The image of a black man is repeated three times. Inside each of them, a person is trapped. In the background, angry people protest.

Black Like Them

Edited by Brian J. White

January 2017 | Illustration by Galen Dara

Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of Black Like Them, a Dilemma Magazine special report by senior reporter Matt Disher. To listen to the full audio report, please consider becoming a subscriber. Your support enables us to do great journalism like this.


NARRATOR

According to the most recent census numbers, approximately twelve percent of Americans identify as African-American. Take a look around. Do you see any African-American people — black people — around you? We would urge you to look a bit closer. Perhaps they’re not as “black” as you think.

No one knows what prompted Fallan Pierce, best known as a high-profile fixer for the bad boys and girls of America’s most successful corporations, to put her considerable skills to bear behind an experimental treatment nicknamed the “Dolezal Drug.” One thing, however, remains certain: Pierce was prepared for the fallout. She survived the Congressional tribunals with a dancer’s grace. Civil suits rolled right off of her armor. She’s known by many names: “Sista Teflon” by her fans and “The World’s Most Hated Woman” by her detractors. In the two years since the tribunals, Pierce has remained a polarizing picture of American ingenuity and exceptionalism.

Some of you may have watched the trials, and read the hot takes, but what we’re giving you is different. This is personal. Down and dirty, stanky truth.

This is Black Like Them: Nubianite’s Inconvenient Truth.


NARRATOR

Putnam County, Georgia.

MATT DISHER

For my initial talk with Fallan Pierce, I must pass through multiple layers of security. First a gate intercom, then a trip through an X-ray scanner, and finally, a pat-down by a gate guard in black battle dress and body armor, armed with a semi-automatic handgun. The process ends rather disappointingly: I type my name into a computer and pose for an identification photo. Throughout the it all, I note that all of Fallan’s security officers are strapping young African-Americans with the bearing of a soldier. Each one is dressed identically, armed identically, and reacts to my presence with the same stoic gaze.

Two of the guards lead me down a spotless hallway with walls of white ceramic paneling. We stop in front of a thick steel door, where my escort types a code into a keypad and then submits his face to a scan. When the interior of the bunker is revealed, I’m shocked. The space is furnished with plush chairs, a rug patterned with gold thread, and an antique oak table laden with coffee, tea, and pastries. Fallan welcomes me, styled immaculately as usual in a marigold dress that sets off her dark brown skin. Her hair is gleaming black and bone-straight, and the dress is sleeveless, showing off her toned arms and the tattooed outline of Africa that stretches over the ball of her shoulder. Her handshake is firm, as is her smile.

DISHER

(Speaking to Fallan Pierce)

This isn’t your first interview like this since the Nubianite scandal, is it?

FALLAN PIERCE

No. But things have cooled considerably. Back when we were the darling of the 24 hour news networks, my people were fielding calls every hour. You’re the first journalist to contact me in a week.

DISHER

So tell me, what is the first question that interviewers normally ask?

PIERCE

You mean, what question am I most tired of answering?

(Both laugh.)

DISHER

Yes, that.

PIERCE

Well, people have a habit of asking me whether I regret anything, and my answer is always this: I sleep very well at night. Am I sorry that these people’s lives were changed? Of course I am, I have a heart. But we were very clear that our treatment was experimental, and that we were not responsible for any… undue effects. The contracts were airtight, the language clear, and the waivers plentiful. Our lawyers made sure of that.

DISHER

The fact that none of your detractors have been able to get a legal foothold is frustrating them. Huffington Spence-Shilling, the US representative for the district we sit in right now, is one of your loudest opponents. On record, he’s called you a “terrorist” and an “evil black daughter of Cain.” What would you say to him?

PIERCE

Mr. Spence-Shilling is very close to this situation. I’ve sent letters of apology to him, and offered to pay for counseling for his family, but he always rejects my outreach. I’ve said this to Mr. Spence-Shilling before, and I’ll say it again: One has to wonder why he continues to conduct this personal witch hunt using taxpayer resources. It’s not as if having a black son is the worst thing in the world.


NARRATOR

Little Rock, Arkansas.

DISHER

I catch up with Ja’Nyla Lovington as she’s leaving the coffeeshop that she visits every morning. Lovington was never a fan of coffee until she became personal assistant to Fallan Pierce, who hired her after meeting her in the supermarket where she was working. She is everything that Pierce is not: short, overweight, clumsy. Her hair is styled in springy twists that bounce around her shoulders. Despite her stocky legs, Lovington is quick. I have to hustle to keep pace with her for a couple of city blocks.

