Book Review: Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor
by Paul Beatty
Publication Date: Jan 17, 2006
List Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback, 480 pages
Imprint: Bloomsbury USA
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Parent Company: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
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Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
‘Hokum is my chance to recognize and thank the black upper-, middle-, low-, and no-class clown for being more than comic relief. For being scapegoat and sage’ thus validating our humanity through our madness.’—Excerpted from the Introduction
When I cracked open this collection of black jokes with a watermelon on the cover, I frankly expected to find material far funnier than this mix of cerebral essays and goofball commentaries. Compiled by Paul Beatty, Hokum contains the words of a dozens of famous African-Americans, including Macolm X ,H.Rap Brown, Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. DuBois, Al Sharpton, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, and Spike Lee. One of the first things you notice about this droll tome's impressive list of contributors is that there are precious few comedians among the ranks. Instead, we have entire chapters devoted to folks like Mike Tyson, a functional illiterate who probably wasn't even trying to break people up when he went on the diatribes recounted here in five pages of copious quotes.
To the press, Iron Mike once said, ’I wish that you guys had children so I could kick them in the f*cking head or stomp their testicles so you could feel my pain because that's the pain I have waking up every day.’ On another occasion, he addressed a female reporter with, ’I normally don't do interviews with women unless I fornicate with them. So, you shouldn’t talk anymore’ unless you want to, you know.’ When not threatening battery or sexual assault, Tyson is not above combining cannibalism and Islam, such as he did during the pre-fight hype for a bout with Lennox Lewis: ’I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah!’ Yet, the ex-champ is showcased at his best when simply rambling like a cross between a punch-drunk boxer and a mental patient with diarrhea of the mouth. To wit: ’A times, I come across as crude or crass. That irritates you when I come across like a Neanderthal or a babbling idiot, but I like to be that person. I like to show you all that person, because that's who you come to see.’
Far less amusing was the entry from Malcolm X, a snippet of his historic
’Message to the Grass Roots' speech delivered in 1963. I studied that strident
screed back in college, and failed to find any humor in it then or now. The same
can be said for the eloquent excerpt from Rap Brown's ’Die, Nigger, Die!’ an
incendiary call for black revolution from 1969.Where are the examples of the
acerbic wit of Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory and
other brilliant African-American comedians known for their biting social satire?
Not here. Maybe I missed something, but Hokum strikes this critic as a ho-hum
hoax perpetrated on the public, since it's ostensibly designed more for those
interested in laughing at black folks than in laughing with them. Buy this book
and the only joke’s on you.
For another’s perspective; read a review of this book written by Robert Fleming.