Commit to the Bit

Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor edited by Paul Beatty. Bloomsbury USA. 496 pages. $20.

The cover of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor

HUMOR CAN BE A RISKY BUSINESS. For the comic, professional or not, comedy evinces parts of the self that may not otherwise see outward expression. For the reader, the line between mirth and madness can be thin. In The Republic, Plato, perhaps history’s foremost derider of laughter, reasons that elites must refrain from laughing because it signals a loss of control, a condition that can be exploited by the masses. Comedy must be left to the marginalized—“slaves and hired aliens,” as he puts it in The Laws—because someone needs to participate in the ridiculous in order for the serious to make sense.

Though Paul Beatty most likely would not call himself a Platonist, his introduction to Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006) juxtaposes the sober and the comedic as methods of truth telling in Black writing and inveighs against the former’s dominance in our apprehension of African American literature. For Beatty, the editor of this collection and the author, most recently, of the Booker Prize–winning novel The Sellout (2015), serious-minded work like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) imposed a Black experience that left him feeling estranged from his own multitudes, from those aspects of the self that did not comport with Angelou’s narrative: “I already knew why the caged bird sings, but after three pages of that book I now know why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage, so he can wallow in his own misery.” Beatty’s formative experiences with Black cultural production occurred during weekend showings of blaxploitation films at the Lido in Los Angeles. The Black world that unfolded at the theater—the dynamics and general tomfoolery that took place in the room—served as the bulk of the material for these seminars in Black culture. To laugh in community requires both care and deep study, even if we refuse to see it that way.

For Beatty, comedy tells the truth of Black complexity and marks the importance of humor in Black storytelling. His irreverent take on the origins of Black literature in folktales and oral culture pushes the highbrow concept of “African American Literature” away from morality tales, naturalist fiction, and trauma recitals, making room for how Black people simply laugh with each other as a way of moving through the world. Through a set of eclectic and far-ranging choices that incorporate everything from short stories to comic strips to a speech by Al Sharpton, the anthology cuts across time, space, and genre to find Black humor wherever it may express itself.

An excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is the anchor of this heterogenous assortment. Beatty excerpts a funny scene in which the unnamed narrator meets a yam salesman. The narrator associates yams with Blackness and the Deep South, and eating one on the Harlem streets would reveal too much about his origins. As much as white New Yorkers may associate the invisible man with what Alain Locke has called “the Old Negro,” a caricature of folksy Blackness that exists as more of a problem to quarrel over than an actual person in the real world, the narrator seems more worried about being a victim of the Dozens, a Black tradition of trading ever-escalating jokes and insults. Denying oneself the pleasure of a root vegetable, he finally realizes, is absurd. After eating a test yam, he buys two more, only to find that they are frostbitten.

This excerpt reveals quite a bit about Beatty’s philosophy of comedy, one that resonates with Ellison’s own. The latter author writes about this extensively in “An Extravagance of Laughter,” from Going to the Territory (1986), which concludes that comedy tells the uncomfortable truth about the messiness of the human condition. In Ellison’s estimation, Black laughter can be dangerous, a notion that he gets directly from Plato (this, to be clear, is a joke). Black laughter is a refusal, one that can be interpreted as laughing at white people; white supremacy is suspicious of excessive Black laughter because it can’t be contained.

Hokum circumvents white surveillance by exhibiting Black humor within a virtual space like the Lido, a Black world in which the comedy is draped in Black referents. In Beatty’s introduction to a section on “Black Absurdity,” he praises writers willing to risk the embarrassment of making sense out of the weird vicissitudes of life through the prism of the ludicrous. In this anthology, Beatty’s risk pays off; Plato be damned.

Omari Weekes is an assistant professor at Willamette University.