DISHER

(Speaking to Lovington)

Can you tell me about your time working alongside Fallan Pierce?

JA’NYLA LOVINGTON

No comment.

DISHER

Were you aware of the side effects of the product that you helped Ms. Pierce to provide?

LOVINGTON

No comment.

DISHER

How have you avoided criminal and civil charges in this incident?

(Silence)

DISHER

Is there anything that you’re willing to speak about on the record? How do you deal with the Nubianite fallout? The lives that have been, by some accounts, ruined? A lot of people think that you’re complicit in this—

LOVINGTON

You know what? I’m sick of all of y’all coming around here trying to make a dollar because you smell a story and you think that you can pull it out of little old me. Y’all never have a fuck to give about broke-ass, fat-ass, black-ass girls any other time. Listen. Ms. Pierce was good to me. She gave me a job when nobody else would give me a backward glance. She paid me on time, every month, with benefits. That’s all I got to say about the situation. Anything else that she has allegedly done, you need to talk to her about. And that’s my statement. Put that on your fuckin’ record and spin it, mothafucka.


NARRATOR

Washington, D.C.

DISHER

Reports paint Representative Huffington Spence-Shilling II as a portrait of the best of America: six feet tall, tanned, and slightly rugged, boasting a handsome smile and firm handshake. He lacks much of the fire that marks both his comrades and adversaries, a character trait that distances him from some voters and endears him to others. Today, however, there is no trace of that calm. Representative Spence-Shilling is visibly agitated during our time together. He stands up at intervals and paces, grits his teeth and wrings his hands, lashes out violently at his staff.

Before I enter his office Sara Trujillo, his chief of staff, gives me a piece of advice: “Run if you have to.”

DISHER

(Speaking to Spence-Shilling)

You’ve made some pretty large allegations, Representative, and some — namely Ms. Pierce’s lawyers — claim that you have only the thinnest of evidence to substantiate your position. What’s your reply to that?

HUFFINGTON SPENCE-SHILLING

Pierce knows, okay? She knows, and she knows that I know she knows. The shills in the courts, in the FDA and the Health Department, they’re all on her side but I know, okay?

DISHER

What exactly do you know?

SPENCE-SHILLING

Listen, buddy. My son went into the offices of Fallan Pierce and company as Huffington Spence-Shilling the third, and came out as D-Money Brown because of some strange juju that Pierce somehow slid past the review boards of the FDA, the Health Department, and the Department of Agriculture! Everybody’s a pawn in her game, and there’s no telling how deep her claws are sunk in. Deep enough to make herself untouchable, that’s for damn sure.

DISHER

President Kim has said that she considers Fallan Pierce a close personal friend and that she doesn’t believe that any of your claims are true.

SPENCE-SCHILLING

Ji-Eun Kim is a flaming feminist liberal nutjob and the reason why America is always down on its knees begging from the United Asian Powers. JiEun… you know that in college she went by “Diana” and she experimented heavily with recreational drugs and had wild orgies with her girlfriends? You know that, right? She’s the worst thing to happen to the country, and Fallan Pierce bankrolled her, a liberal nutjob… lesbian who runs on nose candy!

DISHER

I… well, that’s some strong language to use in reference to the President of the United States. And there’s no evidence of a bankrolling operation from Pierce in conjunction with the campaign of President Kim.

SPENCE-SCHILLING

Boy, for a investigative journalist, you sure suck at following the signs. Look at all those dummy companies and foundations that she’s got going! All the connections that she has at the highest levels of government — even the president goes to her for advice on purses! You mean that nothing smells fishy to you with that? Pierce started setting this up in the late aughts! The paper trail is all there.

DISHER

Let’s switch topics for a moment. Where is your son? How is he holding up?

SPENCE-SCHILLING

He’s in a safe place, somewhere you sharks won’t be able to reach him. Under constant surveillance, and protected from any further harm.

DISHER

Testimony from him would go a long way in verifying your claims.

SPENCE-SCHILLING

Sure, and whack my balls into paste while you’re at it. Hell no. This is over. Get out of my office before I rustle up a couple of Marines to throw you out!


NARRATOR

An unnamed urban location.

