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To Be Real October 2, 2007

Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.

Last week’s readings made Kameelah think about a “choreography of death”, and as we move out of the “foundations” and into our first novel this week, black death remains an important theme.


My reading of Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle is that the author’s incisive humour and uncanny ear for a number of dialects distracts our flight reflexes so that we can face the brutality that he depicts…and that we live.   Beatty addresses police brutality, childhood abuse, poverty and chronic racism in a way that most contemporary novelists have shied away from.   It is my sense that ultimately this is a book about life IN death and the ways that class inflected racism in the United States fundamentally change the supposed relationship between the two paradigmatic opposites: life and death themselves.

      This is also a book about culture and education and an ironically multicultural critique of multiculturalism itself.  It is a satirical adventure that uses stereotype to breathe life into spaces killed by ideological neglect.  I thank Beatty for encouraging us to think the supposedly unthinkable.  If laughter opens our hearts the depth of what he will portray hear expands them past the point where we thought they would break.

     I encourage you to pair your reading of the White Boy Shuffle with a selective viewing of Aaron McGruder’s cartoon “The Boondocks”.   While the life of the Boondocks as a comic strip presented small (indeed daily) doses of race critical irony, the life of the Boondocks as a television show has created a dystopic space in tune with Beatty’s project.   The Boondocks (again using humour as a critical device) uses stereotype and extremes to accurately display just how crazily racist our society is and just how horrific and senseless the consequences can be.   Narrating the actual plot in what most cartoonists would marginalize into a dream sequence, McGruder leaves viewers (or at least THIS viewer) with a “damn”.    I am left fully complicit, dissatisfied and awake at the end of every episode.  Laughlines charting out pathways for tears.

 I am interested to know what you all think about the use of stereotypes and the n-word by both of these authors.  What do you feel the function of humour is in race critique?  What do these texts make possible? What do they reinforce?  What narrative (race, war, death, education, responses to homophobia, protesting anti-asian nativism) within the complex matrix of Beatty’s novel struck you the most?  To what extent d these works of fiction steal/shift/remake what it means to be real?



P.S.  Please read Kinohi’s extended analysis of White Boy Shuffle in this paper whiteboyshuffle.doc which he has so generously shared with us.  (And the thinking continues…) 



1. kameelah r. - October 9, 2007

Paul Beatty’s ‘White Boy Shuffle’ was introduced to me by a white male classmate who praised the book so much that I absolutely had to read it. He loaned it to me for a few days, then I decided I need my own copy so that I could annotate, dog ear, cross-out and rewrite. I needed my own copy because so much of what was written spoke to me. If we are to think about dialogic works, ‘White Boy Shuffle’ speaks to Cohen’s ‘Boundaries of Blackness.’ While they don’t speak to each other in exactly the same way and with the same weight, the texts nonetheless have an underlying current of challenging what is real, what is authentic and essentially what is black. Cohen’s work is an academic piece while Beatty takes the issues that are often trapped and metaphorically killed in academic discussions and brings them down to an accessible level through humor. I actually ordered another one of his books– Hokum: An Anthology of African American humor…this is basically a compilation of works from folks like WEB DuBois to Zora Neale Hurston. It’s only .87 cents on Amazon, but if you can support a local & independent bookstore.

I know there are moments in ‘White Boy Shuffle’ that may offend readers and rightfully so. My mom always says that ‘sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying’ which in a lot of ways speaks to this politics of radical laughter–the laughter that unconsciously moves us closer to the realities and pains we try to distance ourselves from. Radical laughter can bring us back to life. If we are speaking on the politics of life and death–we can think about radical laughter as a form of metaphorical resurrection whereby we have taken the opportunity to collectively self-reflect to the point where we can laugh at ourselves as the first step towards meaningful action. And on the note of life and death, when we choreograph death within out own communities, we need to ask how we can compose a new chorale for liberation and (re)birth.

