Mateo Askaripour’s debut Black Buck is a fast paced and always self-aware skewering of capitalism as a mechanism for both reinforcing racism and being part of the solution. Askaripour takes readers into the heart of the capitalist dream machine – disruptive start-ups selling dreams to the world – and finds it as repressive and unreconstructed as anything that existed in America in the last two hundred years. Slavery is not mentioned but the long shadows of its impact are well and truly explored in this narrative.
Black Buck is pitched as a self help book – as the “author’s note” states: “My goal is to teach you how to sell.” He starts from the premise that everyone who has been successful is to some degree a sales person:
…our man ML to the goddamn K was a salesman to the highest degree… Hell, Nina Simone, Rosa Parkes, Harriett Tubman and every other Black woman who achieved any leap of success was a saleswoman.
And then goes on to tell his rags to riches story, full of life and sales lessons which are peppered through the narrative.
“Buck” started life as Darren, a young man who lives with his mother in Bed-Stuy and works at Starbucks. But a change encounter with Rhett, the CEO of a venture-capital funded start-up called Sumwun, changes his life. Darren enters the hyper-corporate culture of Sumwun where he faces intense institutional racism (including the nickname which becomes his name) in order to fit in, helping the company overcome its own problems and leaving his old life, including mother, friends and girlfriend behind him in his quest for success.
But this is not only a self-help book for budding sales people, it is a morality tale in which no bad deed going unpunished. It is a story of how Darren/Buck comes to understand the institutional blocks to any minority achieving in corporate culture and finding a way to address that. It is a story of not only overcoming adversity but slowly coming to a self-understanding and a capacity to leverage success into service.
Black Buck can be uncomfortable at times. Particularly in the first half, readers may feel like reaching into the book and giving its narrator a shake. The allusions to slavery and slave culture are never far from the surface, from the name “Buck” itself to the actual public “auction” of homeless people by Buck’s white entitled adversary Clyde. But it is written with verve and plenty of heart, peopled with a cast of interesting characters and, if it’s also what you’re after – packed full of sales wisdom.