Banter on Tulips and a Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z and John Coltrane, Outkast and Othello.


Black Folks Don't Read

Or so says Sir Aaron McGruder, in all of his Boondocksian wisdom. Anyways, that remains to be seen. (As I can't count the number of brown folks on the "A" train I've seen reading "Flyy Girl" or any number of the flashy oversexualized melanin-endowed dime store novels that abound. But as usual I digress...) Anyways, you must read this hilarious entry by one of all-time fave scribes, Mr. Paul Beatty. (If you get the inclination, his book, "White Boy Shuffle" is worth its weight in gold.) Beatty proves you don't have to be a solemn psalmist to get through our central Negro truths nor a coonish Chicken George. He seems to, instead, take a page from Willie the Shake, who depicted a conversation between a father (Polonius) and a son (Laertes). "This above all," the dad said, "to thine own self be true and it will follow as the night does the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." Whether it's Stratford-upon-Avon or the East Village, some things remain.

From the New York Times, January 22, 2006.
Essay, Black Humor, By PAUL BEATTY

My introduction to black - excuse me, Black - literature happened during the summer between eighth and ninth grades when the Los Angeles Unified School District, out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart, sent me a copy of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It was the first book I'd ever opened written by an African-American author. Notice I said "opened" and not "read." I made it through a few pages before I began to get suspicious. Why would a school district that didn't bother to supply me with a working pair of left-handed scissors, a decipherable pre-algebra text or a slice of pepperoni pizza with more than two pepperonis on it send me a new book? Why care about my welfare now?

I read another paragraph, growing more oppressed with each maudlin passage. My lips thickened. My burr-headed Afro took on the texture of a dried-out firethorn bush. My love for the sciences, the Los Angeles Kings and scuba diving disappeared. My dog, Butch, growled at me. I suppressed my craving for a Taco Bell Bellbeefer (remember those?) because I feared the restaurant wouldn't serve me. My eyes started to water and the words to "Roll, Jordan, Roll," a Negro spiritual I'd never heard before, rumbled out of my mouth in a sonorous baritone. I didn't know I could sing. I tossed the book into the kitchen trash. I already knew why the caged bird sang - my family was impoverished every other week while waiting for my mother's paydays - but after three pages of that book, I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet's cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.

After this traumatic experience, I retreated to my room to self-medicate with James Clavell, John Irving, Joseph Wambaugh, the Green Lantern and Archie and Jughead. It would be 10 years before I would touch another book written by an African-American. As my wiser sister Anna says, "Never trust folks like Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones who grow up in Walla Walla, Miss., and Boogaloo, Ark., and speak with British accents."

It's always struck me as odd that there hasn't been a colored Calvin Trillin, Bennett Cerf or Mark Twain. Hell, I'd settle for a cornball Dave Barry who'd write, for the rap magazines, columns with titles like "Boogers: The Ghetto Sushi." The defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety - unless it's the black literature you buy from the book peddler standing on the corner next to the black-velvet-painting dealer, next to the burrito truck: then the prevailing theme is the ménage à trois.

After throwing away Angelou's book, I was apparently on some urban watch list. I'd been discovered by a consortium of concerned teachers who, determined to "get through" to me, introduced me to the expansive world of African-American literature, which in those days consisted of four books: Angelou's autobiography, Richard Wright's "Black Boy," Alice Childress's "A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich" and James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain." That was pretty much the entire black canon, though every SAT prep book that ever put me to sleep confirmed the existence of at least one poem written by an African-American. ("In the line, 'What happens to a dream deferred?' the poet dreams of: (a) equal rights (b) showing up at school naked (c) a white Christmas (d) a fancy car, diamond in the back, sunroof top, so he can dig the scene with a gangster lean (e) all of the above.")

My journey to black literary insobriety isn't so different from how I came to appreciate free jazz after growing up in a house that contained two records, the soundtrack to "Enter the Dragon" and "Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan." It turns out that I enjoy never fully understanding what's in front of me, and I masochistically relish being offended while thinking about why I feel offended and if I should feel offended. I also live in Manhattan's East Village.