As a teacher, I was constantly thinking about ways to bring both ‘White Boy Shuffle’ and ‘Hokum’ into my classroom–the countless historical references that would be amazing to integrate…the use of humor and satirical performance as a tool of resistance through African-American history and contemporary art…there is so much. There is also Beatty’s reference to the classroom experience where being colorblind is taught through the story of the elephants and the disruption of the “monochrome utopia.” (p.33)

Beatty’s text has a lot of gems–phrases, moments, pages that I just wanted to photocopy and tape to my wall.

I found Beatty’s narrative about the boundaries of blackness the most striking because it spoke to me at a personal level. A few passages that made me laugh-cry-wonder:

I woke up comfortable in the knowledge that I was a freak. If I had walked the streets with a carnival barker to promote my one-boy sideshow, I could have made some money. “Hurry! Hurry! Step right up! All the way from the drifting sands of whitest Santa Monica, the whitest Negro in captivity, Gunnar the Persnickety Zulu. He says ‘whom,’ plays Parcheesi, and folks you won’t believe it, but he has absolutely no ass what-so-ever.

My inability to walk the walk or talk the talk led to a series of almost daily drubbings. In a world where body and spoken language were currency, I was broke as hell. Corporeally mute, I couldn’t saunter or bojangle my limbs with rubbery nonchalance. (p.52)

…hopeful that this would be the beatdown that certified my worthiness, stamped me with the ghetto seal of approval. (p.57)

I was thinking about both these quotes in references to the exclusions and the narcissistic calculus of racial authenticity olympics within the Black community and the very commodification (& carnivalizing) of blackness–“where body and spoken language were currency.”

In response I’d lift my T-shirt and flash my weapons: a paperback copy of Audre Lorde or Sterling Brown and a checkerboard set of abdominal muscles. “You niggers ain’t hard–calculus is hard.” (p.96)

I wondered how amazing it would be if instead of flashing guns, we flashed books, texts, lyrics, our poems as our weapons. Gun-for-a book program? What if we did not throw up gang signs, but throw up book covers and broadsheets…and instead of fighting it out–we talked it out…and instead of killing one another, we work killed the potentially dangerous discourses that pollute our communities. I am waiting for the day when one of my students comes to me and flashes his or her weapon: a book, a personal essay, some Brother Ali lyrics. The image Beatty presents made me think about what we choose and what we are forced to arm ourselves within our communities. In different settings we are armed with different texts and words–in what space do we arm ourselves with Lorde, with Morrison, with …. Is the idea of arming ourselves, even with words, texts and ideas perpetuate militarism or does it reinforce our right of self-defense and the need to be grounded in and cradled by the texts that inspire us and give us strength

In response to Boondocks, I was reminded of an episode where Huey has a Black Power Fist–an inexpensive device “that delivers thousands of volts of imperialism stopping electricity without the need of super powers or secret alien technology.” Again, this image makes me think. It can function as a commentary on afro-futurism, or the cult of reliance of black superheroes (versus a reliance on the masses of Black folks), or even the ways in which our social consciousness/activism is an external and occasional device/almost an accessory, rather than an internalized disposition. Or maybe this is a commentary on the advanced, high-tech and virulent forms of racism that we witness and experience. In this case the Black power fist becomes a necessary tool and form of defense which may or may not compliment Beatty’s image of flashing literary or theoretical weapons.

Life Prof/Lex, both Beatty and Boondocks leave you at a moment of “damn,” but both evolving visual+written texts do the work of forcing us to reevaluate what it means to be real. I would argue that they are not so much fictional works as they dark realities that had to be fictionalized in order to be accessible.

2. alexis - October 9, 2007

Peace Kameelah,
Yes exactly. That moment where he flashes the Audre Lorde/Sterling Brown book is one of my favorites too. This time I was reminded of a real life example of this type of revision. A chapter of theBrotherhood in the Brotherhood/Sistersol rites of passage program in NYC made the decision to design matching hoodies so that as they walked through East Harlem everyone would know they were a crew. These young men were making a move that organizations like gangs, and fraternities make all the time…but these young black and latino high school students chose an Audre Lorde quote to grace the back of their hoodie. How beautiful is that? June Jordan imagines her words as “fighting words” that reveal necessary “civil wars” to be fought during her time. She says “who would be free must strike the blow himself.” Audre Lorde characterizes herself as a “warrior poet”…and I have always thought about these characterizations alongside Ida B. Wells’ ideology of self-defense, but I remain wary of what it means to concede that someone else is an enemy. Doesn’t it validate the divisions that oppressive systems set up to say…yes I am your enemy?
In a particularly interesting moment in a discussion between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin in the December 1984 issue of Essence Magazine…Baldwin comes close to defending black male violence against women by explaining it as an uncontrollable symptom of racist oppression and emasculation. Audre Lorde says “I am your sister…who is learning to use a gun.” Hortense Spillers takes it a step further when she refuses to seperate the deaths that ideology and weapons confer explaining “sticks and stones MAY break our bones but words will most certainly kill us.” So maybe ther recontextualization of these relationships can occur at the same time that our resistance is made material.
For now I’m hoping to build loving muscles of ready challenge by carrying all these books inside and outside my body. I’m glad you’re there too. Thanks so much for this post.

3. alexis - October 9, 2007

Theo said:
Kameelah, Alexis and all . . .

I read White Boy Shuffle maybe 9 years ago and remember the flashing of the book and the abs as one of my favorites too — I loved reading the direct quote again. (Full disclosure: I had no idea who Audre Lord was then . . . and still don’t know Sterling Brown . . . any good links?) . . . Since I am overseas I don’t think I’ll be able to get ahold of another copy too easy until December, but I think it’s also useful to reflect back on how I related to the book as a 19 year old undergrad — in particular when we think about how what Kameelah calls radical laughter (Beatty, Boondocks, Chapelle, etc . . . ) translates into mainstream (White) society and what I guess might be called cultures of selective appropriation. Because I can see now that when I read that book as a 19 year old I got the humor without a lot of the bitterness that actually is so critical to understanding the humor for its depth and ultimately for its resistance. It became light reading for the train ride back to North Carolina, in the same way that other radical / revolutionary African-American ‘ethnics’ have become lightness in the hands of White culture (House of Blues, easy listening Jazz, anyone?). I can also see where, like Chapelle, a superficial reading without an understanding of radical humor / intent can become fodder for ugly stereotypes — which I think (help me here) is part of why Dave Chapelle decided to stop doing the show . . . Check out the clip of “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that” done before a mostly White audience. Watch for the audience reaction at the superficial humor and the (non) reaction for the deeply painful, radical humor. Sylvia has this posted on her blog:


Also, independently, I’m looking for help on some good starting points on “respectability” and the “politics or respectability” and how it keeps people from becoming more radical / revolutionary or more often just keeps them on the sidelines. This is a piece of writing I’m working on. I’m just back from Croatia where we spent some time in rural areas that had been ‘ethnically cleansed’ — we were talking about the large bodies of people in Croatia and Serbia at the time who stayed silent in the early 1990s while their nationalist, totalitarian, or neo-fascist governments perpetrated war crimes and genocide. It connects with the Ida B. Wells piece and also some of the things that came up with the 50th anniversary of Little Rock recently — where White mobs quickly polarized and baited whites who supported integration into silence, and where the politics of respectability played out in a different way in the Black community at the time.

So, “respectability.” Where to start?

The other area I’m looking at is around something that Sylvia wrote back in September about alternative models to simplistic binaries when looking at racism — beyond “racism = prejudice + power” . . . I feel like I’ve hit a wall in terms of effective, new ways to write about racism and would love to hear some recommendations for new directions.

