- Punked for Life:Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and Radical Black Masculinities
After a few moments I'd relax and settle into a barely acceptable, simple side-to-side step, dubbed by the locals the white boy shuffle. I wasn't funky, but I was no longer disrupting the groove.(Beatty 123)
I was beating Godzilla into the sea with a powerful stream of radioactive turtle piss when I awoke to find Yoshiko's index finger worming its way toward my prostate. Punked for life.(Beatty 173)
Though the words of Gunnar Euripides Kaufman, the reluctant race-man protagonist of Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle, appear to be about a simple dance step meant to make the rhythmically handicapped look cool, they allude to a critique of masculinity and culture that is repeated throughout the novel. Further, as Gunnar speaks to his wife Yoshiko's wandering hand, it seems obvious that Beatty may be using his novel to suggest that black males confront and embrace alternative models of gender for their black bodies, lest they and the remainder of black America, continue to be manipulated and destroyed by the psychological impetus to claim a patriarchal legacy embedded within white supremacy.
Almost a decade before Patricia Hill Collins and Mark Anthony Neal critically engaged audiences about the new racism and the "New Black Man" in Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism and New Black Man, Paul Beatty hipped us to the new racism and radically different black masculinities with the publication of The White Boy Shuffle. Whereas Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin created twentieth-century literature invested in the rights of "native sons," that is, disenfranchised black male characters who sought to be a part of the U. S. by relying on tropes and privileges of masculine identity defined by white men, Paul Beatty takes a decidedly different approach with his novel The White Boy Shuffle. Beatty's novel, written at the end of the twentieth century, rejects the trajectory of native sons and masculine privilege for a postmodern option of dismantling gender hierarchies and binaries on which those trajectories relied.
Notably, in the same way that Ishmael Reed utilized "jes grew," mumbo jumbo, jazz, and Afrocentricity to discuss the dominance of black culture in the West, Beatty turns to suicide poems, basketball, hip hop, and the failures of black political rhetoric to highlight fundamentally different black sexual politics that could potentially disrupt the groove of white supremacy and patriarchy, save the sometimes tempting benefits of commodified blackness. In doing so, Beatty helps establish a new foundation for African American literature for the twenty-first century, one that depends upon reconsidering the importance of gender and sexuality in African American texts by and about black men. This essay argues that Paul Beatty accomplishes this feat by revisiting the traditional black public sphere and updating it in ways vitally important to contemporary black people by acknowledging the queerness of black male bodies in the U. S., and by challenging past, present, and future black political agendas that would ignore the importance of class, gender, and sexuality for a unilateral focus on race. [End Page 99]
Satirizing the Race Man: The Black Public Sphere and Masculinities
Beatty's use of satire, his chosen means of critiquing gender hegemonies, is as important as the critique itself. As will be shown, satire is a vital part of the contemporary black public sphere. Darryl Dickson-Carr, in African American Satire: The Sacredly Profane Novel, places Beatty's work alongside the likes of George Schuyler, Rudolph Fisher, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Ishmael Reed, John Oliver Killens, and Cecil Brown. Despite the differing historical politics and the stylistic ruptures and revisions of each author and their work, Dickson-Carr assesses that the commonalities and continuities of the fiction stem from a "few essential characteristics: unremitting iconoclasm, criticism of the current status of African American political and cultural trends, and indictment of specifically American forms of racism" (16). Ironically, it is scholars' critical focus on race alone that underwrites the innovation of Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle.