Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beatty’s poetry contains an implicit ambivalence toward his own dazzling, satirical style and the antecedents of that style. “Look,” he once told an editor, “the base iconography of Earthbound blackness is the perception that it’s inherently lesser than . . . in an idiot savant-like manner.” Despite his satirical prowess, Beatty has also said that satire is like “the password to a speakeasy door,” behind which one can find both “the privileged and the servant class.”

Thus, Beatty’s poems convey a profound uneasiness with cultural influences that engender a false sense of belonging. In “Verbal Mugging,” he considers how various periods of cultural history have all employed illusion and stage trickery to promote this false sense of belonging. He begins with nineteenth century dramatic narratives and moves to contemporary performance poetry:

. . . wiping away the crocodile tearsof happy endingsin a make believe worldwhere people speed listen and skimthe poet goes roundmakin ends meetby beatin muthaf*ckas over the head with soundsbangin tuning forks on minds

The point of Beatty’s mockery is not to devalue African American culture per se. Rather, he strives to dispel sanctimoniousness, aware that a culture that takes itself too seriously is easily co-opted by the establishment. In “About the Author,” he spoofs the King legend not to tear down the civil rights leader but to debunk the popular compulsion to turn him from a flesh-and-blood creature into an empty icon who no longer inspires but becomes a target of petty-minded detraction. Beatty also employs savage humor to combat the simplistic notion that any cultural system can solve all existential problems. His poem “Tap Tap on Africa” concludes:

so afro-centrismsolves the problemby spray paintin the whole thing black

Joker, Joker, Deuce is a card game, a variant of the game known as Spades. “Spade” is also a derogatory slang term for an African American. Though Beatty has not publicly stated such an intent, a deliberate play on this word would be quite in character for this master of multiple connotations. Nor, perhaps, is it an accident that in the card game the jokers are the highest trump cards and that they outrank the ace of spades. There is abundant evidence that in Beatty’s work the comic sense outranks any sense of group identity.