Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 2006
In Hokum, an anthology of African American humor, novelist Paul Beatty finds comic value in stump speeches, stage banter, sermons – and boxing braggadocio.
Paul Beatty grew up reading from the oppressive white hegemonic literary canon of Mad Magazine, Archie Comics, the Green Lantern, and Joseph Heller paperbacks snagged from his mother’s bookshelf. In the introduction to Hokum, Beatty’s anthology of African American humor, he explains that he didn’t awaken to the strength and beauty of black literature until college. “My crew of conscious brothers and I were sitting in the student union rehashing books we hadn’t read and dictating laws of governance for countries we’d never been to,” he writes, when they were interrupted by a stoned classmate who proceeded to gargle Amiri Baraka’s “Sacred Chant for the Return of Black Power and Spirit” through a half-masticated mouthful of cheese pizza.
Best known for his hilarious and upsetting first novel, White Boy Shuffle, Beatty studied under Allen Ginsberg and got his start at the Nuyorican Poets Café alongside the likes of playwright (etc.) Sarah Jones. The pieces he’s gathered together here make for an unusual humor anthology by any standard: Hokum combines political speeches with boxing braggadocio, experimental poetry, blackface minstrelsy, radio sermons, movie scripts, comic books, and blues stage banter. There’s also a scene in which Osama bin Laden tears out Santa’s eyeball.
BG: What prompted you to create this anthology?
PB: One of the things that got me thinking about the book was my friend giving me a copy of Fran Ross’s Oreo to read. Hilarious. Really, really good. It’s crazy that not everyone knows this book. When I had looked through other African American humor anthologies it was always some Bill Cosby jokes, some folklore stories and some poems and I was like “That I definitely do not want to do.”
BG: There’s a lot of experimental fiction and poetry in Hokum which to me seems in itself pretty daring material to put in any humor anthology.
PB: I’m guessing you’re referring to the Haryette Mullen stuff. (“You are a ukulele beyond my microphone…You are a eunuch beyond my migraine/You are a Eurodollar beyond my miserliness/You are a urinal beyond my Midol”) For me it’s not daring because I love that stuff and I think that it’s really funny. I think there’s a certain humor when you encounter genius. It’s like “My God! How is this person thinking of this!” It’s one of the ways to deal with it.
BG: In the contributor biographies I was intrigued to read about how the poet Bob Kaufman took a vow of silence during the Vietnam War.
PB: He’s definitely one of my favorite poets. Period. He hung out with Ferlinghetti and all these beats thought he was a genius and published his poems. But he was this crazy guy. They compiled his first volume of poems from shit that he’d written down on paper bags. There’s a lot of black poets who feel like he’s been slighted by the beat movement. I used his name for the protagonist in White Boy Shuffle. There was something about his freedom of expression that I really liked.
BG: You would think of writing and speaking out as a way to take action against the war so to take a vow of silence is an interesting choice.
PB: It’s not like he was famous. It’s not like if Oprah took a vow of silence.
BG: There has been some controversy over the cover art depicting a watermelon rind chewed into the shape of a grin and in an interview with Powell’s Books, you remark that it bothered people because it “brings up a lot of harsh realities about the era when minstrelsy was popular.”
PB: When my publisher was first shopping around the galleys, there were some TV people that wanted to interview me on Martin Luther King’s birthday and [after I chose the cover] there were a couple of TV and radio outlets that refused to go ahead with previously agreed upon publicity things. There was also library where that refused to have me.
BG: Because of the unusual variety of the contributors, were some of them shocked to have their work included in a literature anthology?
PB: Some of the stuff is funny excerpts from books that aren’t necessarily funny, especially the political stuff. Sam Greenlee, who wrote The Spook Who Sat By the Door, he was like [baffled voice] “What section are you using?” and after I explained he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s probably the only section that would make sense to use.” His book isn’t Grapes of Wrath serious, but it’s about a guy who is trying to start an African-American revolution and he’s using his FBI training to get the movement off the ground.
BG: As you were putting together the collection were you just looking for stuff by African-American writers that you thought was funny or were you specifically looking for material dealing with ideas of race?
PB: I think it’s just one of those things — if you do a book of humor by Chicano writers I think a lot of it’s going to deal with Chicano issues.
Actually, not all of the contributors are African-American. Mohammed Ali’s ghost writer, Gary Belkin was a white guy. [Belkin also worked as a script writer for, Newhart, The Doris Day Show and Get Smart.] But I included it because it was important for me personally. The first black literary humor I ever heard were those words coming out of Ali’s mouth. I thought it was interesting that it had been ghost written for him, but not for a second did that make me think that I didn’t want to include it.
BG: What do you find exciting in African-American humor and literature right now?
PB: Me and my sister went to a stand-up club not too far from my house and it was a bunch of guys who are always on these Def Jam shows and they all told the exact same jokes. And that was a little depressing. It was all this very homophobic; “my gay cousin” stuff and then everyone had a retarded cousin. Everything was exactly the same. That wasn’t too encouraging and it wasn’t very funny.
I don’t read much contemporary writing but I think Colson Whitehead and Percival Everett are excellent writers — and obviously Dave Chappelle is funny.
BG: Ishmael Reed gave a very harsh review of your book Tuff in the Village Voice awhile back, implying that it perpetuated negative white stereotypes of black people. [Reed states that the thug protagonist’s “attempts to become a councilman…will probably draw some chuckles from the neoconservatives who will champion this book – as will the attacks on the 60’s, black nationalism, the Black Panthers and black writing.”] I was interested that you include one of Reed’s pieces and quote him in the introduction.
PB: I felt like he completely misread that book as a conservative thing, which I thought it was way off base. The thing about the article that got me upset is he was saying all this personal stuff about me. But all of that had nothing to do with whether or not I would include him in Hokum. I just wanted to put stuff in that I thought was funny and I thought that his piece would work.
BG: I read that you’re working on a new novel.
PB: [mumbles] Mmmm…. Yeah, I am but it’s a long way off. It’s going to be a good book, but I just went too far and I have to rein it back in. I just made it too cute in its structure.
BG: How did working on Hokum and spending all this time with the history of African-American literature make you think differently your own writing?
PB: Probably it hasn’t changed it at all, but it was good because I had to read tons of stuff I wouldn’t read normally. Somebody said to me “You know if people do these anthology books it’s usually because they’re stuck in their own writing,” and I was like “Oh, that might be true.” I do my best to write what and how I want. I don’t do it to make social or literary change. I just try to write through my own censors.