DISHER

We meet at a take-out restaurant on the south side of town, where the population skews African-American and impoverished. The restaurant specializes in heavy fare — seats and tables are covered in a fine film of grease. My contact doesn’t appear to be a man in hiding when he walks in the restaurant. He is dressed simply in jeans and a dark hooded T-shirt. The only concession he makes to hiding his identity is a black hat with the logo of a well-loved local basketball team across the front, the brim pulled down over his eyes. Still, beneath the disguise the lower half of his face is visible — particularly his deep brown skin and his wiry beard. I have been instructed to call him Trey, instead of the name he was given at birth.

TREY

For the first time I’m not the one out of place.

DISHER

What do you mean?

TREY

Look at you. You’re an outsider. You don’t belong here, not really. Nobody will turn you away because white men always get what they want, but you’re not really welcome. You never are.

DISHER

Your use of “they” when you refer to white men is an interesting choice of words considering… your history.

TREY

Look at me, bruh. I ain’t white no more. I’m black. Like them.

DISHER

But some would argue that you’re actually not black. You weren’t born a black person, and you have a pedigree that, if investigated, proves that your connections have actually been damaging to black communities.

TREY

That was before this shit happened. Now, I just do my best to get in where I fit in. There’s shit that I don’t do, like I don’t try the latest dances or run pickup basketball, but there are black people who can’t do that shit well either. Every once in awhile I’ll do the electric slide because it doesn’t require too much hip movement.

Since being around them though? Let me tell you… Before, I was just doing a bit of high-tech slumming, you know? I wanted to get a taste of the black experience, just for a little bit. Those first days, I was in a different club every weekend, with a different woman every Saturday night. That was back when it only lasted 24 hours.

DISHER

When did you know things were changing permanently?

DISHER

(Voiceover.)

Trey shrugs before answering me.

TREY

There were signs. Blackening, as they called it, normally only lasted either 24 or 48 hours, depending on your dosage. At first I was just turning back later than normal, 72 hours off of a 48-hour dose. Started missing work because I couldn’t go into the office as a black. Then Ayleigh — my ex-wife — found out. Turned out she was okay with it, except for that whole sleeping around thing. We got past that, though, and who’d’ve fuckin’ guessed, being a nigga spiced up our shit in the bedroom. We even did a couple of role plays. Ayleigh takes the BBC, you know? She’d meet me in the ghetto and act like she didn’t know who I was. One day, I didn’t change back.

DISHER

What did you do then?

TREY

I went up to Pierce’s offices. You know what that mothafucka said? That I was the 0.0001%. Odds of this happening were less than one in ten-thousand, and I’d drawn the shit stick. Spelled out in the agreements that I’d signed. We’re sorry, sir, thank you for your business sir, get the fuck out of here you’re a nigger now, sir. She had me escorted off the premises, like I was a threat! On the way out, one of her guards said that if I knew what was best for me, I’d get lost before the police came and — I swear to God he said this – “before they shoot you by mistake.”

DISHER

I assume that your life is very different now.

TREY

Damn real! I mean, I can say “nigga” without the backlash. But I swear, some of them see through me. They call me “white boy” and they know that something’s off. I’ve been trying to adopt some of whatever it is that makes black people so damn cool, but those ones that know? It’s like they have like a second sight or something.

DISHER

What does your future look like from here?

TREY

This is Kool G Rap, you know? But it sucks too. Being black is hard as shit, bruh. Every day is like suiting up and going to war. I… fuck it, keeping it 100? I can’t handle this shit, yo. Even with the music and the food and it being acceptable to dress like a rapper, it’s still a whole lot to deal with. You know how often I get stopped by the police when I’m just out minding my fucking business? I can’t even go see my family unless someone sends a car to pick me up. I’m Ivy League, you know? I’m from a family who can trace their ancestry to Plymouth Fucking Rock. But now, if I go to buy a pack of cigarettes I’m likely to get shot for it. I don’t see how people can live like this, man.

We’re taking the fight to Pierce. My d— my contact is getting his ducks in a row. His lawyers are squadding up. She’s not teflon, you know what I’m saying? We ‘bout to go to war, and the shit won’t be pretty.

But anyway, we up in here talking bidness and ain’t even broke bread yet. This place has the best fried fish, bruh, oh my god. Aye! Aye Nette, give us a plate of fish and two large cups of Southside Punch, extra red! Yo, this food here is bangin’, bruh.


