The Secrets of Blackness -- through Wit and Dark Humor

By Young, Kevin | International New York Times, April 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Secrets of Blackness -- through Wit and Dark Humor


Young, Kevin, International New York Times


In Paul Beatty's darkly satiric comic novel, a young man's life unspools on the outskirts of Los Angeles

The Sellout. By Paul Beatty. 288 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

African-American satire has been alive at least since the first black slave made fun of her putative masters and their manners. In that moment of mockery, the cakewalk was born, but this parody had a catch: The slave owners loved it. They mistook the dance for a poor imitation rather than a dark mirror. One of the first homegrown national fads to go global, the cakewalk anticipated the paroxysms of twerking that would follow, whose late adopters like Miley Cyrus might be forgiven for missing the deep irony in the form's black origins.

In print, black satire made its way into the 20th century through works like Langston Hughes's "The Ways of White Folks" (especially the transcendent story "Slave on the Block"), George Schuyler's "Black No More" and much of the folk tales and tomfoolery recorded and recast by Zora Neale Hurston during the Harlem Renaissance.

There were those who saw this satire without the least bit of humor. Richard Wright's scathing attack on Hurston as a retrograde writer set a pattern not of discourse but of dismissal. It would take the 1960s, the reckonings of the Black Arts movement and the efforts of Alice Walker to reappraise Hurston -- and to elevate satire as a form of protest. Cecil Brown took up Hurston's folk humor in fiction and nonfiction (one of his books featured, for good measure, a giant black middle finger); Mel Watkins would go on to write a definitive book on black humor; and Charles Wright, the author of the 1960s novel "The Wig," became a cult hero to those who like their racial romps postmodern and Flip Wilson-funny. In the end, it turned out that everyone just wanted to be Richard Pryor.

Into this rich tradition Crip-walks Paul Beatty. First known as a poet and whom audiences back in the day might know from a classic MTV poem spot, he has written three other comic novels and edited the terrific "Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor," whose cover boasts a watermelon slice in lieu of a smile. All that should be a tip-off that Mr. Beatty is interested in skewering the popular (or at least cutting it into bite-size slices). On MTV, he essentially recited a Your Mama joke.

"The Sellout" is more a Your Daddy joke. At its heart (if satire can be said to have one) is the narrator's relationship with his dead father; with his father's cronies and frenemies; and ultimately with Dickens, his Los Angeles hood that has been "disappeared": "There was no loud send-off. Dickens didn't go out with a bang like Nagasaki, Sodom and Gomorrah and my dad" (killed by police). This tragedy is milked for comedy, in the tradition of the blues, and Dickens takes on a character much like the novel itself -- borderless, outrageous, filled with crazy characters we are not so much meant to believe as be bombarded by.

The book opens with a prologue, which takes the beginning of Ellison's "Invisible Man" ("I am an invisible man. No, not some spook. ... ") and spoofs it beyond belief, taking decades of stereotypical characters and putting them on display in the Supreme Court. In those hallowed halls, the narrator sparks up some weed before his attorney Hampton Fiske argues the case in broad comedy daylight. (Our narrator has been charged with trying to reinstate slavery in his home and segregation in a local middle school.)

I thought often of the 1990s appointment TV "In Living Color" when reading the novel; Mr. Beatty takes the same delight in tearing down the sacred, not so much airing dirty laundry as soiling it in front of you. "The Sellout" isn't a book for the fainthearted -- though not exactly for the lighthearted either.

From the prologue the book turns to Dickens, "an agrarian ghetto," where folks raise livestock and the narrator's sociologist father raises him as a race experiment ("40 acres and a fool"). …

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