Here is Sylvia’s post, and responses by Alexis, Sylvia and me:

Peace Theo (and all),
I am so affirmed by this conversation..just because it exists even though the things we are talking about are “unsettling” to say the least. I was recently having a conversation with Nia about the consumption of black humor and Dave Chapelle’s break-up “letter to white people” after quitting comedy central. I was explaining why I think “The Boondocks” is different from the Chapelle show (even both of them are/were deeply committed to hip hop culture, both of them use the n-word and charicature stereotypes often and (like comedy central) cartoon network’s adult swim has a predominantly white male audience (of people who pay for cable). (But FYI I watched the premier of the second season of the Boondocks on the adultswim website for free last night…while the actual episode was airing..and there weren’t even those internet commercial interruptions.)
Anyway my point was that there is something formally different about Chapelle and McGruder’s TV interventions. “The Boondocks” is formally dystopic and more complex in it’s humor. It’s harder to glean a “sound byte” from the Boondocks. I mean what would be the counterpart to “I’m Rick James Bitch” on the Boondocks? I don’t think there is one…even though McGruder consistently makes fun of celebrities and also has his characters us the term “bitch” over and over again. Likewise, I think Beatty does a good job of packing his charicatures so tightly that you can’t quip “you niggers ain’t hard” without being forced to deal with black literary figures. Or remember when Nick says to Gunnar “I thought you were definitely a homosexual or a poet.” and Gunnar says “Aw that’s real fucked up. Why can’t I be both?” It seems like a strategy similar to my mother’s of infusing broccoli within the irresistable casserole context of cheese and breadcrumbs…so finely chopped that try as I might I couldn’t avoid eating broccoli with every bite. Beatty and McGruder infuse the stereotype with the alternative. We can’t get one without the other.
Or so I thought. But teaching this book here at Duke last month has taught me a difficult lesson about the persistance of consumption. Based on our in class discussions and our class assignments I realized that while many of the students found Beatty’s work something that helped them engage greek poetry, revise Shakespeare, think critically about black matrydom and youth sexuality. But in some instances I suspected my students, mostly black lower middle class kids, actually used the crazily extreme portrayals of “ghetto life” in the novel as reaffirmations of what they had been taught growing up. The seemed to be vindicated. “The inner city really is a place where the people are unkillable hyperviolent buffoons. This must be why my parents won’t let me go there.” In an in-class presentation one group even made the assertion that death and violence were not themes of the whole book but rather characteristics of the section when Gunnar and his family moved to the ‘hood. I had to ask what about the death of Crispus Attucks that starts off the book? what about the plantation dance sequence where the families lie down in the graveyard? what about the jewish elementary school friendship based completely around re-enacting world war II? what about the early sexual violence experienced in the suburbs? what about the suicide off the the Boston University medical building? what about the concert pianist? the performance poet?
They had forgotten those engagements of death, because they are used to associating death with urban blight and not with the impact of racist and economic violence on our society as a whole.
This is an important pedagogical lesson for me because these texts are not catechisms. In fact I love them because they are not safe, but working with volatile literature that empasizes the dynamics of irony, stereotype and reflective humor is just as dangerous as reading the story of Sodom and Gomorrah outloud in a mega-church (well almost). Hegemony means that anything (even what I read as the most subversive of race critical texts) can be transubstantiated to sustain the status quo that it would disrupt. If people are willing to misinterpreted crimes that they are witnessing in order to comply with a racist or nationalist narrative (like we are witnessing the effects of the patriot act and the disappearing of residents from our cities…) then they can certainly sift out the difficulties set to detonate in the literature. Readers, like other consumers, can determine the function of the product that they are consuming…can sift its usefulness for their own convenience.
Which means that books can’t be my only weapons.
Prof. Lex

4. lyndsey - October 24, 2007

sorry to be so late on this one, but my response is at

5. Delbert - May 10, 2013

Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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