Harrison Bergeron is Black. I don’t mean that the story says he is, explicitly. But it doesn’t say he’s white either. All we know about HB is that he’s a 7-foot-tall ideal man, or, rather, teenager, possibly, as he’s 14 years old when he’s taken from his parents. So he could be Black.
If we take him as Black, everything about the story and its reception changes, for the better. “Harrison Bergeron” is, unfortunately, a story much loved by libertarians and other embarrassing individualists. Scalia cited it in his opinions; Jordan Peterson — remember him? — reads the story, I’m told, in a video, with commentary. The libertarians, presumably, imagine themselves as HB himself, held back by mediocrities kept afloat by a society drowning in its misguided dedication to equality. If only the idiots kept their place, these boy-men imagine, then I’d be able to fly free.
Now, they’re misreading the story, of course. HB is, possibly, a teenager. He is exactly the kind of person who would imagine himself better than everyone else, who would declare himself emperor, who would imagine that simply declaring himself emperor would be enough to cow everyone else, if only they could recognize his superiority. He’s a joke, actually. (for more on this, listen to Gerry Canavan, Aaron Bady, and Sam Adler-Bell on their “Harrison Bergeron” episode of Grad School Vonnegut: I haven’t finished listening to the episode yet, but halfway through the episode I had this idea, and had to write it down. If you made the same argument, Canavan, Bady, and Adler-Bell, sorry! I’ll update as necessary)
But that interpretation, HB as goofy impossible teenager, isn’t going to do enough to break the chains of identification and projection binding HB to most (white) libertarians. Making him Black might do the trick, while also accounting for certain peculiarities in the story.
Vonnegut published the story in 1961. It’s easy enough to take it, therefore, as a critique of 50s “man in the crowd” conformity, the suit and tie and hat predictability of postwar (white) prosperity. But 1961 is, of course, also a year well amid the Civil Rights struggle, which was — you might recall — a struggle for equal rights.
So: “equality” is going to have certain resonance to a reader in 1961 that, alone, sufficiently justifies reading HB as Black.
We can take this further, easily, by noting that the story’s about a teenager taken from his parents by a police state; that he’s shot down amid his beauty and power by an agent of the state; that his parents, and not just his parents, are unable to grieve their loss, that the loss, in fact, is socially unrecognizable.
After all, Diana Moon Glompers, the Handicapper General, cannot possibly be wearing any impediments. People are generally burdened to be made bad at their jobs. But not Glompers. She shoots straight, killing both HB and his beautiful dance partner.
So, this is not an equal society. It’s hierarchical. The agents of state violence are not burdened. And should someone from the underclass step out of line, which is to say, should they reveal themselves as someone worthy of our admiration, they’ll be gunned down.
Think of what white supremacy has stolen from us. By “us” I mean not just Black people — I’m not Black, myself — but all people. Regular people kept from realizing their normality, of course, but geniuses too. Eric Dolphy, for example. Think of the stupidity of white supremacy, dedicated to wasting billions of dollars on the police to ensure, primarily, that Black people cannot achieve even parity with white mediocrities. Think, what the hell, of mediocrities like Pat Boone or Huey Lewis. Of what it means that Obama had Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé sing at his inaugurations, and Trump had the, I swear to god, Piano Guys play at his. It’s not just that Trump has bad taste! It’s that whiteness can get away with peddling shit like this as something we should all eat.
Read it this way, and suddenly “Harrison Bergeron” isn’t such a sucky story.