After learning what it takes to make it in the corporate world, Mateo Askaripour spins that knowledge into gold in his riotous first novel.
“You’re likely in for a wild ride, and you will make mistakes,” says author Mateo Askaripour via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “But as long as you learn from them and don’t judge yourself too harshly, you can retain a sense of self and still succeed.”
Askaripour’s comments reflect the central message of his debut novel, Black Buck, in which a young Black man named Darren attempts to navigate the punishingly racist corporate tech world without losing either himself or the love of his friends and family. With a complex yet accessible plot, rich characters and Askaripour’s sharp wit, Black Buck is a page-turning satirical examination of corporate racial struggle. And with its tips and tricks for achieving success in white-dominated spaces, the book also acts as an instruction manual for Black and brown corporate climbers.
“I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love.”
Askaripour’s professional life began in the same corporate tech world that he thoroughly deconstructs in his novel. The Long Island native was a prodigy of sorts, moving from intern to director of sales at a tech startup within a year. When he needed an outlet from the fast-paced and ruthless world of sales, he turned to the written word. His first two attempts at a novel fell short of the mark. Then in late 2017, he decided to write from experience.
“I realized that writing something that felt true to me meant that I couldn’t shy away from the things that were closest to me in my life,” he explains. Namely, sales, race and startups. In Black Buck, Darren’s quest to establish himself in sales causes internal and external turmoil. Forced assimilation, intrusive demands on his time and the stresses of racism create rifts in his relationships, self-identity and sense of control. There are moments when the reader struggles to determine whether Darren is a hero or a villain. That’s not a sign of any misstep on Askaripour’s part, though. Rather, it reflects the existential battle that Black and brown people face in these environments.
“There were times when I felt like I was mad powerful,” Askaripour says of his sales days. “I was 24 years old, managing 30 people and making over $100K. I had all these people looking up to me. In those moments, it’s so easy to forget that you’re Black. It was so easy to forget because you have some money and people are looking up to you. But then there were times when I’d hire a new person, a white man or woman, and I could tell that the first time I would ask them to do something or tell them to do something, they’d look at me strangely. Years later, I began to understand what those initial looks meant. They were saying, I gotta listen to a Black person? Especially this dude? Some of them never had to listen to a Black person in their life before, or even a person of color.”
As Darren climbs the corporate ladder, some of the racism he encounters is overt, while other forms are stealthily inscribed into the culture of the company. Reflecting both his empirical understanding of the problem and his writing talent, Askaripour does an incredible job of showing how companies often use Black culture as a source of inspiration and mobilization while at the same time generating an internal culture of intolerance for Black people.
“They have this cognitive dissonance where they will take Black culture and use it to energize and further their interests, but how many Black people do they know?” he says. “And how willing are they to sit back and ask themselves whether they are helping or hurting these people that they never really think about?”
Despite its grounding in racial strife, Black Buck is not a pessimistic novel at all. The African diasporic philosophy “each one, teach one” undergirds the book. Brought to America from West Africa, “each one, teach one” suggests that African Americans who have effectively navigated racial subjugation should guide and open doors for others in their community.
“I think we need to realize that until we’re in a position where Black and brown people are giving other Black and brown people those life-changing opportunities at such an exponential rate, there is going to be an obvious disparity, and there is going to be an imbalance. And that needs to change,” Askaripour says. “The ‘each one, teach one’ mentality is definitely a way to change that.”
For Askaripour, Black Buck is a form of service, an intentional attempt to positively affect the material circumstances of Black and brown people. “I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love,” he says. “It doubles as a sales manual for that very real reason. I feel hopeful that if someone reads this book and understands its journey, they would be able to better their lives and probably get an entry-level sales job. Yeah, man, ‘each one, teach one’ is not just essential to the book. It’s at the core of my life right now.”
Author photo by Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour