One great short story to read today: Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures.”
According to the powers that be (er, apparently according to Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network), May is Short Story Month. To celebrate, the Literary Hub staff will be recommending a single short story, free to read online, every (work) day of the month. Why not read along with us? Today, we recommend:
“The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett
“The Appropriation of Cultures,” Percival Everett’s brilliant 2004 short story (from the collection Damned If I Do) is the ideal introduction to his broader work as one of America’s great novelists: it is funny, it is intense, it barely pauses to take a breath, and (perhaps most importantly), as the story progresses it almost imperceptibly begins to employ a satiric hyperbole that is as provocative as it is satisfying.
The protagonist, Daniel Barkley, is a young, independently wealthy Black man living in South Carolina who decides to buy a pick-up truck he doesn’t really need, for reasons he can’t quite understand. The truck in question comes with a big ol’ Confederate flag decal. When asked by the clearly uncomfortable seller if Daniel would like him to remove it, Daniel declines, to the confusion of nearly everyone in town.
Everett isn’t particularly subtle about what he’s doing in this story (the title is a pretty good indication), but the sly playfulness with which he explores the power (and fragility) of America’s most toxic symbols is pitch perfect. In many ways, the registry Everett hits in “The Appropriation of Cultures” will hit full volume in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2021 novel The Trees (which you should also definitely read).
The story begins:
Daniel Barkley had money left to him by his mother. He had a house which had been left to him by his mother. He had a degree in American Studies from Brown University which he had in some way earned but had not yet earned anything for him. He played a nineteen-forty Martin guitar with a Barkus-Berry pickup and drove a nineteen-seventy-six Jensen Interceptor which he had purchased after his mother’s sister had died and left him her money, she having had no children of her own. Daniel Barkley didn’t work and didn’t pretend to need to, spending most of his time reading. Some nights he went to a joint near the campus of the University of South Carolina and played jazz with some old guys who all worked very hard during the day, but didn’t hold Daniel’s condition against him.