“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer

drinking20coffee20elsewhere“Freedom is attained only when the ant of the self – that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves – casts off slavery and its legacy, becoming a huge brave ox.”  A small, black teenage narrator named Spurgeon hears this bit of wisdom, as if in passing, at the Million Man March in “The Ant of the Self.”  He notes with boredom and anger that the preacher speaking is repeating a message heard earlier, and reading from a letter read earlier, about ways to keep slaves down – by pitting dark ones against light ones, big plantations vs. small plantations, etc.

We know by this point, about midway through “Ant,” that Spurgeon is completely justified in his anger.  He has taken a road trip with his father – always referred to in the full, ingratiating name of Ray Bivens Jr. – who is a drunk, abusive, self-deluded, avoiding a DUI conviction, owing Spurgeon bail money, and certain that selling a group of exotic birds to the Afro-centric attendees of the March will get him rich.  Spurgeon is smart, he debates for his mostly white high school, and has a loving mother who is as baffled by her ex as her son is, but whose obsessive religion makes her nearly as blind to her son’s potential and good nature as Ray Bivens Jr. is – although, at least his mother would never steal her ex’s car, fill it with smoke, and drive it across the country full of birds.

That speech advising how freedom is attained speaks for the situation of race in America, and also speaks to the freedom Spurgeon needs to find from his father.  Does Spurgeon recognize this?  “At first it sounds like what everyone else has been saying,” Spurgeon says.  That “At first” is telling.  Perhaps the blithe, angry, casually dismissive voice guiding us through this story with much analysis, insight, and sadness, finds something more to take out of this part of the speech.  He doesn’t act on it though – he instead proceeds to get in a fight with the inspired, angry men around him who mistake Spurgeon’s anger at his father for dismissal of the triumph of black rights.

Writing about race is tricky, as is writing about any “important subject.”  In order to do so in a short story context, you have to especially believe the prose discussing it – and a simple discussion will not do.  “The Ant of the Self” is the fourth story in Packer’s 2003 collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and I believe that no other form and no other collection could discuss race as well as this book does.  Its stories range from decade to decade, place to place, male to female, young to old, and chronicle, in each one, someone else facing the enormity of what it is to comprehend race in society.  The book closes with an astonishing story, “Brownies,” in which a group of young black girls accidentally stumbles onto the cruelty that defines minority interactions.  It ends with “Doris Is Coming,” a gripping story that concludes with a black girl sitting at a white ice cream parlor during the civil rights movement.

But “The Ant of the Self” is the story that has stuck with me the most since I read Drinking Coffee Elsewhere years ago.  It is a fascinating, beyond unpredictable narrative – you don’t even realize, for ten pages or so, that it is even about the Million Man March.  And even when it is, it’s not.  The true meat of the story is afterwards, at a bar full of black men who did not attend the march.  Spurgeon, who was indifferent to the march anyway, states it was like a vacation for him to be among black men for once.

A man with a goiter responds to him, “Back in the day, before you were born, couldn’t that type of shit happen… We the ones fought for you to be in school with the white folks.  We sent you to go spy on them.  See how the hell those white folks make all that money!  Now you talking ’bout a vacation!”  Spurgeon’s life is far from great.  Because of his father, Spurgeon’s connect to alcoholism, disillusion, money problems, jail time, and having to figure out how to tell his mother he doesn’t know where in DC her car wound up.  But it’s also something akin to progress.

Not that Packer wants us to get too hopeful.  “The Ant of the Self” soars – and works – because the racial and family dynamics simply follow the trajectory of the narrative.  Something happens between Spurgeon and his father, and it doesn’t end well.  Most of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere don’t exactly “end well” for their characters.  But the all reach a certain point of progress and understanding.  The final scene of “Ant” involves Spurgeon in an Amtrak station realizing he can’t go east anymore, and seeing a father and his young child, who had attended the march, acting warm and happy with one another.

The racial and family dynamics here tend to symbolize one another, jumping back and forth.  Spurgeon is trying to reconcile the disdain he has for his father while not being willing to reject him entirely – like the ant of the title, he seeks crumbs of affection from a man incapable of giving them.  Much like the black identity in this country, there is much to learn to live with, and much progress has been made.  Similarly, Spurgeon seeks an understanding amongst the throng of black men he cannot find – he is not large, or athletic, and thinks of thing in quiet, introspective ways, quite distinct from the men who will not listen to him.  His family dynamic is mirrored by the racial dynamic, and vice versa.

Short story writers learn to be economical with their writing, giving you just what you need.  Packer has the skill to tell a story about race, and not quite tell a story about race.  People talk about race in it, like people do on occasion, and they do it from their own perspective.  The mass of perspectives – generations of perspectives, from the men in bars with goiters, the jesus-loving women on the phone, the drunks selling birds, and the happy young children in train stations – proves that experience is varied and ongoing, and that anything is possible.  “The Ant of the Self” doesn’t quite end in a hopeful place, but ends where you know hope is very much possible.

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3 Responses to ““The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer”

  1. nikki Says:

    where can i find this story online

    • ethansgreats Says:

      I bought her collection of short stories Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, so I’m not sure if it is anywhere online. It’s a great book though! Def worth buying/checking out from the library/downloading 🙂

  2. nikki Says:

    oh ok because i have to read the story the ant of the self for my class and i dont have the book .. what is it about”?

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