The White Boy Shuffle
By Paul Beatty
Oneworld Publications Copyright © 1996 Paul Beatty
All rights reserved.
Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. I wish I were, but fate shorted me by six brothers and three uncles. The chieftains and queens who sit on top of old Mount Kilimanjaro left me out of the will. They bequeathed me nothing, stingy bastards. Cruelly cheating me of my mythological inheritance, my aboriginal superpowers. I never possessed the god-given ability to strike down race politic evildoers with a tribal chant, the wave of a beaded whammy stick, and a mean glance. Maybe some family fool fucked up and slighted the ancients. Pissed off the gods, too much mumbo in the jumbo perhaps, and so the sons must suffer the sins of the father.
My name is Kaufman, Gunnar Kaufman. I'm black Orestes in the cursed House of Atreus. Preordained by a set of weak-kneed DNA to shuffle in the footsteps of a long cowardly queue of coons, Uncle Toms, and faithful boogedy-boogedy retainers. I am the number-one son of a spineless color struck son of a bitch who was the third son of an ass-kissing sell-out house Negro who was indeed a seventh son but only by default. (Grandpa Giuseppi Kaufman rolled over his older twin brother Johann in his sleep, smothering him and staking claim to the cherished seventh sonship.) From birth my parents indoctrinated me with the idea that the surreal escapades and "I's a-comin'" watermelon chicanery of my forefathers was the stuff of hero worship. Their resolute deeds and Uncle Tom exploits were passed down by my mother's dinner table macaroni-and-cheese oral history lessons. There is nothing worse than a loud griot, and my mother was the loudest.
Mom raised my sisters and me as the hard-won spoils of a vicious custody battle that left the porcelain shrapnel of supper-dish grenades embedded in my father's neck. The divorce made Mama, Ms. Brenda W. Kaufman, determined to make sure that her children knew their forebears. As a Brooklyn orphan who had never seen her parents or her birth certificate, Mom adopted my father's patriarchal family history for her misbegotten origins.
On summer afternoons Nicole, Christina, and I sat at my mother's feet, tracing our bloodlines by running our fingers over the bulging veins that tunneled in her ashy legs. She'd place her hideous pedal extremities on a throw pillow and we would conduct our ancestral investigation while filing down the rock-hard bunions and other dermal crustaceans on her feet.
We started with the basics. Danger, Kids at Work. Nicole, my youngest sister, whom I nicknamed the Incredible Eternal Wailing Baby, would open up the questioning in her self-centered style, all the while scraping the mound of dead skin that was my mother's left heel.
"Maw, am I adopted?"
"No, you are not adopted. I showed you the stretch marks last week. Put some elbow grease into it, goddammit. Pull the skin off with your fingers if you have to, shit."
Then Christina, middle child, whom I lovingly rechristened with the Native American appellation Fingers-in-Both-Nostrils-Thumb-in-Mouth-and-Snot-All-Over-the-Fucking-Place, would pull on the heartstrings to tighten the filial ties.
"What about me and Gunnar?"
"Can you prove it?" Christina would ask, anxious and unconvinced, her heavy breathing blowing mucus bubbles from her nose.
"Which ones those crinkly lines on your stomach is mines?"
"Chrissy, if anyone is fool enough to tell you that they your parents, believe them. Okay?"
"Your feet stank."
"Shut up before I make you fill out that application to military school."
The advanced course in Kaufman genealogy didn't start until Mom returned home from earning our livings by testing the unlucky poor for VD at a free clinic in East Los Angeles. I remember she enjoyed bringing the sharp stainless-steel tools of her trade and glossy Polaroids of the most advanced cases to the dinner table. Spit-shining the speculums and catheters, she'd tell her awful jokes about "pricking the pricks and hunting the cunts." I swear somewhere in her unknown past traveling minstrels cakewalked across candlelit theater stages.
The seven o'clock suppers were carnival sideshows, featuring Mom the Amazing Crazy Lady. She'd wipe our greasy lips, lecturing us about the horrors of sexually transmitted disease while passing mashed potatoes and photos of pussy lesions around the table. For the coup de grace she'd open a prophylactic package, remove and unroll a blue sheath, and stuff the receptacle end into a nostril. Then she'd sit there lecturing us about the joys of safe sex with a crumpled condom swinging from her nose and bouncing off her chin with each syllable. Suddenly she'd press the open nostril closed with her finger and with a snort snake the unlubricated rubber up her nose. She'd open her mouth and produce a soggy piece of latex, holding it up for all to see with a gloating "Ta-dah. Let's eat."
The festivities continued throughout the meal. Though her designation as world's loudest griot cannot be substantiated, the Guinness Book of World Records lists her as having the world's loudest swallow.
SWALLOW. Ms. Brenda W. Kaufman (b. 1955) of Los Angeles recorded unamplified swallows at 47 db (busy street = 70 db, jet engine = 130) while guesting on the David Letterman show drinking New York City tap water on May 3, 1985.
On her birthdays I watch the videotape of her performance. A man with an English accent holds a microphone to her throat while she enthusiastically drinks a clear glass of water. In the bottom righthand corner of the screen is a VU meter with a needle that jumps wildly with every booming swallow. My sisters and I yelled our heads off every time the needle moved into the red zone.
