Book Review: Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor by Paul Beatty

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Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor
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Edited by Paul Beatty

Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardvover, $29.95
480 pages, illus.
ISBN: 1582344345

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Like any good comedian worth his salt, Paul Beatty knows his audience. He knows what will make them laugh, all the degrees of laughter, from the slight guffaw to the deep-down belly laugh or the minor snicker that prompts the reader to ponder. That's what gives Beatty's work, whether fiction or poetry, its zest, the wry, loopy good-time feel of his humor. Some Negro critics objected the image of the partially eaten watermelon on the book's cover as too Sambo and compromising for a volume so important and essential. Hey, get over yourself. It's about jokes, skits, laughs, and wickedly funny bits going against the racial and cultural stereotypes. 

Some bookstores and outlets have turned him away because of this alleged slur. But the book, full of wild, manic black hilarity, is every bit as good as anything Beatty has written, especially his eccentric novels, Tuff and The White Boy's Shuffle. As editor of this anthology, he has sustained all of the zany momentum of the voices assembled here, both major and minor. He likens the book to ’a mix tape dubbed by a twisted friend’ and it's all that and more. Even the heading of each section is worth the price of admission, for example ’ ’pissed off to the highest degree of passtivity’ or ’(nothing serious) just buggin’’ or ’black absurdity.’  

In this historical humor, Beatty explores the points of departure between the black literature and oral traditions, from Old School faves, rhymes, raps, hip-hop riffs, stand-up skits, and political stump speeches. What's funny? What's humor according to the brothas and sistuhs? He can find it in Sojourner Truth's 1851 proclamation, ’And Ain't I a Woman?’ in its insistence of humanity and femininity or Zora's 1926 tongue-in-cheek ’Possum or Pig’ or the literary selling points in three hilarious distinct gems of DuBois, Himes and Malcolm X. There's a kinship, lyrical but heartfelt, in Lightning Hopkins' 1968 ’Cadillac Blues' to the gritty excerpt of Charles Wright's 1966 ’The Wig,’ to poet Sterling Brown's 1932 ’Slim in Atlanta and Darius James' 1992 laugh-out loud ditty, ’Lil Black Zambo.’     

Beatty was quoted in an newspaper interview, saying not many contemporary people are funny anymore, but he found enough of them to bring a smile to any reader's face. A good cast is worth repeating (at least a part of it): Wanda Coleman, Franklin Ajaye, Rev. Al Sharpton, Percival Everett, Bob Kaufman, Henry Dumas, Amiri Baraka, Mike Tyson, Patricia Smith, Bert Williams, Toni Cade Bambara, Ish Reed, Spike Lee, Elizabeth Alexander, Ralph Ellison, Fran Ross, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Steve Cannon, among others. I found myself chuckling and drawing stares from the annoyed and polite. Tough. 

Finally, this book is to be savored over a week or two. Otherwise, you will miss something. Beatty's book is funny, clever, and intense. And very, very essential.


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For another's perspective; read a review of this book written by Kam Williams.