White Boy Shuffle – The Irony of Race
I recall my introduction to African-American literature as a child. A teacher asked my small-town classroom, full of eager young white children to memorize and report on a Langston Hughes poem. I chose “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem’s imagery captured me; I pictured myself on the banks of rolling waters I’d never heard of in places I couldn’t know. It also appeared near the beginning of my anthology, so I’m sure some degree of youthful sloth drove my choice. But still, I longed to know what it was to have a “soul grown deep by the rivers.”
In my report, this is how I chose to engage with Hughes, and learned that I was wrong. The poem was a description of the legacy of slavery and is about the geography of the African diaspora. I learned that the symbolism directed us to consider the long victimization of Blacks as a lesson of history, not something lived and experienced, and certainly not as anything that had to do with me. I would only learn later that my teacher was an idiot.
Paul Beatty, the author of White Boy Shuffle once penned an essay in the New York Times entitled “Black Humor”. He recalls being handed a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and describes the experience of learning about his oppression second-hand. He recalls a sudden creeping feeling that the local Taco Bell would refuse him service to the tune of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” He called it sober literature. Too sober. Where were the black Mark Twains? The ironists and instigators? These voices were sorely missing from our educations about race, as though laughing at it might make it worse. Instead a whole generation, black and white alike, grew up with a dangerously myopic perspective; ready-made narratives for the victims.
White Americans I know don’t talk about race in polite company. You know what you need to know about black people by thinking a little about dreams that get deferred or the troubles with nappy hair. Black authors themselves are only read when they seek mercy through chastening. If you want to write about the black experience, you need to get back to Mississippi and look for those roots pushing up through the floorboards of a burned out tenement in a mostly-black neighborhood in Detroit. Otherwise, their blackness is an interesting point of commentary derived from back-jacket photos. So when my iBooks account decided to categorize this novel as “African-American” rather than as “Satire,” or “Social Commentary,” or even the utterly useless (but inclusively bland) “Literary,” I found focus for Beatty’s lament. As Mr. Beatty put it so elegantly, “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 [Maya Angelou’s book], I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.”
This is a problem, and it hampers our ability to deal seriously with race. In the end, our useless dialogue might good enough to keep us trucking along and blithely ignoring the problem (there’s a reason why white people are surprised every time some place like Ferguson explodes), it doesn’t get us to the heart of of our collective sins. See, the fact is that the “people are just people” idea that dominates white discussions of race, while possessing a certain hippyish charm, leads to conclusions that are ultimately helpless in the face of several centuries of oppression and race-based politics. An important component of white privilege is the ability to talk about the “Blacks”, “Mexicans”, or “Asians” in generic terms, as though the entire population was somehow reducible and immediately understood.
Such hamstrung thinking is common to all races, but happens to Blacks most of all. Mr. Beatty calls this out when he writes a want ad in the opening salvo of his novel:
Must have ability to lead a divided, downtrodden, and alienated people to the promised land. Good communication skills required. Pay commensurate with ability. No experience necessary.”
No experience necessary… The words call to mind the public image of Black spokespeople being trucked out by news networks and political groups to explain the mind of Black America to the viewing audience every time someone is shot by police, or a racially-motivated assault makes the news. Always the same sad-faced former preacher, occasionally shaking with impotent rage; the academics are rendered helpless by virtue of being well-researched and correct. Eager audiences desperate for perspective, cling to the words of black men of faith and use them to scapegoat the crimes of history. After all, Mosaic metaphors are infinitely preferable to hard facts and actionable propositions. Will God really bring justice to these people? It really doesn’t matter. After all, directing people to Jesus always sounded fine, so long as the rest of the country didn’t have to lift a finger until the rubber bullets came out. Point and click. Move on to the next thing.
Of course, you can’t blame the networks – society demands a scapegoat. Burning them is easier than facing complexity. And for Americans, the challenge of race is so deeply intertwined with our identity as a culture and as a nation, that we want to hide behind some vision of simplicity. But hiding is insane. Some things refuse to go away. The regular cycle of riots give us an eyeball measurement on the basic mismatch between the dream of liberty and the history of power. Worse, our language has even conspired to restrict our avenues for communication; perhaps only the poet has the freedom to cut through?
White Boy Shuffle makes a strong case for such a claim. The story follows Gunnar Kaufman, a “black Orestes in the cursed house of Atreus,” from his early childhood in a largely white suburb to his eventual exodus to the inner city, and his rise to fame as an athlete and poet. Kaufmann’s father Rölf, an officer with the LAPD, is largely absent from his son’s life, save for moments of disturbingly casual racism shared with his son – Rölf hates and fears blacks, abusing his authority as a reminder to himself and others. His mother, learning that her kids don’t want to go to a Black summer camp because, “they’re different from us,” packs the family off to an LA ghetto called Hillside. As a skinny black suburbanite with a taste for Westerns and World War Two make-believe, Gunnar quickly has to learn a new language and develop a new way of being. He adapts beautifully. The story follows the poet-turned-basketball god as he transitions from local celebrity to national phenomenon, out of high school and into college and adulthood.
White Boy Shuffle is also the work of a poet. Mr. Beaty’s brings a voice and life to Kaufmann that would have been impossible for a lesser writer. His language manages to be profound, crude, and often serpentine. He gives the reader a whimsical, and occasionally tantalizing glimpse into parts of American life that many of us refuse to see or even think about. He presents it with a self-reflective wisdom that forces you to feel the flow of culture and the places it drives us. The map he draws is a land of “overgrown inner-city rainforests,” “ghetto intelligentsia,” and “Übermench graffiti.” This is the majesty of the American city, balkanized by some mad color-by-number enthusiast. It’s also a place of terrifying violence and astounding loyalties that is seemingly disconnected from the greater narratives of our nation. And in truth, life seldom cares much about greater narratives. That’s exactly why satire matters so much: it helps the rest of us to see the lines that separate mankind from its institutions.