White Like Me

This is an excerpt from 'Angry Black White Boy: A Novel' (Three Rivers Press) by Adam Mansbach.

Every stereotype had rubbed off on Macon: every handshake and shoulder-bang embrace had darkened him imperceptibly, and he'd welcomed the transfer of every myth: coolness, danger, sexual superiority. And reaped the benefits, played both sides against the middle on some Fistful of Dollars shit. As the closest thing to black that was still safe, he'd even scooped the occasional white girl looking for a cross-cultural experience but too timid to actually fuck a brother. He'd flipped hip hop attitudes in places where they'd gone unrecognized, aced high school just on the strength of intellectual aggression, the ability to cut and paste ideas with the democratic, genre-crossing dexterity of an old-school party DJ. He'd cloaked his swagger as he snuck through the sepia city, so that unknown brothers would not mistake it as ill-considered.

A hip hop motherfucker carried hip hop everywhere he went, thought Macon, knew when to hold it on his shoulders and when to hide it in his heart. He flashed on a memory of coming home to find his father planted in the center of Macon's bedroom, clocking the walls as if it were a museum, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his khaki Dockers with the braided brown belt, 360 degrees of Wordup! magazine foldout poses boxing him in and Alan Detornay thinking, What? Who are these niggers? Who are these cultural bellwethers? Who is my son?

Your son is hip hop, Dad. Hip hop oozes from the way he half-closes one eye, like Big Daddy Kane did in those foldouts, when he's propped up on an elbow looking at his lover. It's hip hop that makes him hyperaware of personal movement in a way that enhances his cool rather than ruining it, hip hop that wrote up the tattered, stale, ghettonomics-of-crack black-people-don't-own-no-boats conversation he had a thousand times at Aura's crib last summer. Hip hop is the interplay between beautify and destroy when cats discuss bombing the city's subway trains. Hip hop is not talking to your parents, but talking over their records. Hip hop means trying to knock your idols out the box, hearing a rumor that your favorite MC's new record is wack and not even buying it to find out if it's true, you fickle motherfucker. Hip hop moves so fast that new jams are outdated by the time the last snare snaps, but hip hop recycles everything, so it all evens out. Hip hop finishes your sentences for you because you talk too goddamn slow, and rolls its eyes at any and all attempts to define, explain, categorize, or even celebrate it. Hip hop knows what it is and who it's in and has no problem with leaving all that shit unspoken, but secretly it wishes somebody would hit the nail right on the head and so it half-listens to everybody's overwrought, emotional, esoteric, poetic, theoretic bullshit and is always disappointed.

Macon turned on the radio and "King of Rock" backspun the planet: 1985, the year Run-DMC broke MTV's color line, busting through the doors of the Rock 'n' Roll Museum in black bowlers and Adidas jumpsuits, fat gold-braided ropes swinging like pendulums to footfall rhythms. Kings not of rap but rock, as in we laying claim to your suddenly quite institutional and honkified decaying Woodstock rebel music; we some young, savvy, motherfuckers hip enough to understand that if we throw guitar wails over the neck-snap drums, then rock 'n' roll and thus Springsteen-age America will pay some mind and Jann Whatshisname and the burnout torchholders down at Rolling Stone will fall for it and canonize us with paternalistic goodwill, meaning we blow up and sell six million albums without changing out of our jailhouse-laceless kicks or ungrabbing our nuts. Never mind that when you think rock, it's Mick Jagger and Neil Young, and Hendrix for affirmative action, black but hippied out and fronting white bands, too extraterrestrial to be black militant, and for us rock is Big Mama Thorton, Chuck, Fats, and other motherfuckers who got beat-jacked by Elvis and Pat Boone, and that rock to us is nothing but a gimmick, the muscle-bound guitar riffs of uncredited studio musicians, just something else to fuck with.

And when hip hop finished sucking on rock's power chords and moved on stronger, and Run, D, and Jay gave Aerosmith the soul-shake kiss-off and banked the proceeds, only then did Jann Whatshisname and the rest of America's gray-ponytailed rock critics abandon their visions of black rap youth and young white rockers partying together, their desperate horny dreams of rock 'n' roll rubbing rap supersperm into its crackly skin, absorbing it until the music moved again. The black bastards used us, they snarled, and went back to hating rap and It's not music and The culture of appropriation and et cetera. Until the Beastie Boys emerged a year later, Run-DMC magically transformed into a trio of degenerate white brats through their mutual fairy godmother Rick Rubin's gun-toting Blimpie-sandwich-eating fuck-you dirty cracker sleight of hand, a great white hope and a reason for rock critics to use words like irreverent, fresh and clever, where thieving, irresponsible and droning once sufficed.

