didn't own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge … We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness” (p. 19). Absent the lived experience of the conditions that produced much of Black music, Carter (and Seth) claim ownership and expertise through wealth and whiteness.
Every white character who makes an appearance, however short-lived, on its pages, is made comic throughout the first quarter of the novel. While Carter is presented to us as an obnoxious and entitled man, his family background and the source of its wealth further worsen the picture. The Wallaces own a company that provides detention and correctional services—private prisons—in the United States, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Afghanistan. Carter’s father, we learn, is a Republican donor, well acquainted with “senators and members of the Bush clan,” and the Wallace family company has expanded since 9/11, helping America fight its War on Terror. Leonie and Cornelius Wallace, Carter’s siblings, both initially serve as examples of the convenience that being rich and white in America accords. Leonie Wallace is a mediocre artist, but making art, presenting it at galleries, and life in general do not seem to be much of a struggle for her; Cornelius Wallace, on the other hand, is made vice president of the family business. The money that allows Carter and Seth to run a production studio in New York is supplied, at least in part, through the Wallace family’s investments in mass incarceration and an illegal war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This also makes it difficult to empathize with Seth—who often comes across as an earnest audiophile and record producer stuck with Carter only because of his poor financial circumstances; in some scenes his class position and his genuine talents as a producer are used to set him in contrast to the moneyed and entitled Carter—as he refuses to call out Carter on his attitude towards Black music, because it’s Carter’s money that keeps the studio going and guarantees him a certain amount of comfort and privilege. Kunzru’s depiction of this set of white characters feels as if it is meant to negate all possibilities of them appearing likeable to the reader. This, however, ends up feeling a bit too deliberate and is made obvious in a small scene involving Cornelius’s friends—young bankers who attended Princeton—where they are presented as arrogant and buffoonish. Their characterisation may elicit some laughter, but does not serve much of a purpose:
Then the pilot escorted us to the plane and waited patiently as each of them took a picture of himself and set about posting it to social media. Hashtags #flyprivate #highlife #goodlife. No doubt their feeds also had pictures of their watches and bar bills. (p. 41)
She opened the champagne and the bros clinked glasses, congratulating each other on whatever it was they thought they were experiencing.
—This is it!
—The shiznit. (p. 41)
Seth, through whose point of view the first half of the novel is presented, spends much of his time wandering in New York, collecting on a recorder the various sounds of the city. During one of these wanderings, he captures a man singing a blues song that goes: “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own/ Believe I buy a graveyard of my own/Put my enemies all down in the ground”. On hearing this recording, Carter, already obsessed with the prewar blues, becomes intoxicated and resolute; he becomes desperate to find out the man who was singing these phrases.
Later, Carter overlays the vocals with a guitar track and Seth drowns it in hiss to make it sound like an old blues recording. When, eventually, Carter uploads the song on the internet, titling it “Graveyard Blues,” by a bluesman named Charlie Shaw, record collectors are convinced that it is indeed an original recording done in 1928. Ecstatic at having pulled this off, Carter then says: “We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who's the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” (p. 65). This is one of the key moments in the novel, towards which the first quarter had been leading. W. E. B. Du Bois once identified as inherent in whiteness the tendency to make the wrongful assertion that every great thought, every great deed, every great dream is that of a white man. While Carter does not deny the fact that the tradition of the blues has been created by Black artists, he goes on to proudly state that this tradition, in the present day, has no representative save for himself and thinks that mere expertise confers on him some right of ownership. Seth, on the other hand, by maintaining passivity to Carter, despite having reservations against his actions, becomes an enabler.
“I am claiming a great deal for the blues,” James Baldwin once wrote, “I am using them as a metaphor — I might have titled this, for example, ‘The Uses of Anguish’ or ‘The Uses of Pain.’” For Baldwin, the blues did not just speak of a particular experience of life but had in them a “toughness that manages to make this experience articulate.” In the blues, one could also find, besides a knowledge of the adversities of life, a kind of expression that transfigured pain into joy.
So when Carter reduces all of this experience—the trauma of Black history in America—that the blues captured and helped deal with, to a recording that sounds, to his ears, old and authentic, like a record that has been “sitting under someone's porch for fifty years” (p. 62), it is easy for the reader to feel contempt, and difficult to suppress schadenfreude in the face of the violent comeuppance he receives in the proceeding pages.
When another record collector (named “JumpJim”) on the internet tells Seth and Carter that Charlie Shaw is a real musician and demands to know what is on the B side of the record they had managed to get their hands on, Carter, despite Seth’s repeated protests against the idea, attempts to meet said collector and ends up paying a heavy price.
