HOW TO RENT A NEGRO
By damali ayo
Lawrence Hill Books. 196 pp. Paperback, $14.95
"So we are all black people, so-called Negroes, second-class citizens, ex-slaves," Malcolm X famously reminded a Detroit audience in 1963. "You are ex-slaves. You didn't come here on the 'Mayflower.' You came here on a slave ship -- in chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken." In equating the United States' treatment of slaves with the handling of livestock (and mixing his metaphors: How often has anyone seen a chicken in chains?), Malcolm's typically blunt "Message to the Grassroots" drove home the monstrous immorality at the heart of American slavery: the refusal of the slaveholding class to regard their chattel as fellow human beings.
The nation's tremendous profit from its use of slaves -- a bounty from which slaves and their descendants were largely excluded -- has poured salt in a wound that continues to fester. Nearly every ethnic group has been enslaved at some point in the course of human events, but America's descendants of slaves belong to the only group whose centuries-long captivity, forced labor and post-emancipation lowest-caste status contributed directly and substantially to the development of the mightiest superpower of all time. The extent to which that cruel practice and its resulting inequities still affect our society continues to be a source of thorough study and intense debate. It also resonates throughout How to Rent a Negro, damali ayo's satiric take on modern American race relations.
Although "the purchase of African Americans was outlawed many years ago," ayo writes, "black people are once again a valued and popular commodity." In her view, they appeal especially to whites who rely on their relationships with blacks as evidence of their own progressive politics or simply to inject some sorely needed "cool" into their lives. Ayo has in mind real-life versions of George Costanza, the "Seinfeld" sidekick who spent an entire episode in search of a black person whom he could pass off as his friend.
Whites like George needn't despair that slavery is no longer legal, ayo suggests. "Those who want to utilize the service of an articulate and well-mannered African American are easily classified as renters. Those who find themselves serving as certified African Americans for colleagues and friends are conveniently referred to as rentals." Her book is a tongue-in-cheek guide to completing such "transactions" with a minimum of fuss.
According to ayo, her suggestions will help her fellow Americans honor their country's "vibrant spirit of capitalism." The mercantile roots of racial relations on these shores are frequently touched on in African American art. The results are often evocative and dramatic, as in "Bid 'Em In," Oscar Brown Jr.'s classic 1962 song about a slave auction:
I'm looking for four. And $400, she's a bargain for sure
Four is the bid, 450; five; $500 now look alive
Bid 'em in; get 'em in. Don't mind them tears, that's one of her tricks
Five-fifty's the bid, and who'll say six?
Building on the work of Brown and other visionaries, the generation of artists to which ayo belongs has begun to address not only the commodification of black people but also the marketing of blackness. (Ayo specifically acknowledges comedians Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory, who told Rent-A-Negro jokes during their 1960s performances.) It's a shakier concept, to be sure, given the near impossibility of defining it. Still, Madison Avenue relentlessly pushes blackness as an all-purpose brand, readily adaptable for any product's needs. "Buy what we're selling," many commercials suggest, "and you, too, can possess a bit of that elusive 'thing' so easily embodied by those colorful, sexy, sassy, rhythmic African-Americans." In TV ads such as the one featuring a young white woman pop-locking (a decades-old urban dance style popularized by blacks) in the front seat of a Mitsubishi, advertisers send up our preoccupations with blackness even as they sell it, pre-empting the irony and savage wit once considered the province of artists.
Ayo challenges whites to bypass simulated blackness in favor of the real deal, available for only a few dollars more. "Most black people are qualified to fill your need for an authentic black presence," she writes. "Many have a lifetime of experience in the field." What's in it for blacks? Well, unlike the helpless woman on the auction block in Oscar Brown's harrowing lyric, the modern African American can finally profit from her labor. "You've been volunteering your services for years," ayo argues. "Why not start charging fees? Would a dentist, teacher, or hairdresser give away every session for free? Of course not." According to ayo's biographical note (she prefers a lower-case spelling), she has been "a professional black person for more than thirty years." Her book is an outgrowth of rent-a-negro.com, a Web site she launched in 2003. It includes a price guide to help novices get started. Fees for corporate clients, for example, should begin at $350 per hour. Clients who want to touch their rental's hair should be prepared to fork over $25 each time (upped to a suggested $100 in the book). Drop-in appearances: $100 each. In a 2003 interview with The Post, ayo said the site grew out of her years "being in all-white settings, fielding questions from people wanting to touch her hair, and playing the role of cultural ambassador."
Although her book may appeal most to members of the post-civil-rights class of black professionals who have endured similar trials, it is not likely to prove so fascinating to other African Americans, who likely have more pressing concerns. What's more, ayo risks overestimating whites' willingness to be made fun of for 190-plus pages. That said, her repetitive style will challenge the attention spans of even her most sympathetic readers. "Don't let your pride get in the way of your paycheck," she facetiously warns potential rentals, before providing similar advice -- "Don't let your anger get in the way of a solid paycheck" -- a dozen pages later. Ayo's approach may remind some of Keith Townsend Obadike, an African American artist who in 2001 attempted to auction his blackness on eBay. He set the opening bid at $10 and accompanied his posting with a list of virtues, among them:
"This Blackness may be used for making jokes about black people and/or laughing at black humor comfortably"; and "This Blackness may be used for dating a black person without fear of public scrutiny." But he also included such caveats as "The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while shopping or writing a personal check" and "The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while voting in the United States or Florida."
Obadike planned to conduct the sale for 11 days, but eBay shut down the project four days later after deciding it was "inappropriate." He received 12 bids, with the highest offer at $152.50. The project was daring, funny, innovative -- and lasted just long enough to be effective. Which points to the major shortcoming of How to Rent a Negro: It is essentially a one-joke proposition stretched to book length. It works better as an Internet attraction, a brief entertainment roughly equal to a rented video. As a book it's a much harder sell.
It is also hampered by readers' awareness of Aaron McGruder, Dave Chappelle and other artists who mine the same territory with more consistent results. The best of these may be ego trip, a five-man combo whose riffs on race in books like ego trip's Big Book of Racism (2002) and on TV programs such as VH1's "Race-O-Rama" effectively skewer a range of American neuroses. Gabriel Alvarez, one of the group's members, told the New York Times that race "was the new pornography, the only thing in our culture that people are still uncomfortable talking about." We can laugh about it, however; in some cases, all the way to the bank. *
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.