Rising of a Legend
by Jessica Sequeira
by Rion Amilcar Scott,
University Press of Kentucky, 194 pp.
At the heart of satire is a stereotype, a simplistic dichotomy, an obvious truth or an unquestioned form ready to be taken to its limits and dismantled. The thirteen stories in Insurrections, the first book by Rion Amilcar Scott, satire editor of Queen Mob’s Teahouse and professor of English at Bowie State University, are set in the imaginary Maryland town of Cross River, and this founding act of playfulness is the departure point for the stories that follow. Most feature some version of the author himself, who temporarily assumes another gender, another age or another set of life experiences with the wondrous flexibility permitted by fiction. It’s clear that Amilcar Scott both feels deeply and has a deadpan sense of humor, capable of keeping him balanced on the shaky beam between intelligence and ridiculousness. For satire doesn’t just mean “being funny”; it’s an existential mode that allows one to take on both joyful and painful subjects from inventive, oblique angles, allowing one to make almost one’s subject with good humor, precision and grace.
In Amilcar Scott’s stories the ordinary becomes legend, and anything that self-righteously thinks itself sacred is taken down a few notches. One might say that he picks up black tropes about Bibles, barbershops and boxing matches in order to explode or comically deflate them, if this did not sound like something from a Sociology of Race Relations 101 class, and if there is one certainty, it is that this book is far more complex, far more interesting, than what an over-serious academic text might make of it. Skewering the excessively sanctimonious, the author describes the church rector, who “wore a black turtleneck and jeans”, and whose “bald head appeared freshly moisturized”. Someone asks if Jesus was black, and the man becomes distinctly uncomfortable. ”I imagined Black Jesus up in Heaven laughing like hell,” the teenage narrator writes, about to go for his Confirmation but more worried about whether his crush Alana will be impressed by his pinstriped suit. Whether or not Jesus is in fact black, and there is no “confirmation” on this, the narrator is sure he has a black sense of humor.
Despite the banter, a strong moral compass holds. Characters behave with courage, whether the stands they take are for the ages or pointless. “I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. It’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes,” insists the narrator in Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone. In Good Times, a Muslim dad named Rashid, feeling lost and seriously considering suicide, thinks of everything he could have done better. He fantasizes about dropping off his baby boy at daycare, dressed as the Cookie Monster: “I’d be the most popular father who ever existed, showing up shaggy and blue with a tin full of snickerdoodles. That was the dream.” Often plans don’t come off quite as envisaged, but talking to his baby, Rashid explains that difficulty is part of life. “Forever, huh? I was going to name Luce forever, or rather, Samad, one of the ninety-nine names of Allah — Al-Samad, the eternal. But then I started to think about eternity, what a curse if you’re not God, right? My man God doesn’t have holy rent and holy bills to pay.” In this tale, the inverse of the deflationary lampooning in other stories, daily life becomes its own feat, creating its own lore.
In “The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus”, complexity arrives in the form of the female, a simultaneous goddess and source of fear for the young narrator, since if the greatest fear is fear of the unknown, for the boy telling the story women are the supreme enigma. Battling doubt and shame, he is along with his classmates unsubtly appreciative of the curves of the female body. (“Kelli’s breasts. What was it about them that caused such derangement?”) Things take a dark turn. Kelli incurs the wrath of other girls who want to “rip her weave out”; a well-liked art teacher is quietly removed by the school for commenting on Kelli’s curves; upset by the seeming randomness and injustice of everything, one of the boys attacks the only white teacher. Leaving school, the boy disappears, possibly becoming a hero, possibly making millions as a soccer star, possibly dealing drugs, possibly sprawled on a beach in the Caribbean or Europe, hiding from the cops. What is real, what is myth? High school humiliation here becomes the basis for legend.
Despite the heavy content, Amilcar Scott takes a real joy in language, and his book has a stop-start flow that is delightful in its piquancy, possibly more so than a purely elegant lyrical text. Sounds, voices and the oral tradition are important, and quotes are sampled from pop culture, song lyrics, slang and sacred texts. In the stories there are frequent changes in register, places that are like a boy’s voice cracking and dancing off a second into a higher key — deeply distressing at the time, hopefully hilarious in retrospect, an in-between moment signifying some sort of change in progress. The weird shuttling between high and low (a dark-hued maze of haberdashery co-exists with C is for Cookie, He who is without sin can cast the first stone and Come on and bounce those big things, baby) just goes to show how language can be both a battlefield and playground.
In this linguistic terrain, people often do not know quite how to talk, or are learning what words to use, because they are immigrants, or new to the neighborhood, or being educated into a new idiom. In “Juba”, the narrator is mistaken for the drug-dealer of the title and beaten up. He decides to track down the real Juba, and to his surprise finds him engaged in literary translation, trying to turn classic works into the street language spoken around him. The narrator asks if the book in front of him is a dictionary.