Macon had hated the Beastie Boys, or the B Boys, as ignorant suburbanites called them, not realizing that b-boy stands for beat boy or break boy and DJ Kool Herc made up the term to give some shine to the cats who waited until the hottest part of the record to flex ill kung fu capoeira snapneck acrobatics on the dance floor back when he used to throw parties in the parks of the Bronx, plugging his sound system into jimmied-open lamp posts and thus jacking postindustrial post-Cross Bronx Expressway post-budget-crisis New York City for a little bit of get-back in the form of pure energy, Marshall McLuhan eat your heart out. Years before Jimmy Carter stepped out of his limo just long enough to shake a dismayed, bucktoothed face across the charred blocks, cats were creating culture from spare parts in the tradition of lemonade when life rains ghetto citrus and soul food from unfit pig scraps.

Macon hated the Beastie Boys for bringing hip hop to kids who'd never heard of b-boying or Kool Herc or park jams, and who didn't bother to find out; for flipping the game around so that instead of having to do extra work to be down, whiteboys could be dilettantes in hip hop, self-conscious clowns whose very presence was a joke that deprecated the culture even as it pretended to deprecate itself. The Beastie Boys made the white kids in his neighborhood think it was OK to start rapping, and the black kids who got bused into his junior high from Boston decide white rappers were automatically wack. They made white people ridiculous, tore down everything Macon had begun building, slashed his whole fantasy of being the only cracker cool enough to be up in this hip hop shit. He didn't want any white role models, especially not three whiny-voiced, non-lyrical motherfuckers who dressed like bums and wasted dope beats and went triple platinum on some raunchy frat-boy mass-appeal shit. Yeah, OK, so they were Buddhists now. Too late. The damage had been done.

Macon was a few blocks from the bridge ramp, gas-brake-honking to the last echoes of "King of Rock" and remembering how many times he'd listened to its sequel at full volume in his room, manually censoring the songs by turning down the sound on DMC's two curses. Thin walls in the Detornay household, no privacy. His mother didn't have to read his journal; you could hear a telephone conversation damn near anyplace in the house. She shoulda gone back to work way sooner than she did, he thought. The bane of Macon's mother's generation of middle-class white women was the fact that they'd redirected all that well-nurtured, hard-won ambition toward their families instead of using it to fuel their own lives, thus driving their children fucking insane. Of course, Macon conceded, the angry-kid equivalent to Virginia Woolf's five annual Benjamins and a room of one's own had been knowing that no matter how long he spent over on the wrong side of the tracks, fighting the good fight and hating the hypocrisy of the system in which his entire community was so entrenched, when he came home teary-eyed and stoned or scarlet with outrage an hour past his curfew, there would still be leftover chicken in the fridge to sate his revolutionary hunger.

A tall white woman, 25 maybe, was bouncing on the balls of her feet, hand raised to Macon's cab. A desperate look dampened her face, and Macon swerved instinctively to the rescue.

"Thank God," she exhaled, leaning back into the seat, hands tucked beneath her thighs. "I thought I'd never find a white cabdriver."

Macon's body stiffened. "What?"

"I'm not taking any chances with that maniac on the loose." Her eyebrows arched at his silence. "You haven't heard? It's all over the news. He's some kind of black militant wacko or something." The woman shook her head. "I'm not a prejudiced person. But this guy ... he robs white people and the cops can't find him. Nobody knows what he looks like." She shuddered. "I don't want to get raped."

"Better safe than sorry," Macon heard himself respond. His brain was foaming, overflowing like an ill-poured draft. He'd done it: found some kind of worm hole in the white psyche, some uncharted reflex, and here he stood, divorced from his own color by the violence and conviction of his actions. Those fools hadn't seen white knuckles gripping that gun. They couldn't. Their brains weren't wired to link whiteness to the words Macon had hurled at them, the fear he'd made them feel. It had to be a nigger. Macon was invisible. Shock fluttered his stomach.

"This city," his fare said, shaking her head.

"Mmm." Did the world merely call traitors to whiteness black?

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