Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BLACK HUMOR

Paul Beatty (whose first novel, White Boy Shuffle, I liked a lot a few years ago) writes on why black humorists aren't, well, taken seriously, and why he couldn't relate to the hallmark writing of Maya Angelou as a kid:
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.
Ishmael Reed, who's also mentioned in the piece, is one of my favorites--I've read almost all of his books (his book Mumbo Jumbo is an amazing conspiratorial mystery about the metaphysical aspects of afro-american music and those who tried to suppress it). I got a bad grade in an ethnic studies class once for doing a paper on Darius James' novel Negrophobia (also mentioned in Beatty's piece). Its satire cuts pretty close to the bone, and the unruly bad attitude of the book was a little too much for the feel good PC hippies in the class (and the humorless instructor). It was my only close call in college with actual group think Political Correctness. I realized then and there though, that post graduate academia wasn't for me. It seems the well meaning schoolmarms that Beatty encountered as a kid are still around, though much more laden with theory.