Whiteys praying to their black poet-god to absolve them of their sins crying, “I understand! I understand!” – from The White Boy Shuffle
After picking up a copy of poet Paul Beatty’s 1996 novel, you’ll probably read the back cover. Here, you’ll find a vague description that says, “black boy moves to the ghetto, becomes unlikely basketball star and poet, dubbed messiah by the black masses.” After reading the prologue, I was annoyed by the minimal description. Clearly, this story was about to transcend a lot more than basketball and street-poetry. I was diving into a racial quagmire and after 5 pages I wasn’t sure if I’d end up in a post-apocalyptic distopia or the United States circa 2016.
As I was nearing the end of the novel, sitting in the window seat of a local coffee shop, a white man approached me and asked, “what are you reading?”
“The White Boy Shuffle.”
“Oh, what’s it about?”
“Ha…um…it’s about – well it’s about a boy in L.A. He moves…and I guess he becomes a basketball star – but he’s also a poet?”
I get it, it’s a hard book to describe.
A more accurate description might be, “Well, a black kid’s mom relocates them from the burbs to the L.A. ghetto and he – Gunnar – recognizes his internalized racism. He plays basketball, but, it’s really the author’s use of basketball as an illustration of how black Americans are used by whites as entertainers and performers juxtaposed with Gunnar’s superb intellect and poetic genius, which could ingratiate him into white intellectual culture but he refuses…anyway…it’s, um, it’s different.”
Imposter: how I felt Beatty might describe me if he stumbled upon my privileged white-girl self reading his book. Maybe the book works in two ways. First, if you read it and you are left feeling, “huh, maybe not every iota of culture, every pinch of intelligence, every word written, is written exclusively for me,” than the book was a success. Conversely, Beatty is equally successful if you read it and think, “wow, I get this. This book is for me.”
Beatty’s prose – regardless of motive – is lyrical but readable, harsh but heartfelt, funny but important. His style is reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s in that Beatty focuses on the story’s impact, not the facts. For instance, you might know Beatty is exaggerating about the cornrow-braided white girl named Negritude effusing her connection with Nubian goddesses in Gunnar’s poetry class, but…is he exaggerating?
The White Boy Shuffle asks and answers a lot of questions plenty of people probably don’t want asked, or answered – at least not how Gunnar answers them. Likewise, Beatty’s book might not be for everyone. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, I learned from it, and I highly recommend it – even if now I am that whitey praying for my sins to be absolved.