I found the work of the novelist Darius James while passing through Cathy's bookstore on Avenue B and at the Living Theater on Third Street, hearing him deliver voodoo shibboleths as unruly as his stringy dreadlocks. No one laughed harder at his jokes than he did.

"Lil' Black Zambo was a little nigger boy," he wrote in his 1992 novel, "Negrophobia." "Or pickaninny. Or jigaboo. Or any number of names we have for little colored children - shine, smoke, snowball, dinge, dust, inky, eggplant and chocolate moonpie. And since Lil' Black Zambo lived with his mammy in a one-room hut made of mud and leaves near a croc-infested swamp in the Jungle, we can call him 'gator bait, too. . . . Zambo's pappy, Tambo, who liked to drink cheap coconut wine, ran off long before Zambo was born, so Zambo and his mammy were very, very poor. They didn't give out welfare checks in the Jungle. The Jungle was uncivilized. Or at least that's what Zambo's mammy, Mambo, said. 'When we gwine git civilized so I can git on d'welfare?' "

Bob Holman, then a director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, probably feeling guilty for offering to pay the royalties on my first collection of poetry in draft beer, gave me a first edition copy of the poet Bob Kaufman's "Golden Sardine" (1967). I'd heard the name, dropped by aging Beats looking to reaffirm their movement's diversity. I read that, and quickly snapped up Kaufman's "Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness" (1965) from St. Mark's Bookshop, and therein found the answer to what happens to Langston Hughes's deferred dreamers - they become what Kaufman called (in his made-up word) Abomunists, as demonstrated by these selected riffs from his book "Abomunist Manifesto" (1959):



Some black humor I found on my own bookshelf. I reread Zora Neale Hurston's freewheeling story "Book of Harlem," written circa 1921. ("And she said unto him, 'Go thou and buy the books and writings of certain scribes and Pharisees which I shall name unto you, and thou shalt learn everything of good and of evil. Yea, thou shalt know as much as the Chief of the Niggerati, who is called Carl Van Vechten.' ") I heard Richard Pryor shout-out Cecil Brown on "Bicentennial Nigger," and figured that if Pryor was giving the man some dap, then Brown's novel "The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger" (1969) must be worth a look-see. It is.

My friends were the biggest help. I'll never forget the film director Reginald Hudlin shaking his head in pity when I told him I'd never read George Schuyler's 1931 novel "Black No More." ("Don't you know who that is?" a character in Schuyler's novel asks. "Why that's that Dr. Crookman. You know, the fellow what's turnin' niggers white. See that B N M on the side of his plane? That stands for Black-No-More.") The poet Kofi Natambu practically refused to speak to me until I read Ishmael Reed, and the novelist Danzy Senna smiled wistfully when she showed me the cover of Fran Ross's hilarious 1974 novel, "Oreo." I'm usually very slow to come around to things. It took me two years to "feel" Wu Tang's first album, even longer to appreciate Basquiat, and I still don't get all the fuss over Duke Ellington and Frank Lloyd Wright. But I couldn't believe "Oreo" hadn't been on my cultural radar.

The writer Steve Cannon, professor emeritus of the Lower East Side, pointed me in the direction of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where I stumbled on the black-faced minstrel jokes of Bert Williams, typed on yellowed parchment. The paper was dry, but the century-old wit was still surprisingly fresh. Even more of a shock was my discovery that W. E. B. Du Bois, the pillar of African-American stolidity, had a sense of humor. His 1923 essay "On Being Crazy," while by no means hilarious, is at least an example of the great man letting his "good" hair down to engage in a little segregation satire.

I wish I'd been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would've been comforting to know that I wasn't the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.

This essay is adapted from Paul Beatty's introduction to his new book, "Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor."


Word on the street...

