Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Paul Beatty, though known as a performance poet, has also won a solid reputation in the academic community. Early reviews of Joker, Joker, Deuce, however, routinely labeled him a poet of the hip-hop generation. He bristles at that term, once calling the “generation” concept “a marketing niche passing itself off as identity. . . . They sell a dream and a version of inclusion to powerless and voiceless people.”

Beatty lives on the edge of, and in deep distrust of, the avant-garde, especially when it refuses to laugh at itself. He cites Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) as an author who is solemnly revered but who herself indulged in lively raillery against the snobbery she sometimes encountered among her fellow African Americans. In the same vein, the cover of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006), edited by Beatty, was illustrated with a watermelon rind positioned to resemble a smile. For this bit of satire, he paid a price in cancellations of interviews and denunciation by some other African American writers.

On the other hand, some critics have suggested that Beatty’s explorations do not go far enough. Ishmael Reed noted that Beatty has been hailed as “the new Ralph Ellison,” because both writers railed at some of the same targets. In some works by Beatty, however, Reed has found the images to be hackneyed, thanks in part to the television culture that Beatty simultaneously celebrates and satirizes. “Paul Beatty has the talent and needs to explore new territory,” said Reed. “He could heed Chester Himes’s advice, ’to think the unthinkable.’”

Beatty’s poetic genre, performance, is often considered a recent phenomenon, but it dates from oral traditions predating written literature. Satire dates at least from the time of Aristophanes (c. 450 b.c.e.-c. 385 b.c.e.). Bitter as it may sound and ambivalent as its spirit may be, satire implies a hope that some ideal could one day be realized. Perhaps for Beatty that ideal is “vibrations that don’t stop with time.” In any case, he calls satire an effective force for social balance in all ages, “because nothing ever changes.” Paradoxically, this viewpoint, deeply rooted in history, makes him highly contemporary.