Using humor to get under pop culture's skin

Review Race

March 26, 2006|By ERIC DEGGANS | ERIC DEGGANS,ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

Making Friends With Black People

Nick Adams

Kensington Publishing Corp. / 193 pages / $14 (paperback)

This is how Nick Adams gets you in the door.

He makes you believe you're about to read a satire on race relations titled Making Friends with Black People. The hilarious cover places Adams - a stand-up comic and former writer for BET, Oxygen and Roseanne Barr's talk show - inside the classic painting American Gothic: a hip brother holding a pitchfork and looking askance at the plain-Jane white woman standing next to him.

There are sections dubbed "Terminology," "Interaction" and "Music and Culture." There's great advice for white folks: "Don't tell a co-worker he looks just like (fill in the blank with name of dark-skinned person who works in the other building)."

And there are impish suggestions for black readers: "We can actually use nigger and other epithets to make white people uncomfortable now. Say it in front of them and you can see white people wince."

But just when you're ready for a book filled with humorous, turn-the-tables race and culture jokes, Adams flips the script to deliver a rabble-rousing manifesto aimed straight at the heart of race, American society and pop culture.

His targets are wide-ranging: the Academy Awards, white folks' appropriation of the rap industry, the lack of respect for black fiction writers, Black Entertainment Television's penuriousness, media fascination with missing white women, and more. His weapon: a devastating wit and eye for hypocrisy.

On why black art films aren't more successful: "I don't know who is more to blame, the white executives or the black movie patrons, but I do know Barbershop made twice as much money as The Antwone Fisher Story, and there is something fundamentally wrong with that. ... White people get to make comedies about eccentric genius families and companies that can erase your memories. Black people get to make comedies about barbershops and cookouts."

On why Hollywood made a film of Eminem's life and not Tupac Shakur's: "There is a long, rich tradition in Hollywood - and America - of ignoring social issues and entire cultures until they affect or relate to white people."

Dishing on mismanagement at BET: "I could tell you stories of wardrobe people having to use their own credit cards to buy clothes for talent because BET's credit wasn't accepted at major department stores. ... Our line producer was forced to ask the people at an upper-level staff meeting, with a straight face, if he could borrow thirty thousand dollars."

On how 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley keeps it real: `'It could be the earring that adds a touch of pimp to his overall appearance. You just know that if he has one too many glasses of cognac at the CBS Christmas party, he's liable to curse someone out."

It may bring a bit of whiplash for readers who expected a sly satire. But the effect is to lay bare the passions of a 30-something, literate black man with a strong connection to his ethnic culture and an intimate knowledge of mainstream society.

Adams also gleefully accepts the inherent paradoxes of his position. Yes, he loves using the n-word as a term of affection for his closest friends and hates hearing white people try the same move. And he accepts that much of what he writes would sound like the worst sort of racism coming from a nonblack person.

For instance: "Here's a little secret that black people don't want white America to know. There's a little nigger in all of us. ... Dr. King? Rumored to have been quite the ladies' man. Jesse Jackson? Fathered an illegitimate child. Al Sharpton? The hair. Enough said."

As should be obvious from the excerpts quoted above, Adams also isn't above a little blue material, either. It makes his work read less like prose and more like an easy conversation - something you might hear from a particularly well-informed friend while you're kicking it after work (for white readers, as Adams would note, that bit of hip-hop slang translates as "discussing contemporary issues with pals after completing your day's labors").

This may be why I liked the book so much. Adams reminds me of many friends in the entertainment industry and press: Highly educated and motivated, he is also highly cynical, with a nose for hypocrisy. Smart enough to ferret out pop culture's B.S., he's also witty enough to make the act of pointing it out an entertaining one.

And there are the lists. He offers the worst in white rap, starting with Northern State and Limp Bizkit and ending with - who else? - Vanilla Ice.

My favorite, however, is his list of the best movie deaths by black actors (springing off the old joke that black guys always die first), starting with Jim Brown's death in The Dirty Dozen and ending with the death of an entire black regiment (including Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman) in Glory.

One moment, Adams offers a letter asking Mel Gibson why, if he was following the Scriptures so closely in developing The Passion of the Christ, he cast white guy Jim Caviezel as Jesus instead of an actor with "hair like lamb's wool and feet the color of [burnt] brass," as described in Revelation. The next, he's noting how black folks ignore black imprisonment rates to complain about the number of black actors on CSI - targeting the nonsense in modern-day race issues and obliterating it without mercy.

Isn't that a lot more fun to read than some guide to glad-handing black folks?

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