Will B. Humble walked into the bar, looking mighty unhappy.
"How was your weekend, good buddy?" I asked.
"Terrible!" exclaimed Humble. "My girlfriend spent the whole weekend reading that new Terry McMillan novel, 'Waiting to Exhale.'"
"Every few pages she'd shout something like, 'That's right!,' or 'You tell 'em, honey!' and then turn and shake her fist at me."
"Yesterday, she left the distinct impression that I may never see her again," moaned Humble.
"What'd she say?"
"Well, I asked her about going to a movie today and she said, 'Don't hold your breath.' That book," said Humble sadly, "is dangerous."
Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" tells the story of four strong, independent, intelligent, resilient and spiritually beautiful black women and their quests for black men who can measure up.
These women look and they look for a man worthy of their love, but all they find are men who, as one of the characters put it, are "boring, selfish, manipulative or weak. Worse than babies. Got an excuse for everything. Some [are] just plain lost."
Or, as another character put it, "They're ugly, stupid, in prison, unemployed, crackheads, short, liars, unreliable, irresponsible, too possessive, dogs, shallow, boring, stuck in the '60s, arrogant, childish, wimps."
"Man," drawled Gus the bartender as he slapped a couple of foaming mugs of beer in front of us, "you young guys are messing up."
"What'd we do?" asked me and Humble in a tone of injured innocence.
"You know," said Gus. "It's all right there in that book," and he walked away, shaking his head sadly as if there was just no talking to the likes of us.
Some black men have claimed that McMillan portrays them unfairly. Some black women have responded that the author is simply telling it like it is.
Not surprisingly, given the controversy, "Waiting to Exhale" is tremendously popular -- eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, No. 3 on the charts. The paperback rights have just been sold for a whopping $2.6 million.
And of course, that novel isn't the only recent work to take a good, hard look at black male/female relationships and find the men seriously wanting.
Ntozake Shange faced similar charges of male-bashing after she wrote the play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide -- When the Rainbow is Enuf." Movie director Stephen Spielberg ignited a firestorm of protests with his adaptation of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." "Boomerang," one of the hot new movies of the summer, tells the happy tale of a male playboy who gets his heart broken when he is outplayed by a woman.
"I wouldn't mind it so much if these stories were about individual men who were selfish, shiftless, stupid or weak," Humble said. "Or if people understood and accepted that these stories were about individuals. But I get real self-conscious when people start applauding this stuff as the truth about all black men."
"The author does sounds a lot like David Duke," I said.
"She's worst than David Duke because she has more credibility," replied Humble, taking a noisy slurp from his beer. "As far as we know, David Duke never went out on a date with a black man.
"Nowadays," he continued, "I feel that if I so much as pick my nose on a date it will reflect, not just on me, but on all black men."
I stopped my mug halfway to my mouth.
"You don't mean to say you've actually picked your nose on a date?" I asked in horror.
"Only once or twice," said Humble defensively. "But that's not the point. The point is, I feel as though I've been stereotyped and caricatured first by the David Dukes of the world and now by our own women."
Humble had made me melancholy.
"Maybe we just can't accept the truth," I said. "Maybe 'ugly, stupid, in prison, unemployed, crackheads, short, liars, unreliable, irresponsible, too possessive, dogs, shallow, boring, stuck in the '60s, arrogant, childish, wimps' really describes black men."
"Of course it does," said Humble. "But it describes everyone else, too. She's pretty much exhausted the catalog of human foibles. I just hate feeling that every time I'm late for a date and forget to call, black men everywhere are going to get a black eye."
"We could always strike back by writing a book that focuses on the eccentricities and peccadilloes of women," I suggested.
"Trouble is," said Humble, and he heaved a tremendous sigh, "all the women I know are perfect."