So, I’m not normally one who dabbles in scuttlebutt, but the word on the street that grows ever louder (The Enquirer recently ran a story, and you know they get their facts right!) is that the oh so fine Denzel Washington has been seen catting around with Sanaa Lathan. The problem, sources say, got so out of hand that his long suffering wife, Pauletta, a strong, non-ambiguously black mother of his four children, put his petutie out. I surely hope that it isn’t so, as I would be much obliged to boycott Ms. Lathan (whose movie, “Brown Sugar” is one of my faves.) How can she in good conscience help break up a family? But then, I asked myself, why am I so willing to hate on Sanaa and not Denzel? Was I somehow silently agreeing to the creed that says “This is what men do, so don’t hold them at fault, but we women know better?” After all, I didn’t offer to never watch “Malcolm X” or “Man on Fire” again, but found myself disliking Sanaa with a quickness that rivaled only the speed at which I could type “that homewreckah heffah.” Have I willingly drunk the Koolaid? The question of the day…

Meanwhile, in other news, CNN reports that Bin Laden (and ‘nem) are planning more attacks on the US. Great. While, I’m not one to worry (God will take me when it’s time), but why does Mr. Laden have to notify us when he is about to do something? It isn’t nice or helpful. Doesn’t help us plan our vacations any better. So, Bin, please keep that news to yourself.

On other news, just read that soul legend Wilson Pickett passed away. At 64. Of a heart attack. It’s such a shame, but we can rattle off a list of black folks (men in particular) who have been felled because of heart disease in recent years. NFL defensive end Reggie White. Gospel singer Ron Winans. Stage and screen actor Paul Winfield. The list goes on. Now, I hate “we as a people” phrases, but sometimes they fit. That said, "we as a people have to take care of ourselves better!" That’s just it. No excuses. So, I have a date with the elliptical machine tonight. I’m trying to stick around as long as possible, as I have a lifetime of junk to talk. Lol.



2006: One Time for Ya Mind

A believe a trio called Shalamar said it best. "Make that move right now, baby/ You only go around once in a lifetime." (~from "Make that Move", which plays now)

Well this being the case, I am trying to do all that I can to make things quite crunktastic this year. (Read: I'm rocking till the wheels fall off and I'm rollin' down the skreet with one skate and a sneaker!) I tend to be a swim-upstream-and-against-the-current kind of chic, (I have never read a Harry Potter book and there's that anti-iPod thing too) so as you might expect, I don't really do the whole New Year's Resolution thingie. (I will, however, admit that I am on a self-created new "meal diversification and exercise expansion program". Lol) The plan includes plenty of veggies and me running like Harriet Tubman on the elliptical machine and treadmill, but also not falling to pieces if I may or may not have had some Creme Brulee Haagen Daaz within the last 24 hours *smile*

So far, I haven't fallen off the wagon... well too badly anyway. The first two weeks of this nascent annum bring good things in other ways too. I was just admitted into my first law school and am on the waitlist for two others (two schools in DC, one in Chicago) :) Glory be. I think I will actually "make that move" and go. Change is/will be good and who knows, it may give me more fodder to write. Goal is a book in two/three years, blowuptuated in five. (Range Rover, a Mr. Mahogany, 2.5 kids and complete house staff in TK years. Lol)

To mark the three-day weekend, I find myself celebrating my new old school acquisitions, courtesy of a Christmas gift card. Midnight Star and Shalamar are the newest members of my family. Please welcome them with your own rousing acapella versions of "The Midas Touch" and "For the Lover in You." (Did I ever mention how much I love me some Howard Hewett?! Heaven's to Betsy. Lol) I've decided today for the umpteenth time that I could listen to my music all day, write, and be pretty content with life. All the rest, seems sooo extra. Lol.

As you can see, I don't really have anything coherent to say today. I have made one vow--to post more often and expound more esoterically. Lol. So, that said, stay tuned for an upcoming point-by-point analysis of the Supreme Court hearings featuring Uncle Kracker... I mean Scalia... I mean Alito. I have an upcoming interview planned with the kind gentlman who cleans his hood and cape. Keeps that mess... sparkly white *smile.* Boy, oh boy, how I do just love America.

Lastly, I would have to admit to negligence if I didn't give a shoutout to those oh so innovative, thrice imitated, but never ever duplicated ladies who started this all off today, on January 15, 1908, on the campus of Howard University. To my Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorors, Happy Founders Day!

Skeeeeeeee Weeeeeeee