Lieberman Novel Embroiled in Racial Controversy
The Jewish Democrat defends the alleged racial content of his literary work in the face of criticism and calls for him to withdraw from Senate race.
Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Despite his relatively strong showing in polls, Matt Lieberman’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Georgia has lagged behind other leading candidates in funding and attention.
The latter became less of an issue on Friday, when HuffPost, a politically liberal news and blog website, published an article about a novel Lieberman wrote in the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va.
Now the 52-year-old Jewish Democrat is facing calls that he drop out of the Nov. 3 special election for the seat formerly held by Republican Johnny Isakson, who resigned in December citing health concerns. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to serve through the election.
Distressed by the images he saw from Charlottesville, Lieberman wrote 45,000 words that became the foundation of his debut novel, “Lucius,” which was self-published and released in January 2018. The story revolves around the relationship between Benno Johnson, a 90-year-old white Southerner, and Lucius Cincinnatus Jones, his imaginary slave, as told to a volunteer at the senior residence where Johnson lives.
Lieberman promoted the book when he appeared with his father, former Connecticut U.S. senator and vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, at the November 2018 Book Festival of the MJCCA.
HuffPost reported that the Benno character in the 211-page novel “regularly deploys the N-word and says some members of the Ku Klux Klan were ‘basically good people.’”
Those calling for Lieberman to exit the race include the president of the Georgia NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and one of Lieberman’s
African American electoral rivals. The chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia issued a statement that, while not calling for Lieberman to withdraw, was strongly critical of the reported contents of Lieberman’s literary work.
In a statement issued Friday to the AJT, Lieberman said: “I wrote this novel in response to Charlottesville as a clear-eyed and honest look at racism in America. Whatever my opponents say, highly regarded Kirkus Reviews called it ‘a deeply original meditation on race and friendship.’ The fact that I published this book has been known since I began this campaign last year, so an attack surfacing only now is testament to the strength of my candidacy today. But I’m not going to be distracted from seeking the support of Georgians, nor deterred from fighting against racism and for a more just society.”
A statement posted Friday on Twitter by the state Democratic Party, from its chair, Nikema Williams, read: “Let me be clear: racist and discriminatory tropes have no place in our politics and no place in the Democratic Party. These kinds of offensive writings are antithetical to our party’s values and will not be tolerated. At a time when hate is being weaponized more than ever in our political system, we must call out behavior like this when we see it and hold all candidates accountable for their actions.”
Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, posted Friday on Twitter: “We need a U.S. Senator who understands that we are NOT magical Negroes – especially as we continue to die and suffer from systemic racism every day. This is why, as State President of @Georgia_NAACP, I am asking @LiebermanForGa to end his candidacy. #WeAreNotYourMagicalNegoes.”
Woodall told HuffPost that “Lucius” contained “racist tropes.”
“If this is his imagination, if this is how he constructs a world, where he’s a white savior and he needs a magical Negro to help save him, I would urge him to reconsider his place in this world,” Woodall told the website. “In my personal opinion, this would just exacerbate a tough time for us as a state. He should drop out of the race. If he wants to be an author or a writer, he should just do that.”
The term “Magical Negroes” refers to a plot device in literature and film in which a Black character is introduced to assist a white character and then, often, disappears. A frequently mentioned example in film is the Bagger Vance character played by actor Will Smith opposite actor Matt Damon in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a film released in 2000.
As of Sunday there had been no comment by the most-publicized Democratic candidate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, an African American who has trailed Lieberman in polling but garnered the backing of a national arm of the Democratic party, numerous dignitaries and liberal groups.
Another African American Democratic candidate, former state senator and U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver posted Friday on Twitter: “These racist tropes and attitudes are shocking. Matt says he knew some readers would react with disgust. That’s an understatement. He should apologize to the Black community and withdraw from the Senate race.”
Lieberman, a Yale-educated lawyer, has been a healthcare entrepreneur and was head of school at the former Greenfield Hebrew Academy – which merged in 2014 with Yeshiva Atlanta to form Atlanta Jewish Academy – from 2005 to 2007.
The Nov. 3 open primary is to fill the remaining two years of Isakson’s term, until 2022. There will be 21 names — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and independents — on the ballot. If no candidate garners a majority, a runoff will be held Jan. 5, 2021. Loeffler and Republican Rep. Doug Collins, who represents Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, are most often cited by political pundits as likely candidates for a runoff.
According to campaign finance reports filed June 30, Loeffler had cash on hand of slightly more than $7 million, Warnock nearly $2.9 million, and Collins, $2.6 million, compared with $305,000 for Lieberman.
The most recent polling, a Monmouth University Poll conducted July 23-27 — a telephone survey of 402 registered voters with a sampling error of 4.9 percentage points — showed Loeffler with 26 percent backing; Collins, 20 percent; Lieberman, 14 percent; Warnock, 9 percent; Tarver, 5 percent; and Libertarian Brian Slowinski, 3 percent, with other candidates not named totaling 5 percent, and 18 percent undecided.