When she returned, we proudly took turns placing our fingers on her bobbing Adam's apple as she drank her milk. Between swallows Mom would ask about our schoolwork and bemoan our miseducations. Slamming down an empty glass of milk, she'd run her tongue over her top lip and bellow, "See, there isn't anything a Kaufman can't do. Those history books say anything about your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on your father's side, Euripides Kaufman? Betcha they don't. Pass the fucking dinner buns and let Mama tell you about a colonial Negro who would've pulled himself up by the bootstraps had he had boots. The first of a legacy of colored men who forged their own way in the world. Gunnar, you listenin'?"
Mom could tell a motherfucking story. She'd start in with Euripides Kaufman, the youngest slave in history to buy his freedom. I heard the chains shackled to the spirits of Kaufman Negroes past slink and rattle up to the dining room windows. Dead niggers who smacked their arid lips and held their rumbling vacuous stomachs while they stared at the fried chicken, waiting for Mom to tell their tales.
Too small to smelt and work iron in his master's Boston blacksmith shop, Euripides spent his bondage doing donkey work. After running barefoot errands over the downtown cobblestones, he'd look for ways to fill his idle time. Sitting on the grassy banks of the Charles River, he'd watch the jongleurs woo money from the pockets of sentimental passersby. At age seven Euripides saw a means of income. The baby entrepreneur ran home, spread globs of lamp oil over sooty black skin, and parked himself outside the busiest entrance to the Boston Common. Every promenading Bostonian who passed him by answered Euripides's toothy obsequious grin and gleaming complexion with a concerned "Can I help you, son?" To which Euripides replied, "Would you like to rub me head for good luck? Cost a sixpence."
Soon Euripides had a steady clientele of Brahmins and Tories, redcoats and militiamen paying to pass their palms over his bristly head for luck and a guaranteed afterlife. Six months later he decided to shave his skull to heighten the tactile pleasure, and business boomed. Word quickly got back to his owner and eponym Chauncy Kaufman about the little tar baby's ingenuity in bringing a small measure of fame to his shop. Soon customers came into the shop to have their horses shod and to pat the "l'il black bastard's" head. Customers rode up, tied their horses to the hitching post, and proclaimed, "Four new shoes, Chauncy. Where's Euripides? Last week I forgot to palm his stubbly skull and the missus caught me buggering the Negro lass in the attic. Come 'ere, you baldheaded good-luck charm, you."
One mild spring day the nine-year-old Euripides puzzled out how much to charge for a "He's so cute" grab 'n' twist of the cheek. He looked up to see a black boy about his age auctioned off next to a fruit stand for fifteen pounds. "Snookums, on your way back from getting the wig powdered at the coiffeur's, would you please pick up some tomatoes, a head of lettuce, and a little nigger child?" Ever the shrewd business kid and eager to appraise his own worth, Euripides asked his sweaty coal-faced owner if he was worth fifteen pounds on the open market. Master Kaufman assured Euripides that a clever pickaninny such as himself was worth twice that amount. Euripides then reached into his satchel and plonked down thirty pounds in savings from his head-rubbing business on the anvil. Euripides Kaufman walked out of the shop a nine-year-old freeman never giving a second thought to buying a hat. He went on to become a merchant sailor who attained unheralded fame for being in Mama's words, "the brains behind the Boston Massacre."
Familial legend has it that on March 5, 1770, Euripides Kaufman artfully dodged a redcoat's musket shot with his name on it and Crispus Attucks woke up in nigger heaven a martyr. That historic afternoon Euripides and Crispus, his ace boon coon since childhood, sat in a Boston pub drinking drafts of Samuel Adams pale ale. Oh to be free, black, and twenty-one, drunk on home-brewed hops and the mascot-like acceptance of his fellow white merchant seafarers. The only drawback to Euripides's freedom was that he couldn't charge when the locals rubbed his head with vigorous patronization. "Euripides, you dusky halyard-knot-headed black bloke, how old were you when you started to shed your monkey fur? Maybe you still sleep in it to keep warm at night?"
What're a few nigger jokes among friends? We Kaufmans have always been the type of niggers who can take a joke. I used to visit my father, the sketch artist at the Wilshire LAPD precinct. His fellow officers would stand around cluttered desks breaking themselves up by telling how-many-niggers-does-it-take jokes, pounding each other on the back and looking over their broad shoulders to see if me and Daddy were laughing. Dad always was. The epaulets on his shoulders raising up like inchworms as he giggled. I never laughed until my father slapped me hard between the shoulder blades. The heavy-handed blow bringing my weight to my tiptoes, raising my chin from my chest, and I'd burp out a couple of titters of self-defilement. Even if I didn't get the joke. "What they mean, 'Lick their lips and stick 'em to the wall'?" Later I'd watch my father draw composite sketches for victimized citizens who used his face as reference point. "He was thick-lipped, nose a tad bigger than yours, with your nostril flare though." Daddy would bring some felon to still life and without looking up from his measured strokes admonish me that my face better not appear on any police officer's sketchpad. He'd send me home in a patrol car, black charcoal smudged all over my face and his patriotic wisdom ringing in my ears: "Remember, Gunnar, God, country, and laughter, the world's best medicine. Did your mother get the check?"
It figures a sell-out Kaufman helped jump-start the American Revolution.
Liver-lipped Euripides Kaufman, pint full, whistle and lips wet, deftly redirected the scorn of his colonial rabble-rousing shipmates from him onto a lone adolescent redcoat sentinel stationed in front of the House of Commons just outside the tavern. "Hey, blokes. Isn't that lobster-backed scoundrel the Brit scalawag who cheated the barber Jack Milton out of the coinage for a fair-priced trimming 'n' shave yesterday past?" With Euripides and Crispus leading the way, the drunken mob scampered outside for a closer look. Mugs in hand, they surrounded the nervous guard and peppered him with insults. Euripides stood about a yard away from the redcoat, looked him up and down, turned to his mates, and said, "Verily, that's the tea-and-crumpet-eating-scofflaw. Crispus will support me claim, won't you, big boy?"
Crispus's eyes, like my father's, like Euripides's, were eager to please, but his mouth was empty of revolutionary dozens. Pining for white America's affection, Crispus Attucks looked toward my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandad for guidance. Then he parroted Euripides Kaufman's caustic sentiments into the face of the lone attaché of England's New World venture capitalism. "Aye, a Cockney chimpanzee with his sparkling flushed pink arse a bit distant from the rest of the pack. Where's your scone-colored missus? Snuggling up to King George, rubbing his pasty paunch and counting our taxes? Squawk! Crispus Attucks wants a cracker! Squawk!"
How could two nominally free niggers be more libertine? Inciting the colony's whine for independence, black booster engines to the forthcoming rocket's red glare. At some point during the famous imbroglio, Euripides, emboldened and bloated with beer, took out his penis and produced a pool of piss in front of the brigade of British reinforcements. Sensing that the armed platoon had reached its saturation point, he shouted, "Tax this!" and smartly marched to the rear of the now uproarious crowd. Leaving an inky, drunken Crispus Attucks fronting the overwhelmingly white mob, blathering unintelligible insults to the throne, threatening the entire British empire with his wooden nigger-beater. Then the now famous volley of shoots and thud of bodies flopping onto the dusty cobblestones.
American history found Crispus Attucks dead on a Boston street, but has yet to find Euripides Kaufman's contribution. At the subsequent trial a witness for the prosecution recounted that he heard the soldier who deposited the ball of lead in Crispus's heart regretfully say, "Damn, I shot the wrong bloody nigger." Good thing too, because had that British soldier shot the right nigger, my seventh-grade class at Manischewitz Junior High would never have gotten to laugh at the ridiculous sons and daughters of the confederacy's servant class. All fathered by my great-to-the-seventh-power granddad Euripides Kaufman.
It was in Ms. Murphy's class that for the first time anyone outside my immediate family heard the tales of the groveling Kaufman male birthright. During Black History Month, to put a class of rootless urchins in touch with our disparate niggerhoods, Ms. Murphy assigned us to make family trees. Although most kids could only go back as far as their grandparents, it was with unabashed pride that we gave oral encapsulations of our caricature American ancestries. No one knew enough to be embarrassed at not knowing our own histories, much less those of any of the posterboard Negro heroes on the walls.
I sat midway up the first row of seats in from the door, bored with kids holding up their family trees and giving the same speech: "Ummmmm, the boys are the circles and the girls have the triangle heads. This is me. My six sisters. My brother, he dead. My other brother, he dead too. My mom. My dad. And here go my grandparents. My grandfather was in Vietnam and he crazy. Any questions? Where was my mother born? She was born in Arkansas and she met my father on the Greyhound bus. They fell in love in San Antonio and he touched her in the restrooms in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Then I came. Fuck you, Denise, I wasn't born in no nickel pay toilet."
Finally Ms. Murphy called my name. I tucked my family tree under my arm and made my way to the front of the classroom, slapping my boy Jimmy Lopez upside his noggin for good measure. Lifting one hand high above my head, I unfurled my gigantic family tree. It rolled well past my knees and the class ooohed the generations of crinkled stick nigger couples holding stick hands.
I started at the top, with Euripides Kaufman, and went from there. With my mother's hand in my back, her words pouring from my mouth, I stiffly yapped on like a skinny ventriloquist's dummy. I told the class how the Kaufmans migrated south when Swen Kaufman, Euripides's well-traveled grandson, left Boston, unintentionally becoming the only person ever to run away into slavery. Being persona non anglo-saxon, Swen was unable to fulfill his uppity dreams of becoming a serious dancer. He was unwelcome in serious dance circles, and the local variety shows couldn't use his "Frenchified royal court body syncopations" in their coony-coony minstrel productions. "Take the crown off your head, jigaboo. Show some teeth," they said. Swen would stoop and bow under any other circumstances, but when it came to dance he refused to compromise. So on a windy night he packed his ballet slippers and stowed away on a merchant ship bound for the Cotton Belt. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty. Copyright © 1996 Paul Beatty. Excerpted by permission of Oneworld Publications.
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