This is a post in my 50 Nifty series, in which I’m reading through 50 books that embody each of the 50 United States. Find out why I’m doing this and which books I’m reading when (so you can read along) by checking out my first 50Nifty post, or else browse all 50Nifty posts by clicking here!
The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty
Have you seen the show black-ish? Premiering in the fall of ’14, ABC’s website introduced it as follows: “Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson has a great job, a beautiful wife, Rainbow, four kids and a colonial home in the ‘burbs. But has success brought too much assimilation for this black family? With a little help from his dad, Dre sets out to establish a sense of cultural identity for his family that honors their past while embracing their future.” In some ways, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle reminded me of that premise, as the main character Gunnar Kaufman’s mother moves her family out of Santa Monica (where Gunnar was the “funny, cool black guy” in his school) to the neighborhood of Hillside in west L.A.
The impetus for this uprooting was when Gunnar and his sister admitted they didn’t want to go to an all-black camp “because they’re different from us.” Gunnar narrates, “The way Mom arched her left eyebrow at us, we knew immediately we were in for a change. Sunday I was hitching a U-Haul trailer to the back of the Volvo, and under cover of darkness we left halcyon Santa Monica for parts unknown.” But apart from the parents’ desire to instill some black cultural identity in their offspring, The White Boy Shuffle and black-ish probably don’t share much else in common. Upon moving to Hillside, Gunnar’s first foray outside the house prompts the comment, “Ma, you f*!@#d up and moved to the ‘hood!” setting the tone for a very different set of circumstances than the Johnsons in black-ish. The book follows the young genius (and basketball star) Gunnar through the next ten years as he navigates some thick satire and truly unexpected twists, eventually finding himself the reluctant leader of a generation.
The Boston Sunday Globe calls The White Boy Shuffle “ferocious and funny, literate and also streetwise,” and I think those are accurate adjectives. Gunnar’s experiences growing up in California will definitely take you outside your comfort zone and when you’re done marveling at Beatty’s “verbal inventiveness” (as this fabulous NYT book review dubs it), the book will likely give you plenty to reflect on personally, socially, and racially. And in the end, it seems that may be what black-ish aims to do as well, as The Daily Beast reports, saying that black-ish creator Kenya Barris has “been careful to clarify that his show doesn’t set out to specifically define what it means to be black, but to simply spark a conversation about our changing culture and how we relate to identity.” Maybe the two have more in common than I thought.