Shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, I saw a television commercial for Popeyes starring its new spokeswoman Annie the Chicken Queen. I thought perhaps I was watching Saturday Night Live; Annie was a straight black stereotype who loved fried chicken and the word “honey.” I asked my friend what the hell was going on. “Post-racial America,” he said. “Haven’t you heard? This is all cool now.”
I was pretty sure that “post-racial” didn’t mean it was cool to be racist, but in the end it didn’t matter because it didn’t last long. In 2008 New York magazine mused about a colorblind generation of American “ObamaKids.” Now we’ve reached a point where race is center stage in national discourse on unemployment, the 2012 election, and even baseball, where Southern Methodist University researchers have found that “home-plate umpires call disproportionately more strikes for pitchers in their same ethnic group.“ “Post-racial” is starting to sound as cute as “the end of history.”
Into this racially reinvigorated climate drops Negropedia, Patrice Evans’s pop-savvy 21st-century almanac of black America. Evans is no stranger to provocative titles; he has blogged for six years as “The Assimilated Negro,” a name he chose on a lark after splitting with his hip-hop group.
“I had a small demo mixtape conceit,” he explains. “Theater of the Assimilated Negro. I called it the TAN Demo. A mid-‘90s Tribe song. A club song. An educated rapper/conscious song.” When he started the blog, he dropped the “Theater” but kept the willingness to celebrate and lampoon digestible subcategories of black culture. The result was more wide-ranging and essay-oriented than Stuff White People Like but similar in its guiding principle and potential for growth.
Evans soon found himself with not just a readership but a profile; he was pretty much the only black dude you’d see in the pre-Twitter downtown New York City blogger crowd. For a Bronx-born graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall and Trinity College, it wasn’t the first time. “Marlo going to the offshore bank in Season 5 of The Wire comes to mind,” he says. “But swim if you will, drown if you must. And I can doggy-paddle with the best.”
Evans got a job at Gawker, where his “Ghetto Pass” posts found him a wider audience. The transition to print was long calculated. “I wrote a blog post declaring my intent to write The Greatest Book on Race Ever,” he admits. “It was tongue in cheek. But I still wrote it.”
The result is subversive and invigorating. You could shelve Negropedia with the blog books that have convinced publishers that this is a safe business model (Julie and Julia, S--- My Dad Says) because it delivers fun insights that Evans credits with real power. (“Most days I think humor is the cure for life.”) In the chapter on hip-hop, the book claims that Norman Mailer would have made it as an emcee with The Naked and the Dead as his “street album” and the moniker “NoMail.” In “The Hall of Hallowed Negroes,” Serena Williams’s ass is referred to as “her Deathstar.” But threaded into the jokes is a serious outing of what keeps us racist in 2011.
For example: Crash, which Evans calls “a dramatic ensemble for racists who may have forgotten they’re racist.” Also “the abundance of white mediocrity getting over”—i.e., Chris Rock’s take on George W. Bush (Rock gets a lot of nods in Negropedia). And most ire-worthy, the phrase Evans eviscerates in the book’s final pages: “post-racial.”
“This is all some white bulls---,” he writes. “Just when we’re about to outnumber you, race doesn’t exist?” Evans feels “post-racial” is a term that actual black people would laugh out of a room. “So much of the language used seems like an intellectual euphemism for very simple but very hard truths,” he explains. And the hard truth is the truth of our skin. It’s still different colors, and we still get caught up in it.
Evans has hope, though, and it’s not in the Time magazine cover I remember as a kid that showed the beautiful multiracial American of the future. “You eliminate racism by having it overwhelm you. It’s an element. We’re not ‘post’-elements, we just don’t think about them all the time. It’s taking on the challenge of everyone unleashing the rainbow within. Corny as that sounds. I think I pitched ‘black rainbows’ as a chapter title or subheading somewhere in the [Negropedia] process.”
Maybe we’ll get a sequel. Who knows where we’ll be then. Annie the Chicken Queen, for her part, no longer shills for Popeyes: a blog uproar cast her as a “Modern Day Mammy,” and her ads have been wiped from YouTube by the agency that created her. It’s almost like she never existed.