I'd Rather We Got Casinos
And Other Black Thoughts
by Larry Wilmore
Hyperion, 288 pp., $23.99
Just to get this out of the way, a disclaimer and an admission: I am white. Yes, white. Caucasian (Caucasian-American?). Of European descent. A honky, if you will.
Larry Wilmore's new book is, as its title suggests, a collection of "black" thoughts. Now, I know what you're probably thinking. You're thinking, "Hey, White Guy, who are you to review this book of 'black' thoughts?" Well, it's true that, being white, I do not have black thoughts. So I will refrain from commenting on the veracity of these black thoughts, or their value to the black community (of which, as a honky, I am not a part).
That said, I am a citizen in good standing (however pale) of our race-obsessed nation. As such, I think I can fairly report that, while Wilmore's book never quite delivers the hoped-for comedic punch, it does offer a handful of amusing essays and ideas. And his calm, straightforward, self-deprecating voice is a welcome addition to the often maddening cacophony that is our long, enduring, long, ever-urgent (did I mention long?) national conversation on race.
Wilmore is a comedy writer of great pedigree: A veteran of In Living Color, The Daily Show, and The Office, he also won an Emmy for his work on Bernie Mac. This is his first book. Much of it seems to be a joke in search of punch line. There are some old standby topics: The ubiquitous Man, ever striving to keep a brother down; black people talking too much at the movies; a guide to angry black churches; an attempt to ascertain if Jesus was black. These topics have been well covered elsewhere.
Also, Casinos is full of all kinds of unnecessary set-ups. Wilmore starts each chapter with a fake explanation from a fake professor who is credited as the director of the fake Historically Oppressed Peoples Enterprise (HOPE). There are some fake radio transcripts, with fake commercial breaks written into them. There are fake speeches, a fake eulogy, a fake interview with a fake alien abductee, even a fake missing chapter from a fake earlier book.
Why this contrivance? It offers some context, I guess. But since when do jokes about race relations need any context? We live in the context. One might say I'd Rather We Got Casinos exists because we're all contexted out. And all this artifice has the effect of sucking some of the life out of Wil- more's writing, which is actually quite sound, especially by the (not very high) standard of humor books.
This is not to say that Larry Wil- more has nothing of interest to say. He does venture into some original topics, and he comes up with some interesting proposals. He starts off with a snappy email to the NAACP declaring that "African American, as a brand, is done." Wilmore feels no connection to Africa, a place, he says, "where you have to hunt your food, black people speak French, and you could get malaria." Wilmore even feels for the nonblacks who are forced to use the term for fear of being called racist: "It wears [nonblack folks] down to constantly say 'black-oops, sorry, African American, bla-oops, sorry African American." He suggests "chocolate" instead because, as he says, "who doesn't love chocolate?" He even advocates different kinds of chocolate for different kinds of black people.
The NAACP, as I write, remains unconvinced. But Wilmore's playful proposal brings a much-needed lightheartedness to the mercilessly serious question of whom we are allowed to call what.
One of the high points comes when Wilmore lays out his case to be our next black leader. His list of qualifications is impressive:
I'm really good at rhyming. . . . I can find blame in places you haven't even thought of looking yet. . . . You'll never be able to pin down what I do for a living. . . . When I get angry, white people are afraid of me.
This piece garners some genuine out-loud laughs, and leaves this reader, at least, convinced that Wilmore is the man for the job. There are other funny bits as well. "Black Weathermen Make Me Happy" leads into "Black Weathermen Make Me Sad." You're left wanting more of Wilmore's Random Black Thoughts-on sudoku: "I have no black thoughts on Sudoku"-although most of the jokes fall flat in "It's OK to Hate Black People Who Work at McDonald's at the Airport (It Doesn't Make You a Racist)." Still, it's hard not to love Wilmore for going there, and so casually at that.
In his final chapter he uses some concrete examples to point out the difference between real racism and things that are simply "not brotha friendly."
The Simpsons: Not racist, but not very brotha friendly.
Family Guy: Racist but brotha friendly.
Democrats: Used to be racist and not brotha friendly. They're still racist but very brotha friendly.
Watermelon and fried chicken: Very racist but extremely brotha friendly.
Wilmore argues that the way to end racism is to end the flagrant misuse of the term, as he succinctly and refreshingly notes: "[N]ot everything that seems racist is racist. The problem is that people are so touchy these days everything gets that label just to avoid conflict. Though what ends up happening is more conflict is created by falsely labeling a nonracist incident." And unlike many comics and politicians (black and white) who deal with race, Wilmore does not seek to shock, appall, or enrage. He seeks to poke fun and make light of the many foibles, quirks, and predilections to which we race-obsessed Americans are prone.
I'd Rather We Got Casinos is not shocking, or deliberately offensive, or an assault on the senses, or a polemic, or even particularly political. Much of it isn't uproariously, laugh-out-loud hilarious. But it is, at times, amusing. And well written. And honest. Short and to the point. In good fun. Some of Wilmore's modest proposals are even well argued. His writing, his whole book, his whole attitude is lighthearted, self-deprecating, without rancor-everything that our serious, cloying, dishonest, drab, long-winded, morally inconsistent, self-aggrandizing, bitter, buzz-kill of a national conversation on race is not.
Zack Munson is a writer and comedian.