"[Hokum] is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of African-American humor," editor Paul Beatty declares in the anthology's introduction, "but more of a mix-tape narrative...a sampler of underground classics, rare grooves, and timeless summer jams."
The California-born author's own poetry and prose—satirical, dark, gymnastic, and very funny throughout—surely qualifies him for the gig. Having studied with Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College, two volumes of poetry (Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce) established Beatty as a voice to watch. The White Boy Shuffle, his first novel, confirmed and arguably surpassed those expectations. Another novel, Tuff —"masterfully conceived and highly entertaining" (The Boston Globe) —followed four years later.
Beatty has divided Hokum's contents into three sections. "Pissed Off to the Highest Degree of Pisstivity" frames one hundred fifty years of vengeance from the likes of Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Mike Tyson (bard of the ring—and of unintentional humor). "(Nothin' Serious) Just Buggin'" juxtaposes the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks with the braggadocio of Muhammad Ali (in fact, his ghostwriter, Gary Belkin) and the dialogue of filmmaker Spike Lee. Part Three, "Black Absurdity," opens with Zora Neale Hurston's "Book of Harlem" (Hurston is the only author represented in all three sections) and follows a through-line that hits young novelist Danzy Senna, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and finally the Prophet Omega, founder and overseer of the Peaceway Temple in Nashville, Tennessee.
Beatty explains, "I had never seen a humor book that put this literature together." Indeed, Publishers Weekly confirms, "The volume's general tenor is wild, winking and explosive.... A Norton anthology this is not."
Dave: Let's start with the epigraph of Hokum, from Basquiat: "People laugh when you fall on your ass. What's humor?"
Paul Beatty: It's temporal, it's transitory, it's timeless, but what it is, I have no idea. These things are impossible to codify. But I wanted to point that out and start from there.
Dave: There's a very short poem in Joker, Joker, Deuce called "Why That Abbott and Costello Vaudeville Mess Never Worked with Black People":
| who's on first?
i don't know, your mama
In light of Hokum, it made me think about how humor doesn't always translate across cultural or generational divides. I have a memory of my father watching his favorite old comedian on videotape, and my brother and sister and I leaving the room after five dull minutes.
Beatty: And your sense of humor definitely changes as you get older. When I was really young, I hated the Marx Brothers. Now I love the Marx Brothers—for whatever reason; I have no idea why.
There's this cartoon called Boondocks by Aaron McGruder, and I guess now he's got an animated television show. The main characters are black. It's supposed to be kind of edgy with a lot of race humor. I've never seen it, but the newspaper runs a feature where they'll interview six people and ask them to grade a show. They did Boondocks recently, and all the white people gave the show grades from C to F; the two black people gave it an A. I thought that was really funny. It's an illustration, maybe. Sometimes things don't translate. And they don't have to. Nothing has to be funny to everybody.
Dave: Why this collection? What drove its creation and its content?
Beatty: No one knows about a lot of this stuff. I wrote in the introduction about reading a book called Oreo by Fran Ross. I thought, This book is so funny. Why has it taken me so long to hear of it? It's ridiculous that the book isn't better known.
There isn't a whole lot of black literature to start with. Then a lot of that literature addresses the idea of taking American blackness seriously; for generations, it wasn't considered something worth writing about. So there is some cynical stuff and satirical humor out there that people don't know about, and I had never seen a humor book that put this literature together. Everything I saw was a bunch of jokes and folklore-type stuff, which is fine, but that's the stuff people already know.
Dave: You note in the introduction, "The defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety." Many of the selections in Hokum's first section might surprise people. They're not what people would typically expect in a humor anthology.
Beatty: I wanted to get across the idea that humor is used in all kinds of different ways. Humor is definitely a tool to get across political and personal points. One thing that made someone like Farrakhan or Malcolm X so palatable to a certain group of people was that they were able to create a kind of insider, hard-biting humor. It's a device.
There's a guy named Bill Simmons whose blog I read on ESPN. He'll point to all kinds of unintentional humor. I read tons of very funny stuff that I wanted to use as unintentional humor, but no one was going to give me permission to mock their work. Still, it opened me up to using Mike Tyson and Al Sharpton. It's saying, "These people are also funny in a different way." I wanted to put that kind of stuff in there also.
Dave: Why didn't you include Richard Pryor?
Beatty: There are a couple things I wanted to use that I wasn't able to, including a section of his autobiography. But I called his wife, and I guess she was trying to resell the rights to Europe. She felt that having it in the book would hurt her cause.
