Still Shufflin’?: Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle Turns 20

Paul Beatty’s historic win as the first American to win the British Man Booker literary 9780805053517prize for his novel The Sellout made me think back to my initial introduction to Beatty’s work via The White Boy Shuffle. Written in 1996, The White Boy Shuffle remains a timely engagement of contemporary Black identity and cultural politics. Told from the perspective of Gunnar Kaufman, a Black boy living in 1990s Los Angeles, The White Boy Shuffle avoids romanticizing the Civil Rights Movement and its victories.  Gunnar’s evolution from a token Black boy in the suburbs of Santa Monica, California to a hesitant Black messiah and poet from the fictional inner city community of Hillside is one of African American Literature’s initial forays into canonizing contemporary concerns around post-Civil Rights Black identities. Beatty’s novel uses humor to highlight and expound upon the peculiarities of Black folks living after the movement.

Consider Gunnar’s antithetical stance towards Civil Rights rhetoric, especially the perception of a needed nucleic Black leadership that resonated in previous eras. In an effort to fill in the gaps, Gunnar suggests Blacks’ mass suicide as a last ditch effort to achieve social change:

In the quest for equality, black folks have tried everything. We’ve begged, revolted, entertained, intermarried, and are still treated like shit. Nothing works, so why suffer the slow deaths of toxic addiction and the American work ethic when the immediate gratification of suicide awaits?…Lunch counters, bus seats, and executive washrooms be damned; our mass suicide will be the ultimate sit-in (2).

By denouncing previous efforts of Black empowerment as failures, Gunnar’s demand of suicide serves as a possible reclamation of Blacks’ ability to define themselves and their positions in the post-Civil Rights United States.

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Paul Beatty

Particularly striking in Beatty’s satirizing of death and Blackness is his emphasis on the break between Blacks’ individuality and collective identity. Gunnar signifies this break, existing as both a “Negro Demagogue” and an individual. This dual existence is especially prevalent when Gunnar calls for Blacks to kill themselves as a revolutionary act, yet when asked about his own suicide he gruffly replies “when I’m good and goddamn ready” (202). Unlike the assassination and martyrdom of previous central Black leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Gunnar’s sensibilities of death as a member of the hip hop generation rely on his ability to define himself outside of the grasp of Civil Rights rhetoric. After signifying his rise to leadership as  “no longer a need for fed-up second-class citizens to place a want ad in the Sunday classifieds,” Gunnar demonstrates an awareness of Civil Rights leadership through denouncing it (1). In this sense, Blacks celebrate Gunnar’s nihilism because of what he designates as a residual need by a Black collective to be governed: “I didn’t interview for the job. I was drafted by 22 million hitherto unaffiliated souls into serving as full-time Svengali and foster parent to an abandoned people. I spoon-feed them grueled futility, unveil the oblivion that is Black America’s existence and the hopelessness of the struggle” (1).

Thus, Gunnar nihilistically views Black leadership as a burden instead of a privilege. His lack of enthusiasm as a leader indicates his distaste with romanticized notions of Black leadership he deems obsolete in the post-Civil Rights era.[i] Gunnar understands that messianic Black leadership is not the answer to the ills facing contemporary Blacks in the United States.

Perhaps most telling of this criticism is Gunnar’s speech during an anti-apartheid rally held at the base of a Martin Luther King, Jr. statue at Boston University. Gunnar, only on the docket to promote his latest book of poetry, Watermelanin, initially approaches the podium with intentions to fulfill the textbook definition of a Black revolutionary: “I wanted to address the crowd like a seasoned revolutionary, open with a smooth activist adage, ’There’s an old Chinese saying…,’ but I didn’t know any Chinese sayings, old or new. My hesitancy grew embarrassing” (198). Gunnar’s embarrassment lies in his realization that he could not fulfill the expectations of previous leaders partly because he did not possess a desire to fulfill those expectations. Upon looking at the abstract piece of art dedicated to King and its mistreatment, Gunnar realizes the peculiarity of trying to lead those present who did not appreciate the efforts or sacrifices made by previous Black leaders like King. In an explicit tirade – or, to acknowledge his position as a member of the hip hop generation, a freestyle – Gunnar calls out the crowd’s misread of complicity as agency and protest:

‘Who knows what it says on the plaque at the base of the sculpture?’ No one spoke. ‘You motherfuckers pass by that ugly-ass sculpture every day. You hang your coats on it, open beer bottles on it, meet your hot Friday night dates there, now here you are talking about freedom this and whitey putting-shit-in-the-game that and you don’t even know what the plaque says? Shit could say ‘Sieg Heil! Kill All Niggers! Auslander Raus!’ for all you know, stupid motherfuckers. African-Americans my ass. Middle minorities caught between racial polarities, please. Caring, class-conscious, progressive crackers, shit. Selfish apathetic humans like everybody else (199).

In his rant, Gunnar points out how contemporary Blacks, especially Black youth, rest on the laurels of past victories – and traumas – of previous Black agency. Gunnar’s tirade asserts the belief of Post-Civil Rights Blacks that they have achieved racial equality and reached King’s vision of the racial mountaintop. What is lacking, however, is knowledge about King’s sacrifice outside of being a figurehead of the Civil Rights era. Contemporary Americans’ complicity is signified in the rally attendees’ inability to recite King’s quote at the base of his statue. Gunnar’s classification of contemporary Blacks as “selfish, apathetic humans like everybody else” follows the pursuit of Daryl Dickson Carr’s observation of post-Civil Rights Blacks’ unwillingness to sacrifice material comfort for racial empowerment.[ii]

It is important to note that as Gunnar blisteringly critiques contemporary Blacks’ lack of agency, he also recognizes his own limitations as a leader by pointing out his own complicity:

Now, I’m not going to front, act like the first thing I did when I got to Boston University was proceed directly to the Martin Luther King Memorial and see what the goddamn plaque says. Only reason I know what it says is that I was coming out of Taco Bell on my way to basketball practice when I dropped my burrito deluxe at the base of the monument. When I bent down to wipe the three zesty cheeses, refried beans, and secret hot sauce off my sneakers, I saw what the plaque said. It says, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Martin Luther King, Jr. (200).

Gunnar’s humorous recalling of how he learned about King’s quote creates a brief comedic break from the stark reality of his critique of Black leadership as a failure in the post-Civil Rights era. Yet King’s quote provides context for Gunnar’s own mullings about death and Black agency. Gunnar concludes his speech by pointing out his inability to name anything worth dying for while poking fun at King’s death: “So I asked myself, what am I willing to die for? The day when white people treat me with respect and see my life as equally valuable to theirs? No, I ain’t willing to die for that, because if they don’t know that by now, they ain’t never going to know it. Matter of fact, I guess I’m just not fit to live. In other words, I’m just ready to die. I’m just ready to die” (200). Realizing his unwillingness to stand – or die – as a messiah for complicit Blacks, Gunnar relays his disinterest by emphatically proclaiming, “I’m just ready to die.” Although Gunnar calls for self-inflicted violence via suicide, there is also the potential for a mob outbreak of violence, which Gunnar seemingly embraces as a vehicle for change.

Twenty years later, The White Boy Shuffle remains a fresh and relevant take on the anxieties of being Black in contemporary American society. Beatty provides an acerbic examination of the peculiarity of bemoaning monolithic Black leadership in this current historical and cultural moment. In a social-cultural landscape where generational criticisms of #BlackLivesMatter and their protest rhetoric run parallel to a widening chasm of racial and social-economic anxieties, The White Boy Shuffle offers a viable rendering of the challenges of being young and Black in the post-Civil Rights Era.

[i] See Erica R. Edward’s study Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[ii] Please see Darryl Dickson-Carr’s full length study on satirical novels titled African American Satire: the Sacredly Profance Novel (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001).

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