Analysis of a Story
An Extravagance of Laughter, p. 271-272
In the story Extravagance of Laughter, Ralph Edison includes a story that he once heard, a story about how a "very black-skinned young man [with] the surname of Whyte" (271) was abused by policemen. It is a story that has been taken and stretched, to encompass the entire black experience of white power and control. Given this, what specific form of experience, what message, does this story attempt to convey? And how does this story manage to convey this experience?
In this story, Edison, or at least each of the many "informants" that speak through him, has a clear bias against the police officers. The black guy, Whyte, is an innocent victim; the policemen are classic mindless villains. Whyte is portrayed as superior to the policemen, as more intelligent, more intellectual. But despite his intelligence and seeming superiority, he is eventually "knocked senseless" (272) by the police, physically beaten into submission. This story conveys the message that no black man can make a successful stand against white authority, while simultaneously dehumanizing the very white authority that the story's authors can't defeat.
In this story, the police officers are clearly dehumanized, brought down to a level well below that of Whyte. Even at the very beginning, they are shown as less intelligent than Whyte. They have the distinctive drawl of the lower class; they start off the piece by asking Whyte, "Damn, boy, y'all been drinking? cause you sho sound drunk to me." (271) Whyte, in contrast, speaks with a much more precise brand of English: "Officer, it's Whyte That's the truth and I'll swear to it." (271) But even before this, they are being dehumanized, in that their actions are being used to portray them in a distinctly negative light, as when they are said to look at each other "with manic inspiration" (271), or, later, when they "went after Whyte like he had insulted their mammas" (272). The policemen are treated throughout this piece as somehow less than human, not conforming to the modern standards of acceptable conduct that we hold people to today.
Both of the policemen spend most of the story insulting Whyte; for example, they tell him that he's "blind-staggers drunk or else plum out of his nappy-headed cotton-pickin' mind" (271). While the policemen are busy debasing Whyte in this manner, their own insults are being reflected back upon themselves. The policemen clearly seem to be out of their own "cotton-pickin' mind[s]" when they make Whyte spell his own name over and over again, and recite his entire family tree. Each insult that the policemen throw at Whyte is thrown directly back at them, making them appear in a worse light even than Whyte himself.
This story also shows how even Whyte's best efforts to satisfy the police officers were to no avail. Even after almost begging them to stop investigating his name ("But, Officer, Whyte's the only last name I have" (272)), the policemen continue to harass him. The conflict becomes more than just a conflict; it becomes a war. It represents a war, instigated by the white man, fought to destroy all remnants of the black man's legacy. Although the police manage to beat Whyte into unconsciousness, they failed in their efforts to "make [him] deny his heritage" (272). As such, he is hailed by the tellers of his story as a hero, as "a damn good man" (272). He represents the ultimate goal of those telling his story: Don't give in to the white man. Don't give in to the racists in society, those who would rob us of who we are. Stand up to the white man!
But even so, Whyte is still the innocent victim of the story. He stood up to the policemen, and he managed to maintain at least a shred of dignity, but he could not maintain much more than that shred. The policemen forced him to repeat his own name over and over again, in "mock disbelief" (271), and every time he repeats his name the policemen "tried to dot where they thought an 'i' should have been by pounding his head with their blackjacks." The policemen forced Whyte to bend to their will; if they could not get him to recant his name, they would make him wish he had. In the end, Whyte is left with not only his physical consciousness stolen, but also much of his dignity, his sense of self-worth. This story is re-told again and again, at least in part, as a tribute to this unfortunate but inevitable loss.
As was stated earlier, this story has been "exaggerated in the telling" (273); it has grown well beyond its original form. What was the true story, the story that really happened? Why has this story changed over time, through many iterations and re-tellings? In answer to the first question, in my experience, the central plot of this kind of story tends not to change greatly over time; such a change would defile the original meaning of the story. What does change, however, are the details. So I would suspect that the 'real' story would have gone something like this: Whyte, with his friends, were pulled over by the policemen, for who knows what reason. Already angry at Whyte (otherwise, they wouldn't have pulled him over), having Whyte claim that his last name was 'white' was just too much impudence from a black man. So they threw around a few insults about his name and beat him a fair bit, "knock[ing] him senseless" (272) just for fun; they then let him and his friends go on their way. In reality, I have no way of knowing if this is really what happened, but it does seem to me like the most realistic interpolation.
As was described before, the story was expanded, elaborated, in order to use it to tell of an experience, to convey a message to the listener or reader. This has, in fact, become the purpose of the story. It is told again and again to remind those hearing it of the immense injustice forced upon their forbearers. One has to wonder about the actual importance of the real, 'true' story, if none seem to recall it. It would seem that what truly happened has no real importance; the present story is now used only to convey the moral of the original story: No black man can make a successful stand against the hated and feared white authority.
This story is used to represent the racial tensions experienced by its many authors and creators. It shows the hopelessness that they feel, in that they can never completely beat their self-appointed masters. But it also shows that they have the courage, the stubborn will, to stick it out, to try to weather the storm in the hopes that things will someday get better. Through this story, these people reassure themselves that they won't give up, won't give in, to anyone trying to take their identity from them.