THE TITLE OF "How to Be A Rich Nigger" is so designed to shock and its thesis so preposterous at a time when blacks catch pneumonia when the economy sneezes, that at first I dismissed the book as mere hyperbole.
But author Rufus Shaw has popped ups so much in his Texas cowboy hat on local and national TV shows lately that I decided his book deserved a closer look.
And to my surprise. Shaw's book, while hardly a literary gem, is a self-help book that ordinary black young people -- and not so young people -- can relate to. It's sort of think-and-grow-rich in street talk. It's inflated, Lord knows, but takes the kind of approach that just might jerk the average dude up short and set him thinking.
Blacks are caught in an economic dilemma. At the same time that many of them are getting jobs that they never had before, black family income slipped backward and in the 1970s and unemployment has shot up. This is being met with increasing conservatism on the part of politicans and thus blacks are talking more of self-help, as they try to keep the heat on the government.
Shaw brings that self-help message to the street. His definition of "rich" is a philiosophical one -- less a dollar figure than a mind set; an attempt to motivate his readers not to settle for $15,000, but to aim for $150,000.
"Remember, in order to be truly rich you must have that dream of success and be able to see yourself driving a Rolls-Royce, living in a mansion and flying to Africa for that long-awaited vacation to the homeland."
The parents of many black people thrived in a Jim Crow atmosphere that no longer exists, but too many young blacks have held fast to a "can't win" philosophy, said Shaw. "Well, hell, a free man will always do better than a slave . . . You are the generation the generations before you worked so hard to produce."
Though he casts himself as the "prophet of profits," his message is earthbound: "Being successful is like seducing a beautiful woman. You need ambition, motivation, hustle and a little preseverance."
He has common-sense advice on dress and behavior: "Your dress, act, talk and walk tell the world who you are and where you are headed . . . When you talk, talk in a language that is appropriate for the occasion. For instance, around conservative whites, you want ot practice the King's English, what is what you learn in school. When you are around a more liberal element, you want to speak King Hannibal's English, which is the language of the ghetto." w
Shaw gives advice on picking a college and choosing a profession, and advises to get rich by providing services to other blacks, while also learning how to operate in the predominantly white world of business. "My idea is self-reliance -- to determine what we can do for ourselves by getting involved in the system, understanding it and trying to deal with it," he says.
"There are plenty of opportunties for us to start small businesses that service the black community." The 27-year-old Shaw has a business degree himself.
Shaw warns against careers as a criminal or as an athlete. He know a little about both. He began work on the book the week after a Dallas jury found him guilty of delivering cocaine; he was sentenced to 15 years in jail, but remains free while his appeal is pending. He was an Academic All Southwest Conference football player and a track star for Southern Methodist University, but he says professional athletics is "one of the most overrated professions in the world for blacks" because the field is glutted and most end up broke from bad investments.
"If you're going to be a professional athlete, for God's sake take some business courses while you're in college and simultaneously pursue a career in another field."
He thinks there is an oversupply of teachers and an undersupply of skilled labor: "there is no reason beyond mass insanity why a young, brilliant, black person who wants to get rich should be going into the teaching profession."
The book is seriously flawed by a view of women that is so macho as to be laughable. Shaw was quick to explain in a telephone interview: "It's not geared to career women; it's for a certain type of woman." But his picture of women as sex objects is so blatant that it will undoubtedly be taken as more humorous than serious.
A lot of people I know feel there is little need to read a book whose language is coarse and the syntax as mangled as "How to Be a Rich Nigger." And at $12.95 a copy, it's unlikely many people will be able to afford it. But I've grown increasingly concerned that black adults are alienating their young people, and a book that can communicate with them has redeeming -- if unexpected -- social value.