Patrice Evans is the author of Negropedia: The Assimilated Negro’s Crash Course on the Modern Black Experience, and has been blogging for the past six years as The Assimilated Negro, aka TAN. We talked to Evans about prep school, his background in music, the need for gay rappers, and how sometimes you might try picking up a white girl by calling her a racist. (It could work for you!) So read on, dear, readers, and let us know what you think of Evans or his hilarious and insightful book in the comments section below.
Did you set out to write a crash course when you starting writing this book?
In 2008, my editor got laid off, so we really started again over a year into it. It was originally titled Negropedia, and then it was pushed back because they thought the name might be too controversial, and then it became Black is The New Black, and I did a post on it, then this girl did Black is The New Bitch. It was a weird publishing trend.
How did you become the Assimilated Negro?
I was born in the Bronx, and got into this program called Prep for Prep; it’s like a smaller, more select version of A Better Chance. So I got into that through a test, then during the school year you go to class on Saturdays and go to school in the summer as well. That led to me getting into prep school. I went to Choate Rosemary Hall, then Trinity College in Hartford.
I was never really race conscious. I look at my blog and the narrative I’ve been on, and it feels like I should’ve come from at least a Cosby Show-type household where there’s a pro-Black element, but I really had none of that. The racial consciousness came out of how much of a void there was. As a writer you’re looking for some fresh space to occupy, and I thought, if no one is going to talk about this race angle or this little wrinkle in Tracy Morgan or Will Smith or Oprah, then I will. It’s almost a product of circumstance and the environment rather than my own impetus or initiative.
Why do you think your parents weren’t overtly race conscious?
I have a whole mommy issues thing. She disappeared from my life early on, and my father was a touring musician. He got to play with Madonna, he was also involved with Brass Construction, Force MDs, some ’80s-era funk bands. His gold record project was the Beat Street album. So he was a professional musician. He wasn’t around as much up until I was 10 or 11. I was basically raised by my grandparents because again, my mom was gone and my father was touring. By the time he was more domestic, that’s when I went away to school, so there’s some distance there that we’ve had to bridge over the years. He was an artist, a musician, but we never had any intellectual deconstruction talks going on.
What kind of a musician is he?
Keyboard, the keys.
Did he ever teach you?
Yeah, a little. Actually, when I started the blog I had a hip hop group that was getting traction, but I was bored with hip hop presentation. The shows were so boring – just standing and rapping, so I was trying to insert jokey bits, but my friends in the group didn’t really like that. [laughs] And the Assimilated Negro blog came out of that.
Was that a way for you to call bullshit on the scene?
Yeah. A few months after starting a blog I started with Gawker and got immersed in the burgeoning media landscape at the time. There’s a lot of symmetry between the up-and-coming hip hop world and the up-and-coming media world; they talked about each other and interacted a little, but it was really two insular worlds. I got a lot of energy realizing as the Assimilated Negro that there was a lane that connected those two worlds.
Do you see other people doing that now?
Certainly now. Blogging is the new rapping — your blog is a demo. If you start a blog it’s hard not to be conscious of the fact that you might blow up. There would be a high level of naïveté to not see that possibility.
Do you still perform?
It’s hard with the book and my new job at Grantland, but I have kept the flame alive. One of my first things is to do shows at venues with readings and then hip hop shows before. For me, readings have been generally on the boring side, so I always think music and mixing it up with variety acts is something I want to do.
When you go to a reading and see a mostly white literary crowd and the author has “MFA voice” it’s both embarrassing and depressing to watch.
Why do you think everyone is so straitjacketed in how you’re supposed to participate in literary culture?
I think that’s where class comes into play; people are just trying to assimilate, which you discuss in Negropedia. At literary readings there seems to be this force that takes hold and people are scared of being seen as a fool.
I guess it’s the same thing when I started. There’s an orthodoxy in hip hop; the details are different but the mob crew mentality that ends up reinforcing what’s always been done or what the traditionalists view is right.
It’s the same with slam poetry. It’s terrible because everyone has that same voice. It’s emotional grandstanding. You’re putting on airs rather than performing in a way that is unique to you.
Do you think we’re evolving out of that or is it cyclical?
[Ed note: I love how Patrice is now interviewing me.] It depends on the day and mood I’m in, if I want to be the cynic or not.
It’s hard for me to be negative about it because there are new opportunities available to more people than in the past. To me the book is light; there’s these moments of sincerity but generally it’s humorous, and that within the context of this black cultural narrative could be seen as difficult to market. Like there’s a civil rights sobriety thing for black culture.
I wanted to ask about Brooke Gladstone using the n-word on the panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival — I heard she was heckled.
Brooke got into this riff where she was quoting reality television, so she was like, “Yeah, on reality shows you hear people talking about bitches and hos and niggers.” She even said it quietly, but it was a quote mark situation. Later on in the Q&A a black guy got up and said, You are not allowed to use that word.
What’s your take on that?
As someone who grew up in hip hop culture I’m definitely desensitized to the n-word and generally don’t get too riled up about it, but I’m obviously sensitive to people getting worked up and have a respect for your elders take on it. I felt bad for Brooke a little bit and gave her a pat on the shoulder because she was just trying to make a point. For Brooke it’s going to be a losing battle; she can’t really engage in that and expect to win an argument.
In the book, you have the part about black political figures, then you move on to Black Jesus. It’s pretty great, because people can’t take themselves seriously in this book. You take aim at everyone.
You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings like that guy in the panel, but you need enough distance where humor enters the equation.
You also talk about the Erykah Badu-type who is flaky, spiritual, and totally into herself and guys like Common, who are secretly sexist. You bring up these points and you seem to get it right.
A lot of the concert rappers have been blatantly homophobic but have been people who are supposed to represent higher values, the thinkers of hip hop culture. It becomes tough to challenge rappers; this contradiction works with sexism, too. Mos Def or Common will make these offhand remarks, and since racism is so trenchant you think people shouldn’t come down on them too hard, but at least now there’s enough different vibes and influences that people are starting to be comfortable challenging the status quo.
Queen Latifah just came out this year. Finally.
Yeah, we need a gay rapper. We need an NBA baller. We need people who are occupying positions of influence and power to represent these quote unquote alternative lifestyles.
But they need to be masculine to really get the message across.
Like Omar from The Wire was perfect. A gay thug. I’ve been lobbying for Jay Z and Kanye to really culminate their partnership. I was hoping for a kiss on the VMAs.
Like Lil Wayne kissing Birdman?
Yeah, those jeggings…
He’s a fruit.
Wayne’s approach to drugs is against the orthodoxy of black hip hop culture. Hallucinogenics and coke – the more exotic drugs aren’t usually associated with hip hop, but Wayne and Kid Cudi and these alt rappers show a line where the drugs they use are influencing the output of their creativity. If you just smoke blunts, you might make the same boring songs. So I think both Kanye and J need to kiss, and they need to do ‘shrooms to be great artists.
We should start a Change.org petition. Let’s try for 25,000 signatures.
[laughs] We could get a few votes for that.
Let’s talk about what happens when a young black kid goes to boarding school.
I went there and got the conditioning of privilege where I think I’m entitled to stuff, but then I didn’t have the financial backing to support that kind of thing. [laughs] You’re being told you’re special, but also being told you’re coming from shit. How do you come to terms with that? You can be paralyzed by it or encouraged by it.
You talk about it in the section on Young, Gifted, and Black, but also the part where the blogger tries to explain himself in the ‘hood and is all, “Yo, I wrote for McSweeney’s,” which unsurprisingly doesn’t impress his old friends.
Everyone has a going back to the block story. When my grandfather was still alive I would go back to the Bronx and it would bring tears to my eyes sometimes, just, wow, you can live in this space and have no sense of the world at large or the opportunities. When you break out of that and come back, you realize you can have a narrow, sheltered worldview and not even recognize the potential in yourself. It’s a weird function of what happens with unique, talented Negros. Hey, when I say “negro” what’s your reaction?
In my mind I see Selma in the 1960s, but I have friends who use it as a throwback word. It’s hard because as a white person I just think of water cannons or the NAACP. There’s a lot going on there. What does it mean to you?
I’ve lost my personal attachment to it at this point, but when I started the blog it wasn’t like a thing, I started using the word Negro in school and it was the same thing you were talking about – being a novelty retro word. I would get a laugh so it stuck a little big, but when I started the blog the TAN acronym worked. The word, the blog, that whole thing becomes a Rorschach test that people respond to differently.
There was one time when this guy was hitting on me at a club and I wasn’t responding to it, and he was all, “Do you have a problem with Negros?” So then we had to have this conversation about whether I was racist or just not responsive because I wasn’t attracted to him.
I like that. There’s a leveraging there. For someone who I’m imagining is liberal and has intellectual integrity, if someone challenges you on that front you have to defend your position regardless.
We got into it, and it was kind of great. But I admire that tactic. He was really going for it.
I feel like it could’ve been either way, like I’m gonna throw out “negro” at this girl…
…and guilt trip her into having sex with me.
That would be great for a book. [laughs] Can you be guilt-tripped into having sex with a black guy? I would read that.