Naw… naw… hell naw, this ain’t no damn dictionary. The people ain’t ready for that. For like twenty years, I been translating the Bible into Cross Riverian, as you bougie niggas like to say… Y’all spend a lot of time translating from English to Cross Riverian and back in y’all heads. Y’all just don’t know it. Niggas ain’t slow, they just translating… I’m gonna do the Koran next, and then the Bhagavad Gita. I already did the Heart Sutra. Did that shit to warm me up. I got a rack of other sutras to do, but that’s a ways off… Got folks mailing me new words in exchange for ’Dro. The police might catch up to me before I’m done.
Is this man a lost cause or some kind of erudite rebel prophet? Who knows, and maybe the distinction has little basis anyway.
Party Animal: The Strange and Savage Case of a Once Erudite and Eloquent Young Man is a diverting fake case study of Reverse Animalism, the supposed phenomenon of intelligent young black men reverting to animal behavior. With unintentionally amusing foot-in-mouth self-consciousness, the authors describe the activities in question with a high degree of detail, such as visits to nightclubs in which velvet ropes are crossed “in order to fondle and ‘freak dance’ (i.e., rhythmically gyrate the male genital region against the buttocks or genital area of a partner in an erotically stimulatory manner)”. The authors of the text claim they will avoid black stereotypes like the happy naked primitive and Hottentot Venus, but in referring to their omission so carefully and at such length, they show just how painfully present these ideas are in their minds. A post-modern pastiche, the erudite text cites non-erudite sources to support its argument, blooming with footnotes, caveats and complaints into a gaudy textual bouquet of dubiousness. The set form of the academic essay becomes ripe material for burlesque.
Cross River is a diverse place. There are “bougie nigs” who think of themselves as “Cross Riverians”. There are Salvadoreans who think of themselves as “Riverbabies”. And there are Muslims, often seen by neighborhood blacks as a desirable other. This becomes a source of self-criticism — are blacks doing to other groups what whites do to them, i.e. turning them into mysterious stereotypes? One moon-struck young man marvels at a woman: “First, the dazzling eyes, two burning brown and green sparks dancing on her face. Then, the veil.” (In real life Amilcar Scott is married to a Muslim woman, whom he acknowledges for loving him and “critiquing every syllable”.) Whatever the case, all kinds of people come into contact while getting on with their daily lives. “Black” comes to absorb all kinds of meanings: “Our swarm, it move like a flock of birds. All these beautiful black people in motion. Moving and shifting with a kind of intelligence. When we reach the destination, we just know it.”
The last story, “Three Insurrections”, ties the collection together. Here time is shown to be a material capable of stretch and dilation, in which family, national and universal histories merge. The narrator is the author’s father, but he’s far more than just one character. By chance he finds a book in the library with flames on the cover, called Three Insurrections. It intrigues him so much that he misses his cricket match to read. Later he speaks:
The Haitians have an insurrection. The Riverbabies—the Cross Riverians—they have an insurrection. And there is one to come and it’s mentioned with the ones that happen like it’s a piece of threaded gold passing through the garment. I don’t see my name, but I see me. I see you and you don’t even exist…
Something make me left that book in the library, though. Maybe it was too much to take, the way it make my mind spin and spin. I wish to hell I had grab it and run. From then on, Cross River is burn in my brain… But what kind of people is this? I think. These Cross River folks bloody they masters and live free like they not afraid. The book talk about the Haitians too, I hear about them plenty. The Cross River negroes is new to me. I see my island in a footnote. Some Cross Riverians set off through the Americas, trying to export insurrection. Some even settle in Trinidad, the beauty just hold them, even though they have slaves all over to free…
Something about this book, Kin, you don’t read it. You read it, but it make you live it, like a dream. I come a Haitian that day, and then I come a Cross Riverian. And just like a dream I live that third insurrection too, but when I close the book, when I leave the library, I forget what it’s like in the third insurrection, and then I must spend the rest of my life chasing it down.
Amilcar Scott listens to his father talking, and thinks he has no any stories as vivid as that. So he writes this book. The relationship between his memories, history, imaginary city and ideas of “insurrection” is never completely clarified. It’s possible the author isn’t clear himself. But these babbling literary mash-ups, sparkling with wit, a self-deprecating sense of humor, a keen sense of history and a range of voices, opens new doors of possibility. On the cover, birds riot in a splendor of crimson and dark-gray, flustered by something unseen. Perhaps, in language, a third insurrection has already begun.
Confronted with an immensely complex social system that it would be impossible or undesirable to take on directly, what should one do? Raised in a certain community but educated with university values, self-conscious of his literary position, Amilcar Scott faces the question of what stand to take, in fiction and reality—and if one should take one at all. If one speaks out, one will be crushed immediately. If one feigns ignorance to further an agenda within the system, using its own mechanisms, it is all too easy to succumb to cynicism. The creation of an imaginary city is a way
to circumvent the excess gravity and political shrillness of real life, to come at situations from a more offbeat angle. Satire, in these stories, appears as a third way—a means of creating a fictional life for oneself that is whimsical yet self interrogating, sustaining argument but permitting one to carry on living with humor and love.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.