Saturday, November 8, 2014

Trumping the Dump

While covering the McGovern presidential campaign in 1972, Hunter S. Thompson discussed a fake news item (at least I hope it was fake) in which a Florida voter was arrested for throwing bowling balls off of a pier “because he thought they were nigger eggs”.  It was a different time.  It was also Hunter Thompson; attempting to rein in Hunter Thompson’s writing in order to avoid giving offense would have defeated the purpose of there being a Hunter Thompson.

Working for my college newspaper as a senior, a friend and I designed a feature graphic which we called “The Burning Crossword”, the concept of which was that it was an item stolen from the jumbles page of the KKK newsletter.  I will not attempt to duplicate the joke here; I will merely note that it was 1. Funny as hell and 2. Absolutely unpublishable.

Racism is funny.  The consequences of racism are not funny.  Racism as experienced by its victims is not funny.  But the actual phenomenon of racism—the belief that the content of a person’s brain is determined by the color of their skin—is damned funny, because human folly and failure is one of the primary sources of humor.  The irrational is funny, and the contradictions and confusion sparked by a racist outlook create wonderful absurdities—witness Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me or Dave Chappelle’s famous sketch involving a KKK leader, blind from birth, who’s unaware that he’s black.  There are, however, several problems that arise from the use of racism as a source of humor.  For one thing, there is a very fuzzy line between laughing at the foolishness of racist stereotyping and laughing at the stereotypes themselves.  There are times when humor about racism becomes racist humor.  And there are a whole lot of people who derive enjoyment from humor about racism for entirely the wrong reasons.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be abundantly aware that my current project is a short story entitled “Thump Dumps A Chump”.  At its most basic level, the story is a concept parody of the black exploitation movies of the 1970s such as Shaft and Superfly, a sort of literary equivalent of the Damon Wayans movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.  I don’t know how well those movies have aged.  They’ve always sort of served simultaneous roles as black empowerment fantasies and as opportunities for white people to lack at exaggerated black stereotypes.  The best that can be said of them is that they caused non-African American audiences to envision black people in the role of the hero; the worst that can be said is that they reified the sorts of assumptions about black people that made heroism necessary.  Probably on the whole the world is a more interesting place for them having been made, but whether it’s a better place is a debatable question.

It is probably also fair to say that 1970s black exploitation cinema is not a large enough part of the current cultural zeitgeist that a parody of it is really necessary at this point.  It may not have really been necessary in 1988, either, when Damon Wayans did it.  So why write the story?  Well, for the same reason I write everything else I write.  Because it was clawing at the inside of my skull wanting to get out.  And because, once I started dumping it out onto the page, I saw it as having the potential to be great.

Here’s what I think:  At this stage, “Thump Dumps A Chump” is probably closer to being great than anything else I’ve ever written.  Axis of Eternity is a good first novel with sporadic moments of greatness that seems, from the professional response, to be hovering at the cusp of publishability.  I’m proud of it.  But “Thump” is in a whole different category.  When I gave it to an acquaintance, a very skilled writer, for review, he reported that he’d had to walk away from it for half an hour because he was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.  It’s a story the humor of which is lost in description; you kind of have to read it.  But the people who’ve read it now generally greet me by yelling lines from it at me.  That’s a damned good sign.

In addition to being very funny, it is also pretty racist.  I do not say that out of white guilt or self-abasement or as an apology for the work, but as an accurate description of its style and content.  It is written in a semi-articulate patois that doesn’t accurately represent black English, and which is mined for humor via the insertion of obscenities and of uncharacteristic vocabulary.  The title character and titular hero is almost completely nonverbal and is celebrated exclusively for his capacity for violence.  One of the supporting characters is a Johnny Cochrane-style attorney whose courtroom demeanor is more or less the modern equivalent of a minstrel show.  There’s never any explicit identification of the characters as belonging to any particular racial group, but nor is it in any way ambiguous that the heroes are black, the villains are white, and everybody’s behavior is an amplification of various racial stereotypes.

At the end of the day, the difference between this story and Thompson’s (and also the Burning Crossword, and Murphy’s work, and Chappelle’s) is pretty straightforward.  Those stories were laughing at the expense of racists.  This story is laughing at the expense of the victims of racism.  I do not acknowledge, at all, that that makes this story unfunny.  Funny is funny.  But I do acknowledge that it makes this story not OK.

And this puts me in a weird position.  Because I’m not at all ashamed of having written the story, or of what having written it says about the contents of my mind.  I’m dealing with the same baggage as everybody else, and I don’t recognize that pouring it out onto a piece of paper is a less healthy way of dealing with it than repressing it and attempting to police my own (and everyone else’s) language and behavior for fear of waking the sleeping beast.  Hell, I’m proud, DAMNED proud, to have created the thing.  Good writing impacts readers at a fundamental level; good writing is quotable; good writing is not easily forgotten; this story qualifies on all counts.

But I can’t attempt to publish it.  Not now and probably not ever.  And not just because I would be immediately fired (and I absolutely would) if it ever made it into print under my name.  But also because it will give too much comfort to too many people for too many of the wrong reasons.  It is, at the end of the day, the sort of entertainment which Damon Wayans or Dave Chappelle could probably acceptably produce, but which a middle-aged white guy really just can’t.  To tell myself otherwise is to lie.  Where we’re at right now, as a society, funny is good, but racism is trumps.

So this one will be going into the drawer, and will be distributed only upon request and only to those who know what they’re getting.  Every writer wants to be celebrated for his creativity, but sometimes, the price of public acclaim is just too high.  Helluva thing.

EDIT, 4/2015:
It took an awful lot of editing, and an awful lot of reflection, to get this story to its final stage.  At the end of the day, I'm STILL not 100% comfortable with it.  There's some cultural appropriation in play here, which is unsurprising given the material I'm working from.  But I do think that, post-revision, the piece makes clear with whom my sympathies lie, and that the joke winds up being on the chumps, not on their victims.  Post-revision, I think the self-criticisms above are no longer accurate, and the laughs are, on the whole, earned for the right reasons.  Although the piece does, in the words of Thump's friend, "ride mighty close to the line" at times.

Following the process of revision, I ended up marketing the story to a variety of small literary journals.  Well, and the New Yorker.  The New Yorker didn't say yes, but others did.  So this weird little belch of a story will wind up being the first writing for which I am paid.

Readers will make their own judgments as to whether what I wrote here was acceptable.  I won't shy away from that debate, should it occur.  I'm leaving this post up as an acknowledgement of where this story came from and of what factors ultimately led me to put it before the public.

We all have conversations with ourselves about race.  "Thump Dumps A Chump" is part of mine.  Perhaps, after reading it, you'll hear echoes of your own conversation as well.

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