Finding the Lighter Side of African-American Lit Is black literature too serious? Writer Paul Beatty thought so, that's why he compiled a new anthology of African American humor, from Simple to Sharpton.
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Finding the Lighter Side of African-American Lit

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Finding the Lighter Side of African-American Lit

Finding the Lighter Side of African-American Lit

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And this is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michelle Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment.

This week, services will be held to mark the passing of Coretta Scott King, wife of slain Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Last year we honored the death of another African-American Civil Rights hero, Rosa Parks. It's the passing of an era, and the legacy these icons leave is rich, steeped in the pain and progress of their people, and it is another reminder that African-American history is a serious matter.

The literature that African-Americans have created to describe and understand this history is often very serious, too. But is the serious side the only side? Does tragedy have to trump comedy all the time? That's the question that novelist and poet Paul Beatty asks and answers with his latest book, Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. It's a collection of writings by African-Americans, some highly literary, some decidedly not. Some wry and subtle. Many downright politically incorrect, even profane.

There are well-known authors like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but also some surprises, such as entries by Al Sharpton and Mike Tyson. The author calls it a mix tape from a trusted friend, and the connecting thread that humor has been an effective tool in examining race and the African-American experience.

Later in the program, we'll get an update on today's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, where Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been defending the administration's wiretap program. But first, African-American literature. Has African-American humor gotten its due? Does the message have to be sobering to be serious? Or, is black literature too lightweight now? What's the best on the market right now, and why? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Paul Beatty is the author of White Boy Shuffle and Tuff, in addition to his latest African-American humor anthology. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Thanks for joining us, Paul.

Mr. PAUL BEATTY (Novelist, Poet, and Editor): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, why this anthology?

Mr. BEATTY: Uh...

MARTIN: I know this is a complex story, so try to make it as succinct as possible.

Mr. BEATTY: It's not that complex. I was in Berlin once, having a conversation with a friend, and we were bemoaning how there wasn't anything funny anymore. And we were, like, contemplating starting a humor magazine, and we didn't, neither of us took it very seriously. But when I got back, I told my agent about it, and she suggested I do an anthology, and low and behold, there you have it.

MARTIN: Let's hear some of your choices. Let's go right to them. And one of them is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks titled, A Song in the Front Yard, from 1945, and we are fortunate to have a clip of Gwendolyn Brooks herself reading the poem. Let's listen.

Ms. GWENDOLYN BROOKS (Poet, "A Song in the Front Yard"): (Reading) 'I've stayed in the front yard all my life. I wanna peek at the back where it's rough and untended, and hungry weed grows. A girl gets sick of a rose. I want to go in the backyard now, and maybe down the alley to where the charity children play. I want a good time today. They do some wonderful things. They have some wonderful fun. My mother sneers, but I say it's fine how they don't have to go in at quarter to nine.

My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae will grow up to be a bad woman, that Georgia'll be taken to jail soon or late, on account of last winter, he sold our back gate. But I say it's fine, honest I do, and I'd like to be a bad woman, too, and wear the brave stockings of night-black lace, and strut down the streets with paint on my face.

MARTIN: That was Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poem, A Song in the Front Yard, which she wrote in 1945. Paul, why did you include this poem?

Mr. BEATTY: Because, I mean, it's obviously not something that's uproariously funny, but it's humor, and the book has a, as you said in the introduction, there's a scope to African-American humor, you know, from things that are, you know, that just make you smile to things that make you laugh out loud, and, you know, Gwendolyn Brooks didn't write a lot of funny poems, but, you know, she did write some, and they're very good, and I, you know, I wanted to include her.

MARTIN: And subtle. It's kind of lovely and subtle.

Mr. BEATTY: Yes.

MARTIN: Your selection, this is the things that I found really interesting, is your selections are not limited to literary works, and the next piece we're gonna hear is a presidential campaign speech which Al Sharpton gave at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club. We have an expert of it. Here's Al Sharpton speaking back in 2003, and he's talking about the importance of telling the truth.

