In the middle of an interview 35 years ago, just after he had broken through the comedic color barrier, Dick Gregory became frustrated with me, a white man who could never totally empathize with his experience: “You’re not black 24 hours a day!” he blurted out.
“No,” I replied, “but if you give me a quarter, I’ll let you rub my head for good luck anyway.”
Gregory stared at me for an instant, then broke out laughing. He realized I was referring to a story of himself as a child when, after a white person offered Gregory money to rub Gregory’s head for good luck, he knew for the first time he was different. I was reminded of that encounter in the opening chapter of “The White Boy Shuffle,” African American poet Paul Beatty’s first novel, a bitingly funny, occasionally preachy satire of racism in all its guises.
The narrator, poet-cum-reluctant-messiah Gunnar Kaufman, is describing his mother’s “dinner table macaroni-and-cheese oral history lessons.” On one occasion, she told about their ancestor, Euripides Kaufman, who, at the age of 7, saw “a means of income.”
“The baby entrepreneur ran home, spread globs of lamp oil over sooty black skin.” He then planted himself in the Boston Commons and, with an obsequious grin, charged a six-pence for a good-luck rub of his head. Within two years, he had earned enough money to become the youngest slave in history to buy his freedom.
Beatty’s irreverent book--a cross-fertilization of “Forrest Gump” and “Def Comedy Jam"--has characters who find similar ways to turn systemic racism to their own uses. In doing so, his novel parodies coming-of-age fiction in general (Gunnar weds a mail-order bride, and the ceremony is conducted by the UPS driver) and black coming-of-age books in particular (looting a store after the Rodney King verdict, Gunnar says, “We argued over the merits of an IBM-compatible versus an Apple”).
Gunnar grows up absurdly, “the only cool black guy” at “Mestizo Mulatto Mongrel Elementary,” Santa Monica’s otherwise all-white multicultural school. Later, his family moves to the ghetto, where he meets his best friend, Nicolas Scoby, who introduces him to jazz--"the only truly American art form other than the sitcom.” He also meets Psycho Loco, leader of the Gun Totin’ Hooligans gang. Loco is “home on parole for killing a paramedic, who refused to give his piranha mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after the fish choked on a family of sea monkeys.”
In trying to make his mark, Gunnar turns to basketball and then poetry. Much later, looking back at his creative output, he is disappointed in the power of poetry to change things. He finds it “little more than an opiate devoted to pacifying my cynicism. . . . I now know that Psycho Loco’s violence was no less a psychological placebo than my poetry.”
Gunnar decides that, in the quest for equality, “black folks have tried everything. . . . Nothing works, so why suffer the slow deaths of toxic addiction and the American work ethic when the immediate gratification of suicide awaits?”
In an interview for a French version of “Good Morning America,” Gunnar is asked about his “endorsement of freedom through suicide.” He responds: “My suicide, no one else’s.” “Yes,” says the interviewer, “but people are following your example. There are reports of black people killing themselves indiscriminately across the United States. Don’t you have anything to say?”
“Send me your death poems,” Gunnar replies. And indeed they do, by the stacks. Gunnar involuntarily becomes a perverse combination of Louis Farrakhan and a long-distance Jim Jones without the Kool-Aid.
There is a peculiar irony to the book’s title. Reversing the stereotype of Negroes-have-natural-rhythm, Gunnar can’t dance. Pressured by his friends to attend a club to pick up girls, he awkwardly tries to do the right steps. “After a few moments I’d relax and settle into a barely acceptable, simple side-to-side step, dubbed by the locals the white boy shuffle. I wasn’t funky, but I was no longer disrupting the groove.”
With this novel, Beatty creates a protagonist who enables even someone who is not black to get a sense of what it is like to be, as Dick Gregory said, “black 24 hours a day"--and to experience bittersweet laughter in the process.