A blogger gifted with very-often fine taste, who runs a cultural-curation site I usually quite enjoy visiting, has, I’ve found, a little bit of a weirdly super-generous eye when it comes to material produced by Artistes of Color, especially in Lit, and, yes, I can feel some of you recoil, from the screen, as I go there. Perhaps this post is NSFW if you work for a virtue-signalling tech start-up, but: His standards drop straight through the floor/ when Black nonsense raps on the door. It’s like: uh: almost any Black (or “Black”) writer has something interesting to say… and deserves a wondrous plaque… by default? Help me (your Black Intellectual chum) out here…
For example, this bit of recently-posted doggerel from Claude McKay (written in an era when doggerel was king, yes, but is doggerel still so king we are meant to enjoy such greeting card verses now?)…
Gag. I know the Curator means well. But would he have added this to his carefully-curated blog if the writer had been, say, bone-white Albion’s mediocre John Masefield? Masefield was no slouch at cranking out tear-milking filler, himself:
Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.
But even crappy Masefield had enough technique to give us a dilute wee drop of real music in the off-rhyme of “scatter/ running water”. Which is beside the point. The point: imagine hiply curating Masefield’s middling pap of zero consequence! You wouldn’t, would you? Not unless you were a well-meaning type who’d discovered Masefield was secretly Black. And that’s the problem.
White Liberals: I know you’re our only Allies! I appreciate it! The World does not (really) hold us in high esteem! When they start tossing us in camps, only You will probably freak out on Twitter about it! The World may like our music (or it used to) but lots of sub-groups are indifferent at best as we’re being backed further and further into a carceral corner as the Empire’s Congenital Boogie(wo)men… a corner that you, our Liberal White Friends, are actually policing, unwittingly, with your Patronizingly Anti-Meritocratic Inclusivity and Helpfully-Rigged Entrance Exams and your extravagant cash prizes whenever a Black Writer Can String A Few Fucking Words Together! Can you please (please) stop expecting so goddamn little of us? Can you please (please) hold us to such high standards (standards to which you often hold your fellow White Males) that we finally, in genuine glory, produce a few dozen bona fide examples of fucking Literary Genius instead of the same fair-to-middling (or actually cringe-inducing) Middle School reading assignments? Can you hold us to high enough standards that we finally get off the intellectual-plantation-masquerading-as-an-endangered-species-preserve…?
The otherwise-gifted Curator recently published a gushing blurblet for the prize-winning book (with the lowest IQ of the decade), Paul Beatty’s shamelessly slap-dash THE SELL-OUT. Curator compares Beatty’s writing to Tom Pynchon and Ishmael Reed. I bought the book when it came out and read through it with up-ramping exasperation, at free-fall speeds (the text ain’t exactly layered) but our otherwise-canny Curator (with his heart in the right place!) loves the shit (not just any old shit: catshit in a baggie on a red-hot radiator, shit) and posted the following passage as an example of how funny (?) Beatty is…
There should be a Stage IV of black identity—Unmitigated Blackness. I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfre Woodard, and the serious black actor. It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside. It’s “whereas” and “things of that nature.” It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”
—From Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout
To which I commented:
When I was a kid, in the 1960s, in the “hood” (I was shocked a few months ago to learn that the neighborhood I spent ten years of my childhood in was one of the most chemically toxic ghettos in the US), any Black comedian/ entertainer who pandered to Whites, by “confirming” what Whites thought they already knew about Blacks, was said to be “cooning”. There’s a certain “jivey” and funky-cartoonish vibe to “cooning” work… I guess the “cooning”-induced cringe is the Black equivalent of how Appalachian Whites probably felt about that popular sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” … although, to be fair, at least “The Beverly Hillbillies” included Ellie Mae’s beauty, Jethro’s strength and Jed’s salt-of-the-earth-ness to leaven the “dumb hillbilly” stereotypes that Middle America embraced (60 million viewers) in that sitcom.
What’s particularly interesting about “cooning” is that “meta-cooning” is virtually indistinguishable from it, giving enough plausible deniability, for any Black writer who makes a living pandering to the cartoony White sense of the Black Other, to hide behind. “Satire,” or not, “cooning” is usually guilty of the high crime, in both stand-up and Lit, of being as fresh as recycled bubble gum. Beatty doesn’t miss an opportunity to use the kind of “cooning” material that had already been old when Eddie Murphy was stealing it from Redd Foxx. How Beatty gets away with “fried chicken” and “watermelon” jokes in the 21st century is beyond me; it’s not that they’re “offensive”… just so… brutally used up? And puerile? Who *laughs* at that shit? White Guys who see Blacks a certain way…? Other Blacks who hope to jump on the Cooning Gravy Train…?