Mr. AL SHARPTON: Well, it does matter, because telling the truth to people who are gonna give their lives, who are gonna see the lives of their children, the lives of their relatives, the lives of their friends, the lives of their neighbors lost, it matters that you tell them the real reason that we're doing this. That's like me coming to the Commonwealth Club, saying that we all must get out of the building, we're in immediate danger. And we all get outside on Market, and you say, Reverend Al, where's the danger? Aw, it doesn't matter. Y'all need some fresh air, anyhow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That was Al Sharpton speaking at the Commonwealth Club. What made you think of that?

Mr. BEATTY: Al Sharpton's hilarious, so, whether I agree with him or not, and he's always funny. And a lot of the pieces are things that are very similar to that. There's, like, the, um, they're funny excerpts that are within more serious context, and there's a piece in the book from Malcolm X, from Sojourner Truth, and most, I don't know about most, but a lot of African-American public speakers are funny, Cornel West, and the only one who I can think of whose, who I don't know or I've never heard make a joke in a speech is Martin Luther King, and it's just, it's a way of rallying people to the cause, of addressing serious matters in a funny way. Uh, yeah, I'll leave it at that.

MARTIN: We're talking about the role of humor in African-American culture with Paul Beatty, the editor of the new anthology Hokum, and we're taking your calls at 1-800-989-TALK. Are you funny, Paul?

Mr. BEATTY: No, not at all.

MARTIN: But, you know, in your introduction, you explain that this anthology grew out of your experience as a young African-American looking for literary voices with whom you could relate. Is that true, or were you just, were you actually being funny?

Mr. BEATTY: Oh, no, that's very true. No, I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Once, I remember in Spanish class somebody, uh, I'm not like the class clown. I was never the person to stand up and crack a joke, but I was very funny in my little corner. But it's, it wasn't something that, you know, I, like, grew up thinking about, like, you know, I was in seventh grade reading something and going, you know, I wish there were some funnier African-American humor.

But, when I started writing poetry, I tend to, you know, there's a lot of jokes, and I try to take in account the voices that I had heard around me, and a lot of those voices were filled with, you know, witticisms and insight that were brilliant and funny at the same time, and so I remember trying to insert those into my poetry and then thinking about, like, how rare it was that I would come across stuff like that.

MARTIN: Well, the barbershop is funny, oftentimes. I don't know if you went to the barbershop growing up, but that, there's some really hilarious people there.

Mr. BEATTY: That's funny, 'cause I never did go to the barbershop growing up. My mom cut my hair, so.

MARTIN: Oh, well, maybe she was funny.

Mr. BEATTY: The haircuts were funny, but my mom wasn't that funny.

MARTIN: You said that one of your first exposures to African-American writers was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and you say that that experience set you back from African-American writers for 10 years. Now, I assume that you were trying to be a little bit funny when you said that, but why is that?

Mr. BEATTY: Ah...

MARTIN: If there's a grain of not-funny in that. Why is that?

Mr. BEATTY: I was trying to be funny, but it's actually probably true. It probably was the first piece of African-American literature that I'd ever been given or had. My mom had a lot of books, but she didn't have a lot of black authors. Most of the black author stuff was non-fiction. But, I just remember reading it. And, you know, part of it is that I was young, and I wasn't relating to it at all because it was just so serious, and my life, you know, as a young person, you know, was serious enough.

And I'm not one of those, or at least, it wasn't something for me that I was comfortable dealing with, because it was just, it was too much. You know, and it just didn't fit into the context of a lot of stuff I was reading then, you know, Mad Magazine and stuff like that. Those were the things that were, you know, getting my attention, because I think I was trying to deflect away from a lot of the stuff that she was going through, and, you know, similar experiences I was having as a young person. So, it was hard for me to read, and it just didn't speak to me.

MARTIN: Well, but you may have been a little young to read it. And the only reason I ask is because you said you were eight, but then the only reason I bring that up, is that her work does speak to a lot of people. I mean, for some people who have had some of the experiences she's had, that might be a really important thing, to sort of read someone like her that validates your experience. And I'm just wondering whether it was really necessary to criticize her work in order to lift up the work that you so enjoy?

Mr. BEATTY: It was necessary, because in the same way that she's being faithful to her experience, I'm being faithful to mine, and it's not, it's no way of discounting the validity of the book, or the validity of her message, and I'm just, you know, being honest with how I dealt with it.

MARTIN: Let's take a caller. Here is David in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome, David.

DAVID (Caller): Well, welcome, and thank you for taking my call.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

DAVID: I just had a quick question, and it was whether or not you've noticed that if whites versus blacks respond to the black humor differently or not?

Mr. BEATTY: That's a good question. Haven't thought about it like that. Someone else asked me if there was such a thing as white humor and black humor. I don't know what that means. The feedback that I've gotten from white folks that have read the book has been very positive. They like the Al Sharpton piece, they liked a bunch of the other pieces, and a lot of them felt, they weren't sure whether it was safe enough for them to laugh at some of the pieces or not. And...

MARTIN: Explain that.

Mr. BEATTY: You'd have to ask them. But it's one of those things where, I'm a person who, I tend to laugh at times when I'm not supposed to laugh, and it sometimes gets me in trouble, but it's, other times, I'm comfortable. Like one of the things is I'm, it's hard to say, hard thing to say, but I'm a fan of the Amos 'n Andy television shows.

MARTIN: Uh-oh.

Mr. BEATTY: Not a fan like I think that it's like, you know, brilliant entertainment, but both those actors are very, very funny, Childress and Spencer Williams, and they were doing the best that they could in those contexts. And it's interesting, because the only place I ever see those tapes are in black video stores. And so, I take some comfort in that, in knowing that I'm not the only one.

MARTIN: We're talking about African-American literature, and we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You could send us e-mail. The address is: I'm Michelle Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michelle Martin in Washington. We're talking about African-American literature. Is there a right way to do it? Is it too serious? Can it be too funny? Still with us, novelist and Poet Paul Beatty. His latest book is called Hokum: an Anthology of African-American Humor.

And joining us now is Nick Chiles. He's the editor-in-chief of Odyssey Couleur, is that, I'm not sure I'm pronouncing that properly, but he'll straighten me out, a travel magazine. He recently wrote an opinion piece titled, Their Eyes were Reading Smut, in which he laments the state of African-American literature. He joins us now from the studios at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. NICK CHILES (Editor-in-Chief, Odyssey Couleur): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Nick Chiles, first of all, tell me how, first of all, tell me, help me pronounce the name of your magazine properly.

Mr. CHILES: No, you had it right.

MARTIN: I did?

Mr. CHILES: We were seeking sophistication, so it's the French word for color, couleur.

MARTIN: So, pinkies raised when we say it, right?

Mr. CHILES: Yeah.

MARTIN: And how do you feel about Paul Beatty's argument that what passes for African-American literature today is just a little too heavy?

CHILES: Well, it's kind of funny. I was listening to his description of how he approached African-American literature when he was younger, and my experience was almost the polar opposite. My parents owned a record store/bookstore when I was growing up, and so I was surrounded, literally inundated, by black literature. And I read so much of it, that it wasn't until like high school and college that I started catching up with the white canon, because I had read so much of the black.

And my experience was that I, in wanting to be a writer, I struggled with the thought that I had to make my work speak to these huge, kind of monumental issues that African Americans deal with, racial injustice and economic injustice, and all that kind of stuff, civil rights. If I wanted to be a black writer, that I couldn't write about some of the more mundane, but crucial issues that affect our day-to-day lives.

And so, humor is actually an interesting part of that, because so much of our lives, we grow up, in our interactions, humor is almost kind of like a social oil between African-Americans. It makes our interactions, our day-to-day encounters with each other much easier. And it's and important tool that we use, but yet, as he's saying, we still haven't, I think writers haven't felt comfortable enough to really address the issues that many writers want to address from a humorous perspective.

We've kind of been weighed down by so many issues that plague the African-American community that, to kind of take a light approach almost feels like you're not really, you're not a real writer; you're not really doing the profession justice. And so...

MARTIN: But in your OP-ED you argue, and I don't want to get off...

Mr. CHILES: Well, I...

MARTIN: ...the point here, but in your OP-ED, you argue that you think some of, too much of the current offerings are too sexualized, this is too much sex...

Mr. CHILES: Yes, that's...

MARTIN: too much gangster lit, if that what you're calling it?

Mr. CHILES: Yeah, street lit, ghetto fiction, it goes by a variety of names. And, as a novelist, what I felt, what I started seeing was that the publishing industry, that a lot of writers were responding way too much to the marketplace. The marketplace, in a lot of cases, being young, black girls who were the main consumers of a lot of black literature. And so, the work started becoming more and more sexualized, more and more gangsterish and thuggish.

And so this is now the genre, if you want to call it, that is kind of flooding the marketplace when you walk into black bookstores. It's much of what you see, and it changes a lot of commercial fiction writers. It changes the way that we start thinking about our craft and the kind of topics that we want to address. And I think that it starts kind of almost dumbing-down a lot of African-American literature.

So, this is kind of years, decades after Paul and I's experience, and our experience when we're younger. Now we get to people specifically writing for a black audience, but writing for a very small segment of that audience, and writing in a way that really does not speak to the breadth of our experiences as African Americans; it just kind of talks about the street element.

MARTIN: Let's bring a caller into the conversation. Joseph...

JOSEPH (Caller): Yes.

MARTIN: Phoenix, Arizona, is joining us.

JOSEPH: How are you doing?

MARTIN: Welcome, Joseph.

JOSEPH: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me on.

MARTIN: Well, go ahead, what's your question or your comment?

JOSEPH: Okay. I'm, sorry. Actually I have a, it's kind of a mixture of a question and a comment. There's one side where I really do agree with what he's saying about how African-American literature really does need to have more of a humorous side, but I think that the humor should come more as a celebration of the things we that have accomplished up to this date.

There's two sides of it, what, as I was initially saying, there's the side where our literature has been very serious because our situation's been serious for so long, that there is no questioning that, you know what I mean?


JOSEPH: But as we are able to look back and say, okay, we've made these improvements, but as things have changed, let's celebrate the way that we handle things, the way that if we didn't have anything, like when I grew up, we didn't have much money at all. We didn't have much, but we were still happy. We were able to have things given with $20 dollars in the bank, you know what I mean? We were able to have a block party and not have to spend a thousand dollars in order to do it, and everybody is still happy.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, Joseph.

Paul Beatty, what about that? The idea that humor should be celebratory, it should be kind of triumphant, it should celebrate the triumphs of the experience, what about that?

Mr. BEATTY: I don't disagree with that, but I think humor can also be relevatory, I think it can also be derisive. It can be all those things. And I think, I don't think that like, African-American literature is too heavy, I just, for my perspective, it's, we tend to, for me growing up, I was only exposed to the heaviness of it. Like, I think somebody like Langston Hughes or Chester Himes, these are people that wrote across a broad scope of things having to do with blackness, American-ness, sexual politics.

And for me, it was just, I was just, it was just comforting to find they had written about so many varied things. And I'm just for the variety. I think Mr. Chiles was saying something about he felt like there was a dumbing-down of African-American literature.

I don't agree with that. I think, you know, just turn on TV, you know, and go to the movies, it's, you know, that's what the mainstream is and I don't think there's any difference with, between African-American literature or, you know, Latin-American literature. I don't know, but...

MARTIN: You know humor can be very...

Mr. BEATTY: It's part of a bigger process.

MARTIN: It is, but humor can be very political, can't it?

Mr. BEATTY: Sure.

MARTIN: And I'm reminded of something you said a couple of minutes ago, where you mentioned that some of your white readers have, a little uncomfortable about whether it's okay to laugh. And I'm reminded of the situation of comedian Dave Chappelle, who, as people who follow these things know, has had some problems kind of figuring out whether he wants to continue with this very successful program that he had on Comedy Central.

And one of the things that he was complaining about was the idea that it began to disturb him when some of his white colleagues found his humor funny. And that, I think that could be hard for some people to understand, but Paul do you have any of those feelings? Is there anything about this that's uncomfortable for you? In putting these works out there, on the one hand, you know, you find it funny, and some of these are intra-racial jokes...

Mr. BEATTY: Right.

MARTIN: ...but on the other hand, you're sharing it with a larger audience.

Mr. BEATTY: That, I mean, that's the risk that you take. I mean, obviously, some of the things can be discomforting, and for me, it's, I know, I want to leave Dave Chappelle out of the argument for now. I think you're referring to the Oprah interview, which I didn't see, but I heard about. But for me, the discomfort stuff is where the learning takes place, where the feelings come through, and that's the stuff that, you know, that needs to be worked through.

And that's the stuff, sometimes it's intentional to make a person, you know, be a little nervous or make that person tense, make that person look at themselves, or look at their situation in a different context or through somebody else's eyes. And, you know, it's part of life. Life isn't always easy. You know, and laughing sometimes isn't always easy.

MARTIN: Speaking of discomfort, you have an excerpt in the Anthology from the Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing, and we have a clip from the movie that we'd like to play. And I just want to warn some of our listeners who, they're not familiar with the work, that it might be a little edgy for some, but we're going to play it. It's a montage of ethnic slurs that starts off with Spike Lee as Mookie, the pizza delivery person, giving some not so nice descriptions of Italian-Americans. Let's hear it.

Mr. SPIKE LEE: (As Mookie) You dago, whop, guinea, garlic-breath, pizza-slinging, spaghetti-bending, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, Sole Mio, non-singing mother...

Mr. JOHN TURTURRO: (As Pino) You gold-teeth-gold-chain-wearin', fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eating, monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast-running, high jumping, spear chucking, three-hundred-and -sixty-degree-basketball-dunking, tit-soon spade Moulan Yan.

Mr. LUIS RAMOS: (As Stevie) You slant-eyed, me-no-speaky-American, own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York...

Mr. RICK AIELLO: (As Officer Long) You Goya bean-eating, fifteen in a car, thirty in an apartment, pointed shoes, red-wearing, Menudo, mira-mira Puerto Rican, yeah, you.

Unidentified Actor: It's cheap. I got for good price you, Mayor Koch, how I'm doing? (Soundbite of movie "Do the Right Thing")

MARTIN: That was a montage of ethnic slurs from Spike Lee's movie, Do the Right Thing." Paul Beatty, why did you want that in here?

Mr. PAUL BEATTY (Author, Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor): Again, it was to, you know, broaden up the book, you know, and add some film, there's some hip hop stuff in there, there's all kinds of stuff in there. But that's one of my favorite scenes from that movie and I actually do like that movie and it worked on the page, you know. It's a book and it was...

MARTIN: But tell me why you were attracted to it. I mean, obviously ethnic slurs have a long and complicated history in our vernacular. I mean, you know, people within the group, you know, they like them and, you know, sometimes it crosses the line and these can be fighting words. I mean, I think in the course these have been fighting words, you can...

Mr. BEATTY: And sometimes they are fighting words and I think what Spike Lee was trying to do was show how they are fighting words. How that anger, that process is not limited to one demographic and these are real feelings that are expressed. I mean, some people feel that way and, you know, most of us feel that some of the time, you know, and we have to work to try to deal with that.

MARTIN: Well, what's the line between funny and offensive on something like this?

Mr. BEATTY: There is no line. The line is, you know, for the individual to draw. I think you have to be aware that those lines exist, but that line is sometimes thick, sometimes thin, sometimes broken, sometimes it can be crossed by who's telling the joke and who's listening to the joke, it's, you know, it's--I don't know if there's a word that means real and not real at the same time, but it's something--you have to, you know, if you're being offensive you have to take into account that, you know, you're taking a risk and that people will be offended.

And I get offended sometimes when I hear a comedian say oh, you know, they had no right to be offended, you know, don't limit my free speech. But a person has a right to feel offended and that's part of the risk that you take by, you know, putting your humor out there.

MARTIN: Did you think you were taking a risk by including that in this book?

Mr. BEATTY: No, not at all.

Mr. NICK CHILES (Author, A Love Story): I think that it brings up the question of who the audience is, the audience for any comedian changes from place to place. I mean, I think that when we're listening to things that are intended to be funny we all consider the source and as the audience what the intent was. So, Spike is--he knows that this is a movie that's going to be seen by a lot of white people, Latinos, Asians, and he wants to make them uncomfortable and make them start thinking about some of the thoughts they've had, private thoughts that they've had.

He wants to kind of throw it out there in their face, which is kind of an attack that he often takes in his movies. So, I think that the offensiveness come from kind of analyzing who it is that's delivering the message often and so the same words coming from two different people will have vastly different impacts on us when we consider who the speakers are. And I think part of...

MARTIN: Pardon me Nick, excuse me, I need to take a short break just to say that you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. On the question of what makes you uncomfortable versus what makes you funny, and sometimes they're the same thing at the same time, Nick is there anything that's still safe to joke about. I mean, this is a--we are in a global marketplace, we have instantaneous communications, you know, jokes can kind of ricochet around the world with lightning speed, is there anything that is still kind of safe to talk about within the group that should not be shared outside of the group? Or do you think those boundaries just--we just have to say goodbye, they're gone, not realistic anymore, everything's on the table?

Mr. CHILES: Well, I mean, I think that there's a vast kind of array of material that is only shared inside of our racial groups. Whether that's right or wrong I think that once we kind of are comfortable with the people that we're communicating with we're going to feel much more free to kind of unburden ourselves of thoughts that we may have had about others and people that, you know, may be incredibly offensive that we would never say in mixed company. So, I think that the--and it's, I think, human nature.

It's natural for us to have these thoughts about others, but do we have the right to kind of assault somebody with it, to use it as a weapon, and that's when we start getting into trouble. So, I think that if somebody's friends with me and they're of another racial group and I kind of make jokes about some peculiarities of their group and they know that my intent is not to hurt them then they're probably going to be a lot less offended than if they don't know me and they think this person is trying to do me harm. So...

MARTIN: Let's take a, I'm sorry Mr. Chiles, hold on, let's take another caller at this point. Here is Fred in Huntington, West Virginia. Welcome Fred.

FRED (Caller): Hello.

MARTIN: Hello. What's on your mind?

FRED: Well, I was listening to the conversation and some the comments that were made, particularly concerning his comments about Maya Angelou and I do agree with you that perhaps he was too young, you know, to be able to take in that book. But also I think it brings us an important point of the fact that we have a whole generation of African Americans who were born after integration who a lot of their socialization came from white America and they're really disconnected.

And, you know, they may be physically black and, of course, they have, you know, the African American has affected them, but they have a large white socialization. And it seems to me that this gentleman from his conversation and his comments is pretty much has a Caucasian socialization and that is the perspective that he's coming from.

MARTIN: Ok. Thank you Fred. Paul I assume that Fred is suggesting that your perception of these literatures and the way you're receiving these works comes from a kind of a majority white or mainstream context as opposed to one that's more rooted in a black sensibility and...

Mr. BEATTY: Oh, yeah, that's absolutely true. I am Caucasian. I mean, I don't know if that's come up at all. I mean...

Mr. CHILES: Paul isn't the subject of your first novel?

Mr. BEATTY: Excuse me. Isn't that the subject? Yeah, I mean, you know, we all feel disconnected, I mean.

MARTIN: And well, let's talk about that. Well, what about that? The idea that you're kind of taking on this literature from an outsider's perspective.

Mr. BEATTY: I don't have--this is my perspective. My perspective tends to be from an outsider perspective, but it's just because I feel like an outsider. It has nothing to do with my being black or skinny or whatever.

MARTIN: Ok. I need to--we need to pause there. We're going to take a short break. We'll wrap up our conversation on African American literature when we get back. Plus, highlights from today's Senate hearings on domestic eavesdropping. Stay with us. I'm Michelle Martin. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Michelle Martin in Washington.

Right now, we're talking about African American literature with novelist and poet Paul Beatty and writer Nick Chiles. And Paul Beatty's new anthology, Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor. Paul, I have to clarify this. Before the break one of the callers said that he thought you were approaching this issue kind of from a position of outsider and you described your demographic profile in a certain way. Now, were you joking?

Mr. BEATTY: Oh, yeah. I was definitely joking.

MARTIN: Ok. Now just to clarify, you are African American. I don't--I think it matters to some folks from the standpoint of vantage point, right?

Mr. BEATTY: Yes. We're all African American.

MARTIN: And the reason that matters is obviously sometimes what's funny depends on who's saying it. Correct?

Mr. BEATTY: Yeah. I think that's true.

MARTIN: Is there anything that in the course of putting this anthology together that kind of was a newly discovered jewel for you?

Mr. BEATTY: One of my things, and it was also part of the impetus to compiling the book was there's a book called Oreo by Fran Ross that was written in the '70s that is so brilliant and so funny and a friend of mine hit me to it and I couldn't believe, you know, I'm fairly well read and I just couldn't believe it was the first time I was, you know, reading this book. And it's--yeah I was like proud to include it and it's--the book is back in print and, you know, hopefully people will discover it.

MARTIN: Nick Chiles, what about you? Is there something you would like people to discover that they're perhaps not as familiar with?

Mr. CHILES: In Paul's book or in general?

MARTIN: Well, just in the canon of African American sort of humor writing that--particularly you have a very wonderful background having been exposed to a lot of literature that perhaps other people have not.

Mr. CHILES: Well, I do like the fact that Paul included a lot of our more serious thinkers, like the W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, as a way of showing that humor is a very natural part of our community, of the way that we relate to each other and relate to the world. So, growing up even when I read the invisible man, I read Richard Wright, I felt like those books always kind of had, even though they were very serious works, I could find humor in a lot of what they were saying, a lot of the way that they looked at the world.

And so, I think that what Paul's anthology does is just kind of throw up in our face the idea that humor is a very essential part of the African American make up. So I can't think of, you know, any hidden gems that come to mind offhand, but the fact that these very serious thinkers did approach topics from a humor perspective I think is very valuable.

MARTIN: I want to bring in one more caller in the couple of minutes that we have left. This is Marge in Mount Shasta, California. Welcome Marge.

MARGE (Caller): Well hello. And Paul it sounds really wonderful, now the anthologies that he had. I wanted to know about his take on the non-funny cartoon about the prophet. I mean, this is an outstanding thing and I just wondered what all of your takes are on that. And that's a very serious thing.

MARTIN: Marge I think that that's an important question. Paul, what do you think?

Mr. BEATTY: That is a good question. And I hadn't paid much attention to it to be honest. And what I tried to do actually just in the past couple of days is I didn't understand what the fuss was about. I mean, I understood if from, you know, it was offensive to make a caricature of Mohammed, but I didn't know what the caricature was, you know. and so I actually finally found it online and they were just, you know, from my perspective they seem kind of innocent. But obviously they aren't.

And I think one of the things is is sometimes we're so caught up in our thing is we don't have any idea that we're crossing these lines and it, you know, still goes to show how ignorant we are sometimes about, you know, one another.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you considered for the anthology that you rejected on grounds of taste, that you thought just might not belong there?

Mr. BEATTY: There was one thing and there's an Amiri Baraka play called "The Dutchman," which is really funny for the first 90 percent of it and at the end of it there's a murder and it kind of tinges the whole thing. So that was the only thing, but it wasn't like on taste it was just because it didn't work as a funny piece. And I don't think there's anything in the book that's, like, absurdly offensive, you know, I don't think. But that's just me.

MARTIN: But is there something, you think, in the world today that could occasion the kind of reaction that we have seen in parts of the Muslim world? Is there anything that, in the United States, particularly involving, kind of, the racial discussions that we have had for so long in this country, that is equally off limits, equally inflammatory?

Mr. BEATTY: There might be. I mean, I think part of the thing, you know, we're fortunate here in terms of that we can't -- you can pretty much say anything. I mean, it's, you know, we're not Reinaldo Arenas, you know, writing in prison and stuff and, you know, for our beliefs. And I don't know when the last time a book was banned in the U.S.

But I don't want to say that it couldn't be because I don't know what it is. But I think we're in this time where there aren't very many taboos left. And...

MARTIN: Nick Chiles, finally, and thank you, Paul. Nick Chiles, I wanted to ask you for the last word and just very briefly, if you would, is there another genre of literature just, say, apart from humor, just going out in the broad range of things that interests you, is there something else that you would like readers to discover, in the way that Paul has uplifted humor is something he wants people to experience more of? Is there some other genre of literature that wouldn't love people to get more exposure to?

Mr. CHILES: Well, as a reader, I think that I tend to like the kind of sophisticated political thriller-type of books that we see a lot of white writers doing. And we also see, kind of, TV series, like the West Wing and Commander in Chief and those kind of stories I'm very attracted to. So, I would like to see some African-American writers try to tackle some of that kind of subject matter, like Capitol Hill, you know, the Supreme Court, some very political institutions that, you know, are just kind of right for some really good stories and dramas.

MARTIN: Wonderful. An excellent transition to our next topic, by the way. Thank you both for joining us. Nick Chiles, Paul Beatty, authors both. Paul Beatty is the editor of the new anthology Hokum. Thank you both for joining us today.

Mr. BEATTY: Thank you.

Mr. CHILES: Thank you.

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