The White Boy Shuffle

Paul Beatty

The White Boy Shuffle

Pam Spritzer, thank you

For Yvonne Beatty, my mother

prologue

ON ONE HAND this messiah gig is a bitch. On the other I’ve managed to fill the perennial void in African-American leadership. There is no longer a need for fed-up second-class citizens to place a want ad in the Sunday classifieds reading:

Negro Demagogue

Must have ability to lead a divided, downtrodden, and alienated people to the Promised Land. Good communication skills required. Pay commensurate with ability. No experience necessary.

Being a poet, and thus expert in the ways of soulful coercion, I am eminently qualified. My book, Watermelanin, has sold 126 million copies. I have the ear of the academics, the street denizens, and the political cabalists. Leader of the Black Community? There is no better job fit.

I didn’t interview for the job. I was drafted by 22 million hitherto unaffiliated souls into serving as full-time Svengali and foster parent to an abandoned people. I spoon-feed them grueled futility, unveil the oblivion that is black America’s existence and the hopelessness of the struggle. In return I receive fanatical avian obedience. Wherever I travel, a long queue of baby black goslings files behind a plastic wind-up bard spring-driven toward self-destruction, crossing the information superhighway and refusing to look both ways. If a movie mogul buys the film rights to my life, the TV Guide synopsis will read:

In the struggle for freedom, a reluctant young poet convinces black Americans to give up hope and kill themselves in a climactic crash ’n’ burn finale. Full of laughs and high jinks. Some violence and adult language.

In the quest for equality, black folks have tried everything. We’ve begged, revolted, entertained, intermarried, and are still treated like shit. Nothing works, so why suffer the slow deaths of toxic addiction and the American work ethic when the immediate gratification of suicide awaits? In glorious defiance of the survival instinct, Negroes stream into Hillside, California, like lemmings. Every day they wishfully look heavenward, peering into the California smog for a metallic gray atomic dot that will gradually expand until it explodes some one thousand feet over our natural and processed heads. It will be the Emancipation Disintegration. Lunch counters, bus seats, and executive washrooms be damned; our mass suicide will be the ultimate sit-in.

They’re all here, the black American iconographic array, making final preparations for Elysium approximately five hundred years after our arrival in this purgatory. The well-dressed guy who worked in the corporate mailroom and malapropped his way through your patronizing efforts to engage him in small talk wonders if he left the stove on, then laughs aloud at the absurdity of it all. The innocuous Democratic ex-mayor of your city writes mediocre elegiac verse without a nod to the absurdity of it all. That fine young black thing you drooled over in eighth-grade gym class struts up and down the block looking for one last world to rock. The woman who sat next to you clutching her handbag while you waited for the morning bus and then elbowed you in the solar plexus fighting for a seat plans to call her boss and talk shit until the last minute, then put the receiver to the explosion, saying, “I won’t be in to work tomorrow. I’ll be a fuckin’ evaporated carbon dustball. You slave-drivin’ fuck.”

Last week’s issue of Time magazine identified me as the “Ebon Pied Piper.” In U.S. News & World Report I was “the bellwether to ethnic hara-kiri.” History will add my name to the list of maniacal messiahs who sit in Hell’s homeroom answering the Devil’s roll call: Jim Jones, David Koresh, whoever led the charge of the Light Brigade, Charles Manson, General Westmoreland, and me. These pages are my memoirs, the battlefield remains of a frightened deserter in the eternal war for civility.

“mama baby, papa maybe”

one

UNLIKE THE TYPICAL bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. I wish I were, but fate shorted me by six brothers and three uncles. The chieftains and queens who sit on top of old Mount Kilimanjaro left me out of the will. They bequeathed me nothing, stingy bastards. Cruelly cheating me of my mythological inheritance, my aboriginal superpowers. I never possessed the god-given ability to strike down race politic evildoers with a tribal chant, the wave of a beaded whammy stick, and a mean glance. Maybe some family fool fucked up and slighted the ancients. Pissed off the gods, too much mumbo in the jumbo perhaps, and so the sons must suffer the sins of the father.

