My introduction to black — excuse me, Black — literature happened during the summer between eighth and ninth grades when the Los Angeles Unified School District, out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart, sent me a copy of Maya Angelou’s ”I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It was the first book I’d ever opened written by an African-American author. Notice I said ”opened” and not ”read.” I made it through a few pages before I began to get suspicious. Why would a school district that didn’t bother to supply me with a working pair of left-handed scissors, a decipherable pre-algebra text or a slice of pepperoni pizza with more than two pepperonis on it send me a new book? Why care about my welfare now?
I read another paragraph, growing more oppressed with each maudlin passage. My lips thickened. My burr-headed Afro took on the texture of a dried-out firethorn bush. My love for the sciences, the Los Angeles Kings and scuba diving disappeared. My dog, Butch, growled at me. I suppressed my craving for a Taco Bell Bellbeefer (remember those?) because I feared the restaurant wouldn’t serve me. My eyes started to water and the words to ”Roll, Jordan, Roll,” a Negro spiritual I’d never heard before, rumbled out of my mouth in a sonorous baritone. I didn’t know I could sing. I tossed the book into the kitchen trash. I already knew why the caged bird sang — my family was impoverished every other week while waiting for my mother’s paydays — but after three pages of that book, I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.
After this traumatic experience, I retreated to my room to self-medicate with James Clavell, John Irving, Joseph Wambaugh, the Green Lantern and Archie and Jughead. It would be 10 years before I would touch another book written by an African-American. As my wiser sister Anna says, ”Never trust folks like Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones who grow up in Walla Walla, Miss., and Boogaloo, Ark., and speak with British accents.”
It’s always struck me as odd that there hasn’t been a colored Calvin Trillin, Bennett Cerf or Mark Twain. Hell, I’d settle for a cornball Dave Barry who’d write, for the rap magazines, columns with titles like ”Boogers: The Ghetto Sushi.” The defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety — unless it’s the black literature you buy from the book peddler standing on the corner next to the black-velvet-painting dealer, next to the burrito truck: then the prevailing theme is the menage a trois.
After throwing away Angelou’s book, I was apparently on some urban watch list. I’d been discovered by a consortium of concerned teachers who, determined to ”get through” to me, introduced me to the expansive world of African-American literature, which in those days consisted of four books: Angelou’s autobiography, Richard Wright’s ”Black Boy,” Alice Childress’s ”A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich” and James Baldwin’s ”Go Tell It on the Mountain.” That was pretty much the entire black canon, though every SAT prep book that ever put me to sleep confirmed the existence of at least one poem written by an African-American. (”In the line, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ the poet dreams of: (a) equal rights (b) showing up at school naked (c) a white Christmas (d) a fancy car, diamond in the back, sunroof top, so he can dig the scene with a gangster lean (e) all of the above.”)
My journey to black literary insobriety isn’t so different from how I came to appreciate free jazz after growing up in a house that contained two records, the soundtrack to ”Enter the Dragon” and ”Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan.” It turns out that I enjoy never fully understanding what’s in front of me, and I masochistically relish being offended while thinking about why I feel offended and if I should feel offended. I also live in Manhattan’s East Village.
I found the work of the novelist Darius James while passing through Cathy’s bookstore on Avenue B and at the Living Theater on Third Street, hearing him deliver voodoo shibboleths as unruly as his stringy dreadlocks. No one laughed harder at his jokes than he did.
”Lil’ Black Zambo was a little nigger boy,” he wrote in his 1992 novel, ”Negrophobia.” ”Or pickaninny. Or jigaboo. Or any number of names we have for little colored children — shine, smoke, snowball, dinge, dust, inky, eggplant and chocolate moonpie. And since Lil’ Black Zambo lived with his mammy in a one-room hut made of mud and leaves near a croc-infested swamp in the Jungle, we can call him ‘gator bait, too. . . . Zambo’s pappy, Tambo, who liked to drink cheap coconut wine, ran off long before Zambo was born, so Zambo and his mammy were very, very poor. They didn’t give out welfare checks in the Jungle. The Jungle was uncivilized. Or at least that’s what Zambo’s mammy, Mambo, said. ‘When we gwine git civilized so I can git on d’welfare?’ ”
Bob Holman, then a director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, probably feeling guilty for offering to pay the royalties on my first collection of poetry in draft beer, gave me a first edition copy of the poet Bob Kaufman’s ”Golden Sardine” (1967). I’d heard the name, dropped by aging Beats looking to reaffirm their movement’s diversity. I read that, and quickly snapped up Kaufman’s ”Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness” (1965) from St. Mark’s Bookshop, and therein found the answer to what happens to Langston Hughes’s deferred dreamers — they become what Kaufman called (in his made-up word) Abomunists, as demonstrated by these selected riffs from his book ”Abomunist Manifesto” (1959):
Abomunists join nothing but their hands
+or legs, or other same.
In times of national peril, abomunists, as
reality Americans, stand ready to
drink themselves to death for their country.
Abomunists never carry more than fifty
dollars in debts on them.
Some black humor I found on my own bookshelf. I reread Zora Neale Hurston’s freewheeling story ”Book of Harlem,” written circa 1921. (”And she said unto him, ‘Go thou and buy the books and writings of certain scribes and Pharisees which I shall name unto you, and thou shalt learn everything of good and of evil. Yea, thou shalt know as much as the Chief of the Niggerati, who is called Carl Van Vechten.’ ”) I heard Richard Pryor shout-out Cecil Brown on ”Bicentennial Nigger,” and figured that if Pryor was giving the man some dap, then Brown’s novel ”The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger” (1969) must be worth a look-see. It is.
My friends were the biggest help. I’ll never forget the film director Reginald Hudlin shaking his head in pity when I told him I’d never read George Schuyler’s 1931 novel ”Black No More.” (”Don’t you know who that is?” a character in Schuyler’s novel asks. ”Why that’s that Dr. Crookman. You know, the fellow what’s turnin’ niggers white. See that B N M on the side of his plane? That stands for Black-No-More.”) The poet Kofi Natambu practically refused to speak to me until I read Ishmael Reed, and the novelist Danzy Senna smiled wistfully when she showed me the cover of Fran Ross’s hilarious 1974 novel, ”Oreo.” I’m usually very slow to come around to things. It took me two years to ”feel” Wu Tang’s first album, even longer to appreciate Basquiat, and I still don’t get all the fuss over Duke Ellington and FrankLloyd Wright. But I couldn’t believe ”Oreo” hadn’t been on my cultural radar.
The writer Steve Cannon, professor emeritus of the Lower East Side, pointed me in the direction of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where I stumbled on the black-faced minstrel jokes of Bert Williams, typed on yellowed parchment. The paper was dry, but the century-old wit was still surprisingly fresh. Even more of a shock was my discovery that W. E. B. Du Bois, the pillar of African-American stolidity, had a sense of humor. His 1923 essay ”On Being Crazy,” while by no means hilarious, is at least an example of the great man letting his ”good” hair down to engage in a little segregation satire.
I wish I’d been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would’ve been comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.