Keeping It Real by Zig Zag Claybourne

Posted on July 10, 2013


Zig ZagI’m not sure where the ghetto is that folks think is so fabulous, but it needs to print out travel brochures. And it’s safe to say we can stop trying to be hard. Ice Cube is on his seventeenth family comedy. Ice T has a relationship reality show. LL Cool J is trying to outdo Rihanna as country music’s go-to “black friend.” Rap, street, urban — the harder the better means mo’ money, mo’ money. And we fall for that. That’s how we got Jay-Z.

Being “hard,” however, is a caricature. It takes the broadest strokes possible (“to be hard you must…”), forms a plastic mold, and locks the mind inside a toy life that folks pick up and play with. It’s a decades-long joke passed from generation to generation. Comedy, however, is all about timing, and there’s nothing humorous about a joke that takes that long.

Black folks need laughter. It’s not only the best medicine, it’s the best preventative. Laughter, the kind that comes from the soul, not from being nervous that the truth might be nearer than you’re comfortable with, is a vitamin straight to the brain. Laughter chases thugs into a corner and tickles them. Go ahead, trap a thug in a corner and tickle him (with police back up if necessary). It’s a beautiful thing.

Neon Temples came to me as a character with the question: what can we learn from street fare? Plenty, but if viewed right some of it might be useful. Since the messages from the School of Hard Knocks are that: women are strictly for sex (a notion also held by conservative politicians. Hmm, there’re connections everywhere); money is the only solution; misconstruing Malcolm X makes a criminal a hero, I wanted to mix all that ridiculousness into one easily accessed, clear package so we could see it for what it is, laugh at it, and move on. So I sat at the computer and let music hit me for a minute wondering where Neon Lights needed to go and how it would get there. Rufus with Chaka Khan poured out. “He’s on his way, he’s goin’ to Hollywood, he’s bussin’ it to Hollywood.” And that was it right there. Neon lights and plastic dreams. Distractions from real life. “Caught in the blinking neon of Hollywood…” When Chaka sang that back in the day it was a call to keep it real. Hollywood’s dreams are plastic and full of bright, empty light. Real dreams flow from the inside out, not the outside in. And too many of our folks are told they shouldn’t have real dreams. Sometimes it’s to their faces. Sometimes it’s as slick and sneaky as the things we are told are entertainment. No matter the medium, that’s a poisonous message.

A ghetto’s not a place till it’s a state of mind.

If you ask anybody what’s “African American” publishing, odds are they’ll just hook their thumb over their shoulder toward the Urban table and keep moving. And that table is fine in and of itself. It’s the moving that’s a problem. Writers don’t do readers any favors serving up twigs from the backyard tree and calling them neckbones. There’s no meal in genre writing that’s rehashed a million times over. Readers don’t do themselves any favors limiting themselves to work that is quick, fast and easy. People may want to see themselves in ‘The Thug and I, Part 6’ for a sense of validation and power, but it’s easy for gatekeepers to slide illusion in place of power. Next time a mighty lion roars at the zoo, count how many people stand around calmly sipping their Mountain Dew.

Right now the joke in publishing is that if you truly want an “ethnic” book to be a blockbuster, let a white person write it. Is that really the kind of help we need? Black-owned publishing houses should be as well-known and respected as any Random House or Harper Collins, with rich rosters of authors and material. There’s room at the table for grit, crime, drama, romance, sci fi, fantasy…and laughter. I think we can all get an amen on that. EVERYBODY could use some healthy laughter on the printed page these days. Just so long as we’re laughing at the joke and not with the joke, particularly when the joke in the publishing world is on us. Yes, there’s crime, yes, there’s drugs, gangs and more violence than anybody ever needs in our communities, but those are not what define us. There really truly is no such thing as a thug. Just actors on lonely stages. Same with hoochies: when you sit in the makeup chair and learn your lines, you feel obligated to take the stage and do your best to win that award. Read it, but don’t be it, and you’ll find that in not being it, you won’t want to read it. If you look at reading as a meal, you might just want to sample something else on the old mental menu.

I hear Toni Morrison goes great with wine.

Zig Zag Claybourne is the author of the street comedy Neon Lights, ebook available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and print via Amazon and this link

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