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Jewish World Review April 25, 2002 / 14 Iyar, 5762

Mark Goldblatt

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Consumer Reports


On Being Whiteballed: Why my novel is nowhere near your bookstore


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Satire, apart from its aesthetic value, has a Darwinian function. In the novel Candide, Voltaire satirized the philosophy of Leibniz — embodied in the character of Dr. Pangloss — and thereby made it harder to maintain the cockeyed theological optimism that skims over human misery and sees only "the best of all possible worlds." Slightly lower on the intellectual food chain, Norman Lear brought a satirical British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part to America as All in the Family, and thereby it harder thereafter to think and act like the knee-jerk bigot Archie Bunker.

It was the Darwinian function of satire that I had in mind when I wrote a novel, Africa Speaks, which right now is probably not appearing in a bookstore near you. Despite the fact that it was published by a prestigious, literary press. Despite pre-publication reviews that ranged from respectable to downright glowing. So why won't you find Africa Speaks on the shelves of your local bookstore chain?

You be the judge; here's the first paragraph:

A salaam aleichem, in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate, the one true God. Yo, yo, yo, I'd like to send a shout out to my people, to my kings and queens. You know what I'm saying? My kings and queens. Yo, and a special shout out to my soldiers, my niggas in arms, the One-Forty-Ninth Street Crew — vagina findas, no doubt. Crazy mad dawgs! I got nothing but love for you. Even you, Herc! It's all good. The name's Africa Ali, I'm just 23, and I'm about to drop the four-one-one. Just keeping it real, 'cause that's what I'm all about. Reality to the utmost.

That's right: I satirized African Americans.

When I first approached my literary agent with the idea of a satirical novel, she shrugged; when I told her the topic was hip hop, she begged me not to write it. She said I'd wind up with Al Sharpton picketing my house. I wrote it regardless, whereupon my agent became my ex-agent. Another agent then wanted to represent the book, but she was overruled by her senior partner — who said they'd wind up with Al Sharpton picketing their offices. So I sent the book out myself to one major New York publisher; the editor-in-chief loved it but said he'd never get it past his editorial board. He suggested, however, that I try Permanent Press, a mid-size house based on Long Island — perhaps thinking Sag Harbor was too far from New York City for Al Sharpton to commute.

Permanent Press published it, and, now . . . well, nothing. No new-and-noteworthy mentions. No newspaper or magazine reviews. No bookstore shelf space.

As far as I can tell, I'm being whiteballed.

Which is a shame. Not just for me (though of course for me especially) but for African Americans. For, to return to my original point about the effect of satire, no one nowadays needs to be satirized more than African Americans. If not for the French — who've retired all such trophies — African Americans would currently rank as the most hypocritical, most paranoid, most pretentious group of people on the planet. Quite an accomplishment since, as late as the mid-1960's, their cultural legacy set them on a par with the ancient Israelites. Less that half a century ago, African Americans — like the Jews of the Old Testament — were emerging from centuries of enslavement and subjugation with a culture that was stirring in its resilience, rich in its subtleties and epic in its scope. They were turning out a generation of national heroes like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks — a generation crowned by the towering world figure of Martin Luther King.

And now?

Well . . . look around.

African-American political leaders are, nowadays, with rare exceptions, a ragtag crew of racial arsonists, conspiracy mongers and corporate shakedown artists. Their intellectual leaders are, with rare exceptions, purveyors of absurd mythologies of perpetual victimization — and the exceptions, in this case, are without exception shunned by their own communities. And their artistic leaders, with no exceptions whatsoever, have turned from themes of the persistence and universality of human nature, even in the face of prolonged oppression, to a fetishistic worship of the idea of "blackness" — a connotation for which there is, in reality, no coherent denotation.

The very nadir of this last phenomenon, the black obsession with blackness, is hip hop. Not the bubblegum hip hop of, say, Will Smith or MC Hammer — whose crossover success immediately undermined their credibility among the genre's purists. They just weren't black enough. (By that logic, though, neither were Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.) More representative of hip hop's hardcore is Onyx, a howling, scowling act of the late 1990's, whose leader once bragged:

Onyx comes from black. Onyx is a hard, black stone. We're black twenty-four hours a day, and our music is hard as a motherf*****. That sh** is in coordination with the mad face. The mad face is 'cause motherf*****s ain't happy. The black man is an endangered species nowadays, so we got the motherf***ing mad face.

This is the very essence of hip hop, or at least the most critically-acclaimed and socially relevant strain of hip hop, which is sometimes called "conscious rap." Though it has affinities with the more notorious gangsta rap of Snoop Dogg, Puff Daddy and NWA, gangstas themselves readily concede that conscious rap is the "realist" form of rap — that is, it's truer to the pulse of the streets. And "real" is the gold standard in the hip-hop universe, the value against which black authenticity is gauged.

So what is conscious rap?

Essentially, it's a noxious brew of racist delusions skimmed from the diverse streams of black separatist rhetoric, Afrocentric propagandizing, Nation of Islam theology and a kind of Cliff Notes Marxism. According to conscious rapper Ras Kass, "My whole point at the end of the day is AmeriKKKa was made by white men for white men. . . . This sh — is made for rich elite, by the rich elite. So they can exploit the f*** outta y'all and me. So until we get man enough and educated enough to say, 'Let's just break this sh** off,' we ain't sh**!"

Conscious rap acts such as Brand Nubian and Dead Prez are among the most influential hip hop acts today, following the path blazed by the first conscious rappers, Public Enemy. PE's leader, Chuck D., now an elder statesman of rap and occasional guest on Politically Incorrect, recently assessed the contributions of the deceased, avowedly racist leader of the New Black Panther Party Khalid Mohammed thusly:
<blockquote>We've lost probably one of the most ultimate fighters that we could've had. Because his thing wasn't predicated on making people, white folks, or anybody feel comfortable about us. . . . You gotta have people that fight for you, no matter what. Because the United States got that. It's a place, they say, of land, milk and honey, but let it be known [if] you f*** up, they'll bomb your ass, jail your ass, kill you. </blockquote>

Chuck D.'s former band mate, Professor Griff, who once got himself in hot water for saying Jews were the principal sponsors of the slave trade (noting, in utter seriousness, "Is it a coincidence that Jews run the jewelry business? And that it's named jewelry?") now perceives dire forces at work keeping black people down: "We go from conspiracy to conspiracy. We go from disease to disease. We go from the government experimenting on the people. So I tend to believe that if you're not aware, you tend to get kind of numb to the fact that everything's not peaches and cream."

But awareness of what? The answer is supplied by Dead Prez's M1 (a name), who declared, in an internet interview with African fans, that his band's purpose was "to let everybody know we are one people with one common oppressor. Our oppressor is this capitalist system run by the same people who raped Africa of our resources." Lord Jamar, of Brand Nubian, suggests a straightforward and final solution to the problem of oppression in the rap "Sweatin' Bullets": "These devils make me sick; I love to fill them full of holes; kill them all in the daytime, broad motherf***ing daylight; 12 o'clock, grab the Glock; why wait for night?"

So it goes.

What's significant here is not the fact that hip-hop stars, in their ongoing attempts to "keep it real," are walking around expressing pinheaded, or even racially incendiary, ideas — which of course is their constitutional right — but the impact of such ideas on their fans. The thesis of my novel Africa Speaks is that hip hop instills in young black people a self-destructive us-against-them mindset in which pathological behavior is equated with black authenticity. The novel is an attempt to dramatize the effects of this mindset. It's told in all black voices — the literary equivalent for a white writer of working in blackface — so I'm not going to pull a Salmon Rushdie and claim I had no idea people would be upset by the book. But I thought it was an important project, and I expected it to be noticed.

To be sure, I'm not the first person to point out the stunting tendencies of black culture. Ward Connelly, Thomas Sowell, and John McWhorter have sounded this alarm before — and become pariahs for their efforts. Even New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, whose ritual focus on black victimology is part of the problem, has noted the phenomenon: "Academic achievement, according to this mind-bogglingly destructive way of thinking, was a white thing, and thus in some sense contemptible. The tragic result has been that in many schools across the country black kids who apply themselves to their studies are often ridiculed and at times ostracized." Herbert mentions a Bronx teacher who told him that many of her black students would rather be perp-walked in front of television cameras than be caught with an open textbook.

To that teacher's testimony, I'll add an anecdote of my own about a young black woman — I'll call her Tanisha — who came to my remedial English class several semesters ago with what's now known as an Ebonics problem; she made decent progress for the first half of the term, then began sabotaging her own assignments because — she confessed, in tears, after I handed back her final essay — her "peeps" were telling her that going to college was turning her white.

I wrote Africa Speaks with Tanisha in mind. And I tried to keep it real — in the sense that many of the more grotesque passages are taken directly from conversations I overheard on the streets, or quotes from hip-hop magazines, or rants on public access television. I just strung them together into a narrative. For that reason, however, the book is not for the young or squeamish. It contains graphic language from the first page to the last. That's the nature of the subject matter; it is intended to be a shocking book.

And it is intended to be read — which is the reason I'm writing this.

I hope you'll stamp your feet for it, in a polite way, at your local bookstore.



JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt's novel, Africa Speaks , will be published this month. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Mark Goldblatt