Not too long ago, an editor asked me to rewrite a hip-hop record review I'd submitted to his magazine because he questioned my use of "vernacular." I didn't fight it--he was doing his job, I respect his judgment, and as a white boy writing about black music, I always feel like I'm on some kinda thin ice anyway.
But it got me to thinking about language and ownership, language and power, language and authenticity. If White talks Black, is he a cultural exploiter or a punk-ass wannabe? If Black talks White, is he a sellout or a Tom? Does it matter how and where you grew up? Or that Black dialects have been the English language's prime innovator for most of the 20th century? And on that note, where does the Walker's current Beat retrospective fit into all this? Is it cool, daddy-o? Or is it totally wack?
These questions may seem naive, but they're not irrelevant. At least not to Gunnar Kaufman, the narrator of poet Paul Beatty's debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle(Houghton Mifflin). He's a black kid raised in multiculti (read: white) Santa Monica with a fear he could be "destined to marry a black Mormon Brigham Young University graduate named Mary Jo and become the spokesperson for the Coors Brewing Company." Near the book's beginning, Gunnar recounts his shameful lineage, a comic, Roots-like epic of porch-niggerhood. There was Euripides Kaufman, a slave who bought his freedom with money earned from white folks who payed to rub his head for good luck; Swen Kaufman, a ballet dancer who ran away into slavery to realize his choreographic dreams; Wolfgang Kaufman, who painted FOR WHITES ONLY signs in the South and helped some white radio hacks to produce a show called Amos 'n' Andy; Ludwig Kaufman, who helped set up Malcolm X; and Gunnar's Dad, Rölf Kaufman, a pederast and proud member of the LAPD. In part to help young Gunnar escape this destiny, his mother moves him and his sisters to the all-black neighborhood of Hillsdale. On arrival, the response of the first person Gunnar speaks to is "Damn, cuz. You talk proper like a motherfucker." The beat-downs come later.
Since Gunnar is a poet, not a fighter, he amasses an arsenal of language, both to defend himself and to traffic in the polyglot world of late 20th century America. He picks up some Spanish in school ("Yo voy a escribir poemas como Octavio Paz y Kid Frost"), a bit of Hebrew from his friend David, some Japanese from his mail-order bride Yoshiko, and even learns beach queer hanky codes. He talks shit on the basketball court, jazzbo with his bebop pal Scoby, and Shakespearean in his drama class. And of course, he talks to white people: "It was like swimming; you never forget how to raise your voice a couple of octaves, harden your r's, and diphthong the vowels: 'Deeeewwuuuude. Maaaaiin. No waaaaaeeey.'"
Beatty's own work as a poet (collected in Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker Joker Deuce, and occasionally popping up in spoken word clips on MTV) is all about this sort of linguistic sampling--a flurry of mass media allusions, Spanglish, hip-hop rhyming, allusions to ancient Greek and Elizabethan and African and diaspora culture. It's exciting as hell to read and to listen to, both for the sheer pleasure of its multiculti freestyling, and for its pointing toward a crossover discourse with integrity. If language has the kind of revolutionary power Beatty suggests in The White Boy Shuffle (which draws much of its power from his hyperactive poetic voice), then verbal miscegenation and cultural polyglotism would seem to be the order of the day.
But language is one thing, and as the book makes clear, identity and racism are quite another. In Shuffle's melting pot, no one is quite what they seem--names and language and color and titles mislead you every time. Gunnar's basketball coach, Motome Chijiwa Shimimoto, is also his art teacher, and feeds him churritos and chimichangas after games; the initially demure Yoshiko quotes Run-DMC in her wedding vows and buggers Gunnar regularly. But people are judged by the color of their skin anyway, as Gunnar finds out when the initial verdicts are handed down in the Rodney King case, and it creates a new aspect in him. "The day of the L.A. riots I learned it means nothing to be a poet. One had to be a poet and a farmer, a poet and a roustabout, a poet and a soon-to-be revolutionary."
The White Boy Shuffle is essentially a comic coming-of-age novel with what seems like a good dose of autobiography. The narrative tends to wander, but what pulls things forward is the tension in Gunnar's coming to terms with his black identity, which holds the line when Gunnar spins off into routines (as he does frequently) on various subjects, including basketball shoes and hip-hop videos.
If the book's mixture of comedy, pathos, and anger comes off as confusing at times, it would seem as if confusion is part the point. Witness Ms. Kim, a grocer of African-American and Korean decent who firebombs her own store during the riots. Or Gunnar and a fellow non-violent pal dragging a white driver out of his bakery truck and beating him with loaves of Wonder bread. Or later, when Gunnar becomes a reluctant, existential black Messiah who precipitates a mass movement of protest suicides.