Edited by Paul Beatty
D. Scot Miller for East Bay Express
Against a black backdrop, a thin slice of watermelon eaten nearly down to the rind conjures a sinister pink smile on the cover of this African-American humor anthology. Like its contents, the book's cover is both hilarious and haunting. When compiling a collection that is equal parts Afro-surrealist agitprop and talking-book primer, Beatty mined a compendium of the last century's most influential black writers, thinkers, and artists, himself included. From the pathos of Hilton Als to the surprisingly profound musings of Mike Tyson, many of these pieces are funny in spite of themselves. Excerpts from Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Fran Ross' forgotten jewel, Oreo, mix with short stories from Henry Dumas and Darius James and poems from Bob Kaufmann, Harryette Mullen, and more, inspiring the reader to unearth these writers' other, out-of-print treasures. Wary of inside jokes, some readers might be reluctant to dive into the concoction of hip-hop lyrics, speeches, and quotes with which Beatty rounds out the anthology, but since before Brer Rabbit, oral humor has been the occasional vehicle for extreme, radical black thought. As a literary reference tool, it's unmatched. Beatty's selections give Hokum, as Jean-Michel Basquiat might say, teeth.