What’s so funny about a well-gnawed water-melon rind, ends upturned and grinning beatifically, on the cover of an African American humor anthology? If you don’t know, then perhaps Paul Beatty’s collection, Hokum, is not for you. Some might think the image in bad, ahem, taste; others may smirk in kind. Everyone has a right to be offended. But it’s precisely this subjective conflict—humor’s intrinsic, meat-or-poison ambiguity—that the book revels in questioning. That, and acknowledging for posterity the comedic genius that is Mike Tyson.
Edited by Beatty—whose novels, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2000), are riotously brilliant satire— Hokum is anything but the bunk that its title might imply. Beatty attempts to weave the folkish familiarity of the oral and the noble austerity of the written, threads of the black literary tradition—prove both to be part of one unbroken strand. The editor aptly describes his tome as “a mix-tape narrative, dubbed by a trusted, though slightly smarmy, friend.” No drama king DJ, Beatty samples eccentrically—never distractingly so—allowing his featured players to flaunt their lyrical gifts while he remains content to play charismatic selector. And after a six-year hiatus from the novel, it’s reassuring to hear Beatty—himself the most furious of stylists, who tickles bones savage and silly—play so nimble, even when confined to just the introduction and three section headings.
So who makes this playful playlist? Part of Beatty’s project involves exposing his readers to writers or performers whose work hasn’t been given the recognition it deserves, and rediscovering the comedic talent of those not primarily known for such, opening the door for some unorthodox names, none of which happen to be Pryor, Cosby, or Murphy. How ’bout booming belly laughs from W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, and Langston Hughes?
Funny is funny whether ruthless or whimsical, and there’s humor in Malcolm X chiding “house Negroes” for taking semantic ownership in “our government . . . our astronauts” and “our Navy” as Negroes “out of [their] mind,” and in Danzy Senna’s hilarious “Variations on a Theme of Mulatto” (which include African American Jews and Italians cheekily dubbed “Jewlattos” and “Gelattos”). The most anarchic charms lurk in the collection’s final, absurdist segment, which identifies jokey avant-gardism in stand-up, spoken word, and straight-up poetry. Confluences and relevancies abound: Recently shot rapper Cam’ron’s purple prose bears so much resemblance to Harryette Mullen’s fantastic, full-on alphabetical cartwheel “Jinglejangle” that he might think twice about tossing accusations of “swagger jacking” at Jay-Z.
Then there’s Iron Mike. If you listen closely, Tyson reveals scars much deeper than the ghastly tattoo he wears across his face. He can be politely barbaric (“My main objective is to be professional but to kill him”), delightfully metaphysical (“My power is discombobulatingly devastating. . . . It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm”), and sublimely kooky (“I’ve been training Confuciously”). Tyson’s unintentional hilarity belies a psychologically battered bruiser. Convicted rapist, yes, and repugnant for sure, but occasionally his words possess a clarity of thought that hints at cultural insight: “The reason I’m [irresponsible] is because, at twenty-one, you all gave me fifty or a hundred million dollars and I didn’t know what to do. I’m from the ghetto. I don’t know how to act. One day I’m in a dope house robbing somebody. The next thing I know, ‘You’re heavyweight champion of the world’ . . . I’m just a dumb pugnacious fool.” Not quite funny ha-ha, but then neither is the “nigger” tossed at Andre Leon Talley by a French fashion house ingenue at the end of Hilton Als’s superb 1994 New Yorker profile, here reproduced in its entirety. Talley forces a laugh, though the gash in his vigorous personality is keenly felt.
Subtly, Als’s piece divines the source from which many of the featured writers draw, and which Beatty describes in his introduction: “African-Americans, like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting.” A lot of the humor here is both Black and black, as the often grotesque injustice of said Black experience necessitates the usage of a more feral comedic form.
You may not, after reading Hokum, be able to surmise just why it is that the caged bird sings, or to discern the tears behind the raucous laughter (though if so, well done, as it will count toward your African American studies final grade), but you’ll damn sure smile. For those inveterate frowners among us, even two weeks of decompression in South Africa—with or without Dave Chappelle—won’t help.