I do love Richard Pryor, but I didn't want to transcribe one of his routines. A lot of his stuff is so well known.
Dave: Reading about Pryor's shift toward more abrasive humor in a book called On the Real Side, it was wild to imagine how those bits would have struck an audience that was expecting someone more like Bill Cosby.
Beatty: What made him so special and funny was that he was so vulnerable. You don't see that. Everybody else draws the audience in, and it becomes an us-versus-them routine. These people are so stupid. We're the people in the know. Pryor was so good at showing his ignorance and all his foibles. To me, that's what made him so distinctive and set him apart.
Dave: Yesterday on Slate, Armond White reviewed a new biography of Stepin Fetchit. The review asks, "Should African-American performers be accountable to political correctness? To what degree should they worry that their antics shape the self-image of young African-Americans?" How would you respond to that?
Beatty: I don't think you can force anybody to be accountable— it's individual choice—but I do get mad when people pretend there's no decision to make, as if the question doesn't exist.
I remember doing a reading a long time ago with this guy who read a short story full of slanderous stuff about women. Women in the audience got mad at him for using a particular word. He said, "I can use whatever word I want." I thought, Yes, you're right. But he was mad at the women for being offended. You have to realize that people have the right to be offended. You have to take into consideration the impact of what you're saying. If you're saying, "I'm doing it because it works and this is how I earn my living," okay. No one can tell you not to.
Dave: What do you make of the hullabaloo over the Hokum cover. [Editor's note: Several media outlets cancelled coverage of Hokum after taking offense at the toothy watermelon grin depicted on the jacket.]
Beatty: I understand it, but it's a little silly. It's a slice of fruit. You would think that people would get the joke. Some people do.
It goes back to what we were saying about sobriety and seriousness. And it's true that sometimes when you laugh at yourself in a public forum, people are going to use that as an excuse to laugh at you. I think there's some of that sensitivity. The image brings up a lot of harsh realities about the era when minstrelsy was popular. A lot of other stuff goes along with that, like lynching. So I understand why you'd be sensitive about it, but to act like it's some cardinal sin against blackness or history, that I don't understand. That's part of the question the book poses about levity.
Dave: I would hope that the content of the book can carry the image.
Beatty: I would think so. I picked it because I thought it was the best image, but I realized there would be some baggage with it.
It's funny: I called my mother, and I said, "Ma, these people are so mad." She said, "Good." But why be mad about this? People look for easy targets. There's always the in-group weeding out the traitor. That's always going on. But it's easy to be up in arms about this cover and not be up in arms about Condoleezza Rice.
Dave: You write in the introduction about the difference between an oral tradition and writers scripting words for the page. How do you think that's reflected in your poetry, where there's so much energetic wordplay? I haven't heard you read, but it's hard not to imagine your poems read aloud.
Beatty: I still write poetry, but I rarely read. I had a problem with people who were writing just to be heard. Personally, I was uncomfortable with that. For me, if I could convey all the energy on a page, that's what I wanted to do. Reading a poem aloud is complementary, but I don't think it's essential. It's part of the reason why I kind of stopped writing poetry. I realized, This is not my bag. It becomes performance, and I'm just not a performer. I felt very out of place sometimes.
Dave: I went back and read The White Boy Shuffle again last week, and I couldn't stop thinking of The Fortress of Solitude as a counterpart.
Beatty: I've never read it, but I don't think you're the first one to say that.
Dave: It's a different side of the story, but there's a lot of common ground. The main character is one of three white boys in an otherwise black school in Brooklyn.
Beatty: Being an outcast is not limited. The setting may be different, but the process is the same. That's human nature. And usually if something is fairly good, you can get past setting and language. Everyone goes through it at some level.
Dave: If nothing else, you and Jonathan Lethem both grew up on comic books.
Beatty: That could be very true.
Dave: Susan Orlean was blogging on our web site last week, and she mentioned "several books that I use as rabbit's feet—good luck charms, that is—when I'm writing. I always have them on my desk when I'm working, and I constantly flip through them when I'm stuck." Do you have any such books?
Beatty: Not at all. I can't disassociate like that. I would be thumbing through the book, cribbing, so I don't dare do that. No, usually if I'm writing I'll be reading poetry, nonfiction, or a classic. I'm too susceptible to anything contemporary.
Dave: John Henry Days is a very good, funny book. I was glad to see an excerpt in Hokum.
Beatty: Colson [Whitehead] is a good writer.
Dave: How many years passed between the writing of White Boy Shuffle and Tuff?