NARRATOR

Tokyo, Japan

DISHER

DeMonterrius Jackson looks like a stereotypical nerd: slender frame, thick glasses. He’s disheveled, shirt three sizes too big, jeans a size too small. His haircut is short on the sides, asymmetrical at the top, and his nose and lips take up most of his brown face. His partner in crime, Ameena Wang, has a wild mane of rainbow-hued curls, and a gold hoop in her septum that sets off her light brown skin. A patch of acne attacks her cheeks, and intelligence flashes in her amber eyes.

The two of them are most recently known as the heads in charge of POC.ME, a social network that bridges virtual and real life meeting space by hosting pop-up networking events (accompanied by live streams) that are only accessible to young non-white people. They are hailed for their start-up efforts, but they are responsible for something greater: the discovery and development of Nubianite, the genetic enhancement cocktail that is responsible for changing the racial appearance of Huffington Spence-Shilling III, among hundreds of others who took the drug. We meet in a bar filled with books and twenty-somethings. Every so often, one of the expat patrons recognizes them, but they are laser-focused on our session. They are so familiar with each other that they often finish each other’s sentences.

DISHER

(Speaking to Jackson and Wang)

So, what was it like working for Fallan Pierce?

AMEENA WANG

Fallan is like a storm. She doesn’t really deal in “no,” not when she has a vision — or when she believes in you, you know?

DEMONTERRIUS JACKSON

Right, like the fact that she sought us out. Me, a statistic from the poorest zip code in Alabama, with no skills to speak of—

WANG

—and me. I used to get called either an “African Booty Scratcher” because my dad was from Senegal, or “chinky eyes” because of my Chinese mom. Shit drove me to a real identity crisis, and I wanted to rock that shit out. Turns out, chemistry was my rock and roll. The odds weren’t in our favor, but she put us on, and I’m grateful for that.

DISHER

How did your relationship with her start?

JACKSON

We had an article published in this journal—

WANG

Blackened: An Investigation of The Effect of Increased Melanogenesis on the Epidermal Makeup of Individuals Typed Non-Black was the article. Published in the Negra Obscura Journal of Black Studies, the Fall 2026 volume—

JACKSON

And it didn’t get much love, probably because our sample used stem cells and unconventional genetic stuff. But Fallan saw an opportunity. She called us up. I was doing a postdoc at the University of Alabama—

WANG

— and I was doing pharma research back home in Cali—

JACKSON

Fallan offered us four times our combined salaries to come in and be her R&D squad. Said she had something huge for us and that we’d be crazy not to get in on the ground floor. So I called Meen up—

WANG

Yo I thought he was full of shit at first, told him as much too.

DISHER

The public idea of Nubianite is that it “makes you black,” but what’s the science behind that?

WANG

I mean, that’s basically it. There are only a few things that determine whether or not you come out of your mom a black person.

JACKSON

Nubianite was us tinkering with those things. We figured out how to isolate the black skin determinants—

WANG

And make a person’s body accelerate their production. But there was some stuff that we couldn’t account for once we started messing around up under the hood in a real way. Strange shit, the drug was calling up stuff from way, way back in the family tree.

JACKSON

I mean, we’re all Africans, but Nubianite made that a reality for some people, changed up some of their physiology as well. We saw some subjects start to “look” more black in addition to their skin change. Fallan loved that shit.

WANG

Yeah. She actually jumped up and down. That’s how we knew we had something special. Trials were a motherfucker, though.

(Jackson laughs.)

JACKSON

Oh man. We started with white rats. Most of them just had a “flash in the pan” type of scene, where their skin and fur went dark and for a few minutes. Once we’d stabilized the formula with rats, we’d shoot up monkeys. All of this was on Fallan’s dime. She had like, ghost holding companies making money all over the world.

WANG

But there were weird moments. Like when we started human trials. We were given clearance to experiment on federal prisoners — only white dudes, though. Fallan figured that would be the target market. That was… a strange experience.

JACKSON

But not illegal. They consented, so it was all good.

WANG

Lots of ‘em received commuted sentences, time served for good behavior, or privileges in exchange for participating in the trials, which… made it feel less strange.

JACKSON

Yeah. The black prisoners were pissed about those rewards, though. Fallan’s lawyers assured us that we would be protected, whatever happened.

DISHER

Were you aware that use of your product would lead to the results experienced by Spence-Shilling and other Nubianite users?

WANG

I always hated that fucking name. Nubianite. But the instances of dermal melanocytic plasticity during trials were so small as to be negligible. Less than one in every ten thousand subjects, consistent across human trials.


