Black Comedy

If you were asked what the most important political or social development in the United States has been in this past year, what would you say? Donald Trump, right? Nah, or at least I hope not. A healthy amount of you would probably say the continued development and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and rightly so. As such, one of the most timely and essential books to come out in the recent months is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Taking on the form of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates writes a long essay-letter to his son, describing his hopes and worries about his son’s continued existence in a society that actively destroys black and brown bodies. Coates’s sentiments are heartrending, and one leaves this book feeling both furious and numb. Put simply, Between the World and Me is a Serious Book. But it is also a serious book, which is why I’m not discussing it here today. I’m discussing funny books.

    Although the social and racial climate of America seems to be in dire shape (as per usual, one could add), not every work of literature that deals with these issues has to be equally as severe. Case in point: Paul Beatty’s new novel The Sellout, my favorite novel of 2015 so far, and also the funniest thing I’ve maybe ever read. Like an Ishmael Reed satire turned up to eleven (and minus most of the misogyny), Beatty sets out to skewer any and all stereotypes that have been forced upon black people since the antebellum era. To give you an idea, the plot centers on a young black man living in an agrarian ghetto of Los Angeles who, through a series of misadventures, is brought against the supreme court for bringing back slavery and segregation to the United States in order to turn his neighborhood around (and it worked!) The opening prologue, basically one long joke about Clarence Thomas, is worth the price of admission itself. It seems like Beatty read Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey and decided to bring the lineage started by Richard Wright to its next logical conclusion. Someone might eventually come and be able to signify upon The Sellout, but for now, Paul Beatty has firmly established himself as one of the greats.

Another book to look out for is Oreo, by Fran Ross, recently reissued by New Directions. Marketed as “one of the few works of satire by an African-American woman” (a dubious claim if I’ve heard one), Oreo is a near perfect encapsulation of the mid-1970s in which it was written. Fran Ross wrote material for Richard Pryor, and it shows in this joke-a-minute retelling of the Theseus myth, with Theseus being played by a black Jewish teenage girl called Oreo. Ross’s cinematic verve makes the novel feel like a vintage Woody Allen flick with a little bit of blaxploitation thrown in for good measure. The key difference between this work and those reference points is the strong female voice threaded throughout Oreo. You better believe this work is anti-misogynistic, with beatdowns of pimps and a troupe of women wandering New York at night castrating men. Oreo depicts a vital American experience, and it is near-criminal that it has gone widely unread. If you are looking for a groundbreaking intersectional text that can also make you double over, look no further.

    The last novel I want to bring up is one that I am currently reading, Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson. Welcome to Braggsville can cut dangerously close to home for many a Reed student; it centers around D’aron Davenport, an earnest white boy from the south who finds himself part of the wider world for the first time when he enrolls in Berkeley. From there, the novel launches itself into a satire of campus politics not so far removed from arguments you might see on certain Reed facebook pages. For example, D’aron meets his three main friends at a dot party (which is when you wear a dot somewhere on your body if you are open to making out, a practice that hasn’t quite made it to Reed yet, apparently) because they are all accused of being offensive to Indians for wearing their dots on their foreheads by a white upperclassman. From there, this new group of friends enroll in “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives,” and for their final project, decide to return to D’aron’s hometown of Braggsville in time for the Civil War reenactment. At the reenactment, they plan to perform a mock lynching in order to criticize the southerners’ romanticization of the “War of Northern Aggression.” As you can guess, things do not go well. This book juggles both a critique of contemporary liberal academia as well as the conservative south’s more outright racism and does so with aplomb. If you are interested in Welcome To Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson is giving a reading this Thursday 9/10 at the Powell’s on Hawthorne, at 7:30. I’ll be there, hopefully you will be too.

    There are a ton of other readings happening this month as well, including some legendary names. Here are just a few that you should check out: Salman Rushdie on 9/13, Andres Neuman on 9/16, Bill Clegg on 9/20, Joy Williams in conversation with Karen Russell on 9/21, and Mary Karr in conversation with Cheryl Strayed on 9/25. Powell’s doesn’t always have months as great as this, but every once and a while they lay down straight fire, and this is one of those times.