That there’s still an audience for this stuff says as much about the psycho-social (racial) state of “modern” America as I can bear to think through, in a blog comment, but how is it that no one questions why a “novel” written with all the Literary Skill of a casually “comedic” blog post deserves honors of any kind? The mish-mashing cultural refs that Beatty tosses into the cited passage don’t make a bit of sense (Godard? *Celine*?) or any discernible point; the sore-thumb High Culture drops seem to be the author’s way of winking at the target demographic to indicate that he isn’t as dumb as the world he depicts in the “novel”… despite the fact that the “writing” itself is?
The market for “cooning” (hello, Tracy Morgan! Yo, Kevin Hart!), as the imaginary Jesus once observed about the Poor, will always be with us. And so, as Jed Clampett would say (before a little buck and wing): “Weee Doggies!”
Listen: I know I’m not making friends with posts like this. But I don’t post (or Write) to make friends. I never could bring myself to play that game. However, in an effort to understand my position…
… just imagine I’m a female film student at a weekend film studies symposium organized to debate and critique “The Most Important Films of the Past 50 Years” … and a male chunk of the audience keeps bringing up, and championing (vehemently), “Deep Throat”. First I’d be astonished, then I’d be confused or amused… but by the end of the symposium I’d be pissed and fed up with the “it’s all subjective” argument because, obviously, something fairly significantly Freudian would be going on, regarding these film buffs’ counter-intuitive fanning, and the inability (and unwillingness) of anyone to dig into the rich wet weirdness of all that would start feeling like a kind of… gas-lighting.
Especially after I’d leave this hypothetical symposium and return to the sanctuary of my hypothetical home as an exasperated hypothetical “voice in the wilderness” female film student, only to read, later in the week (this is where the camera would slowly zoom in, while dollying back, on my Hitchcockian expression of disassociating horror) that “Deep Throat” had just that weekend been given the special UNCOMMON GENIUS IN CINEMA award of the year.
Drive a bitch crazy.
ADDENDUM: for a longer look at Beatty’s sophomoric, bong-propelled, garbled, Liberal-approved, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, rescued from the back of a drawer and rushed to print c-o-o-n s-h-o-w …
Most times cops expect to be thanked. Whether they’ve just given you directions to the post office, beaten your ass in the backseat of the patrol car, or, in my case, uncuffed you, returned your weed, drug paraphernalia, and provided you with the traditional Supreme Court quill. But this one has had a look of pity on her face, ever since this morning, when she and her posse met me atop the Supreme Court’s vaunted forty-fourth stair. Under a pediment inscribed with the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, squinting into the morning sun, windbreakers dotted with the dandruff of fallen cherry blossoms, blocking my entrance into the building. We all knew that this was a charade, a last-minute meaningless show of power by the state. The only one not in on the joke was the cocker spaniel. His retractable leash whirring behind him, he bounded up to me, excitedly sniffed my shoes and my pant legs, nuzzled my crotch with his wet snot-encrusted nose, then obediently sat down beside me, his tail proudly pounding the ground. I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering after fifty years of exploding refineries, toxic spills and emissions, and a shamelessly disingenuous advertising campaign. So I clear my pipe with two loud raps on the mahogany table. Brush and blow the gummy resin onto the floor, stuff the bowl with homegrown, and like a firing squad commander lighting a deserter’s last cigarette, the lady cop obligingly flicks her BIC and sparks me up. I refuse the blindfold and take the most glorious toke ever taken in the history of pot smoking. Call every racially profiled, abortion-denied, flag-burning, Fifth Amendment taker and tell them to demand a retrial, because I’m getting high in the highest court in the land. The officers stare at me in amazement. I’m the Scopes monkey, the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life. I can hear the cocker spaniel whimpering in the corridor, pawing at the door, as I blow an A-bomb mushroom-cloud-sized plume of smoke into the faces that line the giant friezes on the ceiling. Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon—these veined Spanish marble incantations of democracy and fair play—Muhammad, Napoleon, Charlemagne, and some buffed ancient Greek frat boy in a toga stand above me, casting their stony judgmental gazes down upon me. I wonder if they looked at the Scottsboro Boys and Al Gore, Jr., with the same disdain.
Only Confucius looks chill. The sporty Chinese satin robe with the big sleeves, kung fu shoes, Shaolin sifu beard and mustache. I hold the pipe high overhead and offer him a hit; the longest journey starts with a single puff …
“That ‘longest journey’ shit is Lao-tzu,” he says.
“All you motherfucking philosopher-poets sound alike to me,” I say.
It’s a trip being the latest in the long line of landmark race-related cases. I suppose the constitutional scholars and cultural paleontologists will argue over my place on the historical timeline. Carbon-date my pipe and determine whether I’m a direct descendant of Dred Scott, that colored conundrum who, as a slave living in a free state, was man enough for his wife and kids, man enough to sue his master for his freedom, but not man enough for the Constitution, because in the eyes of the Court he was simply property: a black biped “with no rights the white man was bound to respect.” They’ll pore over the legal briefs and thumb through the antebellum vellum and try to determine whether or not the outcome of this case confirms or overturns Plessy v. Ferguson. They’ll scour the plantations, the projects, and the Tudor suburban subdivision affirmative-action palaces, digging up backyards looking for remnants of the ghosts of discrimination past in the fossilized dice and domino bones, brush the dust off the petrified rights and writs buried in bound legal volumes, and pronounce me as “unforeseen hip-hop generation precedent” in the vein of Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell, the gap-toothed rapper who fought for his right to party and parody the white man the way he’d done us for years. Though if I’d been on the other side of the bench, I would’ve snatched the fountain pen from Chief Justice Rehnquist’s hand and written the lone dissenting opinion, stating categorically that “any wack rapper whose signature tune is ‘Me So Horny’ has no rights the white man, or any other B-boy worth his suede Pumas, was bound to respect.”
The smoke burns the inside of my throat. “Equal Justice Under Law!” I shout to no one in particular, a testament to both the potency of the weed and my lightweight constitution. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, places that are poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, the homies have a saying—I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. It’s a maxim, an oft-repeated rap lyric, a last-ditch rock and hard place algorithm that on the surface is about faith in the system but in reality means shoot first, put your trust in the public defender, and be thankful you still have your health. I’m not all that streetwise, but to my knowledge there’s no appellate court corollary. I’ve never heard a corner store roughneck take a sip of malt liquor and say, “I’d rather be reviewed by nine than arbitrated by one.” People have fought and died trying to get some of that “Equal Justice Under Law” advertised so blithely on the outside of this building, but innocent or guilty, most offenders never make it this far. Their courtroom appeals rarely go beyond a mother’s tearful call for the Good Lord’s mercy or a second mortgage on grandma’s house. And if I believed in such slogans, I’d have to say I’ve had more than my share of justice, but I don’t. When people feel the need to adorn a building or a compound with an “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a “Biggest Little City in the World,” or “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it’s a sign of insecurity, a contrived excuse for taking up our finite space and time. Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the Shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit.
I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up, I used to think all of black America’s problems could be solved if we only had a motto. A pithy Liberté, egalité, fraternité we could post over squeaky wrought iron gateways, embroider onto kitchen wall hangings and ceremonial bunting. It, like the best of African-American folklore and hairstyles, would have to be simple, yet profound. Noble, and yet somehow egalitarian. A calling card for an entire race that was raceless on the surface, but quietly understood by those in the know to be very, very black. I don’t know where young boys come up with such notions, but when your friends all refer to their parents by their first names, there’s the sense that something isn’t quite right. And wouldn’t it be nice, in these times of constant conniption and crisis, for broken Negro families to gather around the hearth, gaze upon the mantelpiece, and take comfort in the uplifting words inscribed on a set of lovingly handcrafted commemorative plates or limited-edition gold coins purchased from a late-night infomercial on an already maxed-out credit card? Other ethnicities have mottos. “Unconquered and unconquerable” is the calling card of the Chickasaw nation, though it doesn’t apply to the casino gaming tables or having fought with Confederates in the Civil War. Allahu Akbar. Shikata ga nai. Never again. Harvard class of ’96. To Protect and to Serve. These are more than just greetings and trite sayings. They are reenergizing codes. Linguistic chi that strengthens our life force and bonds us to other like-minded, like-skinned, like-shoe-wearing human beings. What is that they say in the Mediterranean? Stessa faccia, stessa razza. Same face, same race. Every race has a motto. Don’t believe me? You know that dark-haired guy in human resources? The one who acts white, talks white, but doesn’t quite look right? Go up to him. Ask him why Mexican goalkeepers play so recklessly or if the food at the taco truck parked outside is really safe to eat. Go ahead. Ask him. Prod him. Rub the back of his flat indio skull and see if he doesn’t turn around with the pronunciamiento ¡Por La Raza—todo! ¡Fuera de La Raza—nada! (For the race, everything! Outside the race, nothing!)”
The Best Possible Antidote to Beatty’s Shallow Race-Con: A Real Artist Discusses Her Frank and Layered Work: