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Literature / What Happened?

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"What Happened?" is a short story written by Austin C. Clarke, a Canadian author of Barbadian parentage, and set in 1950s Canada.

Best friends Henry and Boysie spend one Saturday afternoon in the former's apartment, holding a lengthy discussion about Henry's marriage to Agatha, a white woman, and her intense love of books and education in contrast to Henry's greater simplicity and directness. From there, the discussion delves into Henry's reactions to racist attitudes in Canada, as a black man of West Indian birth.

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Tropes:

  • The Ace: Agatha, based on Henry's description. She's a successful author who's written numerous titles on different subjects, including sociology and anthropology; she's easily gotten a university fellowship valued at $6000; she's a talented artist; she's highly knowledgeable on black music; she's a well-known zoologist...
    Henry: She is trying to give me an inferiority complex, Boysie!
  • Angry Black Man: Henry.
  • Black Sheep: Henry indicates that Agatha became this to the rest of her family for marrying him, a black man.
    Henry: Her father didn' even show up at the wedding. Her mother didn' even remember she had a daughter named Agatha, getting married. And her two brothers! You ever heard my wife say she has two brothers?
  • Fetish: Boysie gets to see a letter Agatha had once written to Henry, which pretty much spells out her love/lust for all things black.
    Boysie: (reading Agatha's letter aloud) "I love you because you are black. I love your black skin. I love your black hands. I love your black black face. If you were lighter in complexion, like Harry Belafonte, I would not like you so much, because that would not then be a perfect match. I love your woolly thick hair. I love your thick purple lips..." (laughing) "I love you, I love you, I love, I love you, you big black beautiful black beast." (bursts out laughing again)
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  • The Ghost: Agatha herself. Although she's the main point of discussion between the two men, and the narrative goes into brief flashbacks where she's quoted, she never actually shows up in the present-day events of the story. The narrative notes that Boysie's visits always seem to be timed for when Agatha's not home.
  • Happily Married: Henry and Agatha, despite what he wants to say.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Henry and Boysie.
  • Hidden Depths: Despite his denigration of everything Agatha does, Henry really does love his wife. Plus, he's a fairly decent poet and can be pretty philosophical (that last one likely as a result of being married to a bookish scholar who's versed on a lot of subjects).
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Agatha, a white woman, became her family's Black Sheep for marrying Henry, a black man.
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  • Overly Long Name: Agatha Barbara Sellman-White.
  • Precision F-Strike: Done twice by Henry, when Boysie is admiring some photographs of influential black leaders that Agatha has framed.
    Boysie: I see the great Elijah Muhammad, man! He is a great man for black people, and...
    Henry: Elijah ain't s**t!
    Boysie: ...and for white people, too. And this must be Malcolm X. He's a giant, according to a' article I read in Life. And a programme on television...
    Henry: He ain't s**t, neither!
  • Refuge in Audacity: Henry tells Boysie about how he got a door slammed in his face by a white female property owner back when he was looking for a room to rent. In revenge, he says, he went back to the house that night and painted a red swastika on the (conveniently white) front door.
    Boysie: ...you do what?
    Henry: On the door!
    Boysie: But was the woman a Jew?
    Henry: No!
    Boysie: She didn't even have a Jewish name?
    Henry: I didn't remember to ask her.
    Boysie: And you still painted a Nazzi sign on her front door?
    Henry: It was the only sign or symbol I could think of that would scare the living crap outta her pants.
    Boysie: A Nazzi sign?
    Henry: Red as blood, like the communists! It was a pretty swastika too. It took me ten minutes to paint. (laughs out loud)
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Agatha is extremely idealistic in her views of racial equality, while Henry is extremely cynical due to his personal experiences with racism.
  • Title Drop: The title of the story serves as its very first sentence, asked as a mental question by Boysie when he is trying to figure out what it is about Henry's apartment that's changed since the last time he was there (it's the numerous books and bookshelves), and again when he tries to figure out what Henry changed about himself, while trying to compare a drawing of Henry that Agatha did to the actual Henry (turns out Henry let his hair grow long).
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