Dave: What challenges did you set for yourself that second time?
Beatty: Partly, I felt like a needed to narrow it down. White Boy Shuffle covered so much ground. I thought, Okay, this time the guy can't leave the block.
I like Tuff. Of the characters I've written so far, Tuffy is my favorite. But there was a lot of self-serving, opportunism on my part with that book, trying to make some money. There was all this stuff going on. When I read Percival Everett's Erasure, I thought, Man, he was feeling the same thing I was, but he did it smarter. I was trying to use Tuff as a metaphor for all this shit, and he just told the story straight out from an author's point of view.
Dave: Where did you find the Lightnin' Hopkins recording that you transcribed for Hokum?
Beatty: It's something I've had for a long time. I've never seen the record anywhere else, but I like Lightnin' Hopkins, and I love when he tells the story at the beginning of that song. He's a good storyteller. I find that preamble hilarious.
Dave: Eric Dolphy shows up in more than one of your books, so I have to ask: What's the first album to listen to if I don't have any?
Beatty: Maybe Outward Bound. That's one of my favorites. It's fairly accessible. Do you listen to a lot of jazz?
Dave: Some. And you drop other references to Charles Mingus, whose stuff I like a lot.
Beatty: Mingus has some albums on the Candid label, and Dolphy's really good on one called Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. But wait, you're going to make me look at my record collection. Outward Bound is definitely one of my favorites. The ones in Europe are okay. And maybe Out There and Here and There, also. Those are all good.
Dave: In Hokum's introduction, you mention your mother's library. It sounds like it was quite a resource.
Beatty: She's eclectic. She's into everything. You know, when you're young you don't really think about fit; that stuff comes afterwards, when you realize what's missing or what you're not supposed to be reading. I just read what was there and didn't worry about it.
I never really thought about it, but she had all these Joseph Wambaugh books, The Choirboys and the rest, that I would read in junior high and high school. I don't know what other kids were reading, but I would show them these books and they'd see the word fuck on the page. People would flip out.
I appreciate that she never censored anything. I don't have a good sense of caution sometimes, but I like that I'm not so aware of boundaries. The only thing we never could do was we never could see the play Hair.
Dave: In terms of literary experiences, what might be your starting five?
Beatty: My starting five? That's a tough one. Definitely Bob Kaufman, the poet.
It's tough because you outgrow them. Maybe the Woody Allen books—I don't know if I could read them now, but those were good. One that I absolutely hate now, but John Irving would be in there also.
Dave: That happens. Some of us on staff have been here long enough that we're constantly shaking our heads at books we recommended years ago. Can we take that blurb off the site?
Beatty: I think it happens because things are hip, somebody is maybe breaking new ground, and you really get into that. And that's important. I remember going to see the Spike Lee movie, She's Gotta Have It. It was so refreshing. Then I saw it about five years ago and I couldn't believe how bad it was. But for me it served a purpose, not so much an aesthetic purpose, but it's a kind of direction if nothing else, like light streaming under the door. And that's fine, too.
Dave: What's next for you? Are you working on something right now?
Beatty: I'm trying to get a novel together. Actually, I just sold it, but it's got a long way to go.
And me and a friend have a really, really, really good idea for a television show. We've got to figure out if we have the nerve to do it or not. It would take a lot of nerve, but it's such a good idea. Those are the things I'm thinking about.
Dave: I was surprised to discover that you were at one time a big fan of the Los Angeles Kings.
Beatty: Back in the day, definitely; back in the Rogatien Vachon days. I didn't have a television then, but I used to listen to the Kings on the radio all the time. I could be really a big hockey fan, actually, which is kind of hard on the radio. It took me forever to figure out all the blue line, red line, two-line pass shit.
Dave: And the names can be a challenge.
Beatty: No! The names are cool. Hockey players have the best names. Peter Mahovlich and all the rest.
At college, I was in a bar once with some of the college hockey players, who were making all these racial slurs. My hockey interest waned from that day on. I used to be a big hockey fan, but not so much anymore. I'll watch in the playoffs, but that's about it.
Dave: You've lived on both coasts. Are you more L.A. or New York?
Beatty: I don't feel very New York. My friend always says that when people from L.A. move to New York you can see them wither up a little bit. I'm more L.A., I think.
Paul Beatty spoke from New York on December 13, 2005. Thanks to Mark LaFramboise of Politics and Prose in Washington D.C. for turning me onto The White Boy Shuffle back when it first came out in '96.
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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.
Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State