NARRATOR

Nashville, Tennessee.

DISHER

After that interview, my reporting stalled. It was six months before I got another appointment to visit Fallan Pierce. In that time, Representative Spence-Shilling brought all of his power to bear on Pierce and her companies. Several individuals had gone to news outlets with claims that they used Nubianite recreationally and were unable to return to their original appearance. These individuals are almost uniformly white and male, and they have started protesting directly.

When I arrive at her offices in Nashville, I am escorted in by Ja’Nyla Lovington and a handful of Pierce’s private security detail. The protestors outside are agitated, but Pierce herself seems unperturbed. She has come out of her bunker in Georgia, gathered her corps of attorneys — all women of African descent — and moved to the top-floor office suite owned by one of her holdings, PerPro LLC. The crowd of protesters is filled with signs with messages like “It’s Time to Pierce Pierce” and “Send Fallan Back 2 Africa.” They are assembled on the sidewalk outside the offices — many of them look African-American. Representative Spence-Shilling is front and center, flanked by a young man wearing dark jeans and a cap pulled low over his face. Since the siege began, Pierce has received death threats, and several of her guards prowl the premises and guard the entrances. Someone has opened a window in the office suite, presumably to let the heat and tension out of the room. It also lets in murmurs from the crowd. The noise rises and falls like a swarm of bees.

DISHER

(To Pierce)

Representative Spence-Shilling has played his hand. Are you worried at all?

PIERCE

I’m surrounded by some of the most powerful lawyers in the land. My windows are bulletproof, and my guards are in the stairs and lobby, ready to stand their ground against anyone who pops off.

DISHER

But does Representative Spence-Shilling have grounds for this protest, for the legal action?

PIERCE

My answer hasn’t changed from the first time we’ve talked. Everything was consensual. Mr. Spence-Shilling has an axe to grind but he’s missing the grinder… so he’s swinging his axe.

He’s trying to put me before another congressional oversight committee and have me serve time in a federal prison. He wouldn’t even give this so much effort if I were a white man. We’d have some sort of backroom deal going where he’d be the first to know if we’ve come up with a reversal procedure.

DISHER

Is one of those in the works?

PIERCE

It’s still in trials. I gave my Research and Development team a year off to decompress after the fallout, but we can’t work miracles. The issue that the affected individuals are facing is a freak accident, and one that we couldn’t control for. But we are working, and when we have a stable product, those affected will receive treatments free of charge.

DISHER

What do you think it will take for Representative Spence-Shilling to abandon his cause, to forgive your company for what he thinks you’ve done?

PIERCE

I think that’s for Mr. Spence-Shilling to say.

(There is the sound of glass shattering, and an uproar from the crowd below. One male voice in particular rises above the rest: “She should get down here and FACE us!”)

DISHER

(Voiceover)

Things are getting messy downstairs. One of Pierce’s private security personnel, a woman with close-cropped hair, enters the room and whispers into Pierce’s ear. I can’t make out what’s said, but a look of resignation settles on Pierce’s face before she turns back to me.

PIERCE

They’ve forced my hand, Mr. Disher. The group outside is growing. We have no less than three hundred agitators on our hands, and they seem to be getting to the point where they are fine with committing property damage — they have just broken the windows out of several vehicles belonging to our staff.

(One of the attorneys swears audibly.)

Have Ms. Lovington dial our contact with the Nashville PD. I wish it had not come to this, but we expected it.

DISHER

What has it come to?

PIERCE

We have a group of protesters who, honestly, care nothing about public safety or the rules of law. They’ve started to damage my property, and even though their cause is noble in their minds, I feel threatened.

DISHER

(Voiceover)

At this point Lovington enters, glares at me, and hands Pierce a phone.

PIERCE

Unfortunately, I am going to have to call in the authorities. I wish that it didn’t come to this, but you and I both know that some people just can’t deny their… savage nature. Let’s hope that law enforcement doesn’t let that, well, color their reaction to this crowd. Now, if you’ll excuse me?

Ms. Lovington, please show Mr. Disher out.

About the author

Troy L. Wiggins is a writer and co-editor of Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. His short fiction has appeared in the Griots: Sisters of the Spear, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, and Memphis Noir anthologies. Troy lives in Memphis with his wife, their two dogs, and entirely too many books. Find him on twitter @TroyLWiggins.

© 2017 Troy L. Wiggins