Black Humor and Gray Matter

Jake Lamar

The Last Integrationist

Crown

Ralph Wiley

Dark Witness: When Black People Should be Sacrificed (Again)

One World/Ballantine

           AS DECADENCE DEVOLVES into mass delusion, black humor becomes one of our most valuable cultural tools. Especially in the case of black male artists, many of whom demonstrate a noble restraint in relying on the satirical skewer of blithe tragicomedy. Compared to the egghead logic of academicians such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at one pole, and the salty froth of gangsta rappers like Ice T and Tupac Shakur at the other, black satirists like Jake Lamar and Ralph Wiley have chosen a pretty obscure middle ground on which to set up their soapboxes. Yet the combination of wit, wisdom, and passion they bring to the "race question" afflicting this country deserves at least as much prominence.

           The story line of Lamar's The Last Integrationist swirls and sprawls like a three-ring circus, then inexorably spirals together into an apocalyptic finale. Set in the near future, its title character is Melvin Hutchinson, a black attorney general who has made political hay as a law-and-order fiend; a proponent of juvenile re-education camps and public executions, he's affectionately known as "Hang 'Em High Hutch." When the cracker vice president suffers a debilitating stroke, Hutchinson's ascendance to the number-two position seems a foregone conclusion. Then, helped along by hubris, alcohol, and the scars of racism, the skeletons in his closet begin to rattle.

           Hutchinson's odyssey is fleshed out by a colorful assortment of characters and subplots revolving around the theme of interracial relations. Among the multitude is Rashid Scuggs, a black activist guilt-tripping on jungle fever until he opts for the blind security of Afrocentric correctness; Willow Cushing, a white, naive ex-hippie with an intimate knowledge of Hutchinson's terrible secret; Seth Winkler, a Jewish fame junkie and wannabe black who ends up as the henpecked hubby of an Oprah Winfrey-like talk show hostess; Emma Radiance Person, a quietly determined black photographer who is the most sympathetic character in the book; and Henry Beedle, Hutchinson's white patron and eminent assistant who wanks off to his own image on the television screen.

           They come and go at a brisk, highly readable pace, for Lamar has the mystery writer's gift of unveiling stunning plot twists that are still logical enough to propel the story forward. Through his prose as well as his plot, Lamar is outlandish enough to loosen the borders of possibility without tipping so far into folly that his characters become caricatures or his narrative becomes too obvious a parable. This is a critical tightrope walk for any satirist, and Lamar's conception and execution are agile enough to remain on the edge of plausible absurdity. Along the way, he savages our penchant for bloodlust, gives cautionary resonance to AIDS conspiracy theories, and, above all, examines the fine distinctions between tribal identities and the more universal human condition.

           Ralph Wiley's Dark Witness, provocatively subtitled When Black People Should Be Sacrificed (Again), lacks the steady satisfaction of Lamar's book, for a number of reasons. Wiley's book is a collection of personal essays, tributes, and remembrances, by nature more disjointed and uneven than a novel. But there is a qualitative difference in style as well as form. Wiley is an unabashed acolyte of Mark Twain: He spends one 31-page chapter extolling the virtues of Twain in tedious, somewhat confusing detail; cites him throughout the book; and often strives too hard to emulate his folksy wisdom and trenchant turns of phrase. The result is the satirist's equivalent of stand-up comedy, with an undercurrent that strains for punchlines. The method is forgivable when aimed at easy targets like Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, but when Wiley uses it to poke fun at his own foibles, the layers of self-reflection become too mannered to pass muster.

           Ironically, Wiley is sharpest when he lets a story tell itself, whether it's the way he rooted for and eventually coached his son's basketball team, or in his encounters (as a former sportscaster and writer for Sports Illustrated) with O.J. Simpson. His scathing, matter-of-fact appraisal of Simpson perfectly captures the minstrelry of O.J.'s professional circumstance and the menace that seethed behind it. By contrast, his short, sharp appreciation for Cornel West, set in a gathering at Jesse Jackson's house, contains a graceful generosity that is rare from any writer, let alone a satirist. What Wiley--and Lamar, for that matter--demonstrate is that black humor is most effective when there is a palpable, moral counterpoint to the grim absurdities they lampoon.

 
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