My name is Kaufman, Gunnar Kaufman. I’m black Orestes in the cursed House of Atreus. Preordained by a set of weak-kneed DNA to shuffle in the footsteps of a long cowardly queue of coons, Uncle Toms, and faithful boogedy-boogedy retainers. I am the number-one son of a spineless colorstruck son of a bitch who was the third son of an ass-kissing sell-out house Negro who was indeed a seventh son but only by default. (Grandpa Giuseppi Kaufman rolled over his older twin brother Johann in his sleep, smothering him and staking claim to the cherished seventh sonship.) From birth my parents indoctrinated me with the idea that the surreal escapades and “I’s a-comin’” watermelon chicanery of my forefathers was the stuff of hero worship. Their resolute deeds and Uncle Tom exploits were passed down by my mother’s dinner table macaroni-and-cheese oral history lessons. There is nothing worse than a loud griot, and my mother was the loudest.

Mom raised my sisters and me as the hard-won spoils of a vicious custody battle that left the porcelain shrapnel of supper-dish grenades embedded in my father’s neck. The divorce made Mama, Ms. Brenda W. Kaufman, determined to make sure that her children knew their forebears. As a Brooklyn orphan who had never seen her parents or her birth certificate, Mom adopted my father’s patriarchal family history for her misbegotten origins.

On summer afternoons Nicole, Christina, and I sat at my mother’s feet, tracing our bloodlines by running our fingers over the bulging veins that tunneled in her ashy legs. She’d place her hideous pedal extremities on a throw pillow and we would conduct our ancestral investigation while filing down the rock-hard bunions and other dermal crustaceans on her feet.

We started with the basics. Danger, Kids at Work. Nicole, my youngest sister, whom I nicknamed the Incredible Eternal Wailing Baby, would open up the questioning in her self-centered style, all the while scraping the mound of dead skin that was my mother’s left heel.

“Maw, am I adopted?”

“No, you are not adopted. I showed you the stretch marks last week. Put some elbow grease into it, goddammit. Pull the skin off with your fingers if you have to, shit.”

Then Christina, middle child, whom I lovingly rechristened with the Native American appellation Fingers-in-Both-Nostrils-Thumb-in-Mouth-and-Snot-All-Over-the-Fucking-Place, would pull on the heartstrings to tighten the filial ties.

“What about me and Gunnar?”

“No.”

“Can you prove it?” Christina would ask, anxious and unconvinced, her heavy breathing blowing mucus bubbles from her nose.

“Which ones those crinkly lines on your stomach is mines?”

“Chrissy, if anyone is fool enough to tell you that they your parents, believe them. Okay?”

“Maw.”

“What, Gunnar?”

“Your feet stank.”

“Shut up before I make you fill out that application to military school.”

The advanced course in Kaufman genealogy didn’t start until Mom returned home from earning our livings by testing the unlucky poor for VD at a free clinic in East Los Angeles. I remember she enjoyed bringing the sharp stainless-steel tools of her trade and glossy Polaroids of the most advanced cases to the dinner table. Spit-shining the speculums and catheters, she’d tell her awful jokes about “pricking the pricks and hunting the cunts.” I swear somewhere in her unknown past traveling minstrels cakewalked across candlelit theater stages.

The seven o’clock suppers were carnival sideshows, featuring Mom the Amazing Crazy Lady. She’d wipe our greasy lips, lecturing us about the horrors of sexually transmitted disease while passing mashed potatoes and photos of pussy lesions around the table. For the coup de grâce she’d open a prophylactic package, remove and unroll a blue sheath, and stuff the receptacle end into a nostril. Then she’d sit there lecturing us about the joys of safe sex with a crumpled condom swinging from her nose and bouncing off her chin with each syllable. Suddenly she’d press the open nostril closed with her finger and with a snort snake the unlubricated rubber up her nose. She’d open her mouth and produce a soggy piece of latex, holding it up for all to see with a gloating “Ta-dah. Let’s eat.”

The festivities continued throughout the meal. Though her designation as world’s loudest griot cannot be substantiated, the Guinness Book ...

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