The mood of the novel then shifts, as Seth attempts to find out why the creation of this fake record endangered him and Carter. “Graveyard Blues,” he finds out, was a prewar song that did not just record Charlie Shaw’s experiences of life in the American South in the 1920s. It was, instead, an expression of revenge, and Seth’s capturing of the stray vocals, Carter’s subsequent obsession with the song, were not by fate, but design. “Put my enemies down all down in the ground” is followed by these phrases: “Put me under a man they call Captain Jack/Put me under a man they call Captain Jack/He wrote his name all down my back/Went to the Captain with my hat in my hand/Went to the Captain with my hat in my hand/Said Captain have mercy on a long time man/Well he look at me and he spit on the ground/He look at me and he spit on the ground/Says I’ll have mercy when I drive you down.”
Kunzru introduces the song early in the novel, and when, in the second half, Seth and Leonie take a road trip through the American South to seek out the truth behind the record, the accusatory and vengeful tone of the song becomes more obvious. Simultaneously, the narrative shifts from a slow and calm to a frenzied and nightmarish mood.
The roadtrip is initially set against a similar one taken by two record collectors in the 1920s. It is JumpJim, acting as a bridge between the America of the 1920s and the present day, who narrates the story of this trip, which he took with another record collector named Chester Bly. There are some obvious parallels: while Carter feigns expertise and claims ownership over Black music, Bly, another white man, is an obsessive record collector who claims to be preserving for posterity records that would, without his care, be buried and lost forever.
The timelines of the two road trips, clearly delineated at first, gradually blur. Often the time period in which the action is taking place becomes difficult to make out, as Seth seems to keep drifting into the past and Charlie Shaw makes repeated appearances in the present day. This is a risky technique, and could have made the narrative too muddled, but in Kunzru’s hands it is effectively used to demonstrate how the injustices of the past are inextricably tied up with those of the present. The blues become a device to examine the social history of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow years, a period during which a large number of free men guilty of no crime were charged with vagrancy—the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed—and compelled to labor, without compensation, for various American corporations, the government, on farms, through a legal procedure that was designed to incriminate and physical coercion that was meant to detain them. This was the fate of Charlie Shaw, who in the 1920s used to travel across America, for opportunities or recording sessions. The Captain Jack of “Graveyard Blues,” we learn, is not a fictitious entity, and the ghost of Shaw, seeking revenge for the wrongs that were done to him, has chosen Seth and Carter for a well-thought-out reason.
The haunting in White Tears is therefore used to posit that the legacies of slavery, free labor, segregation, and mass incarceration continue to live on in America, most obviously through the disproportionate imprisonment of Black people, the wide disparities between the median wealth of white and Black families, and the fact that young Black males were far more likely to be killed by police (statistics between 2010 and 2012 suggested twenty-one times more likely). Incarceration and police shootings of unarmed Black men are a continuation of past abuses, the kind which Charlie Shaw was subjected to; crimes that have not been addressed to date; injustices that still haunt the present, but the effects of which are largely absent from public consciousness.
If the ghost of Charlie Shaw seeks revenge, it is because first his body and then his music were stolen by those who seek to profit from them. Like many others in American fiction, Shaw is a ghost, as described by Parul Sehgal, of America's making. For Baldwin, the blues captured the troubled experience of being Black, and served as an outlet for the painful ordeals of racist violence that America was founded on. So when the ghost of a bluesman appears in present-day New York and testifies to his suffering at the hands of the American State—through a vengeful blues song—he reminds us that the act of appropriation is an act of erasure; of the foundational crime of slavery, of its continuation through the Thirteenth Amendment, and of the mass incarceration and segregationist policies that to date continue to shape wealth and income structures.
Towards the end of the novel, Seth, upon learning the story of Charlie Shaw, protests his innocence, claiming that none of what happened to Shaw is his fault:
All I want is to be able to reason with him. I just need to find out what it is I've done. It's not fair to blame me for things that took place long before I was even born. That is what I want to say to him: I am not the one to blame. (p. 233)
But by then, it is quite obvious that nothing could be farther from the truth. Carter and his ilk are obvious villains, who may be oblivious, or have cultivated a willful ignorance of the crimes through which their wealth was accumulated; it is easier to point out the obvious historical wrong in cases such as these. But Seth's statement points towards a less conspicuous pattern, one that, through disassociation, tends to absolve America of its violent history. Seth may not have caused direct harm to Charlie Shaw, but his failure to recognize the weight of the past, the silence he maintains throughout Carter's attempts at claiming ownership of Black music, are all indicative of the ways in which the Black experience is erased—which, in a way, makes possible Carter’s and Seth’s own act of cultural appropriation. Unless amnesia of the kind displayed by Seth is brought to the forefront of questions surrounding race and appropriation, and effectively countered, ghosts like Charlie Shaw's will continue to haunt the landscape of American fiction.