Not a Genuine Black Man
Or How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs
By Brian Copeland
HYPERION; 250 PAGES; $22.95

San Francisco Bay Area comedian and radio personality Brian Copeland's memoir, "Not a Genuine Black Man," traces the now 41-year-old Copeland's trials growing up in the '70s as just about the only African American kid in San Leandro, and addresses issues of race and identity he struggles with to this day.

Both the book's origin and its title come from a Copeland comedy routine about an accusation he sometimes faces, mostly from fellow African Americans, because of his manner of speech, his lifestyle and various other issues that confuse, depress and infuriate him. The short, funny routine grew into a two-act monologue that was a hit at the Marsh in San Francisco, where it ran for an unprecedented two years. Copeland is currently performing it off-Broadway, Rob Reiner is developing it into a TV series for HBO, and now it appears in book form.

A prologue offers the initial monologue in full, and it's some of the book's funniest, pithiest, richest material. Copeland tells of an anonymous letter he received that read, "As an African American, I am disgusted every time I hear your voice because YOU are not a genuine black man!" Copeland proceeds to riff on what, then, makes a black man genuine. "I like old Motown; that's black. But I also like the Beach Boys. That isn't. I don't believe blacks should be paid reparations for slavery, but if they send me the check, I'll cash it. I'm confused, I'm not crazy. I can't swim. That's black. But I can't play basketball either. I'm not even sure that's male."

The memoir then begins in earnest, following Copeland from age 8, when his upwardly and sometimes white-wardly mobile mother moved Copeland, his sisters and his grandmother to San Leandro. The book intertwines San Leandro's shameful housing segregation history, young Brian's harassment by police and shopkeepers and bullying from white kids, his occasional triumphs and the adult Copeland's depression and attempted suicide in 1999.

When it succeeds, "Not a Genuine Black Man" is by turns heart-wrenching, upsetting and funny. At times, Copeland's prose is awkward or purple or both. The book is, with a few added elements -- one of which is the fascinating story of an older, Southern white man in overalls who befriends and protects Brian -- true to the monologue, and elements that work onstage often come across in print as excessive (the essentially self-effacing onstage Copeland can seem unintentionally self-congratulatory on the page) or confusing (jumping back and forth in time without transitions, for example).

One element that doesn't quite come across in the book that is apparent when one sees Copeland onstage or hears him on radio is why the letter writer thought him not genuine. In the theater or on the air, it is apparent that, at least on the surface, there's nothing "street" or "urban" -- to use two contemporary euphemisms for "black" -- about Brian Copeland. Not his language, not his middle-aged, middle-class suburban dad clothes, not his mannerisms. Much of Copeland's struggle and righteous fury come from this superficial assessment of his racial legitimacy. His father, a deadbeat and a violent abuser of everyone around him, was accused of many things, but never a lack of genuine blackness.

The book is most successful in addressing the stereotyping that exists in everyone. Young Brian at first runs away from the older, large white man who later becomes his friend. Adult Brian "profiles" two young black men he sees sitting in a beat-up car in his upper-middle-class neighborhood. He wrestles with himself about whether to call the police, and when he finally gives in to his gut and makes the call, feeling like a traitor to his race as he dials, it's only after the young men have robbed a house. He just can't win.

"Not a Genuine Black Man" falters, conversely, in its oversimplification of racial injustice and use of hackneyed racial comedic material. Bits of all-too-familiar takes on racism -- heroes on white horses, bad guys with black hats, detergents that make "whites whiter" and recounting of the dictionary definition of white as "innocent, pure, unsullied ..." -- detract from the book's power. When Copeland discusses his hospitalization after his suicide attempt, he's held in a psychiatric ward because he is considered a threat to himself or others, which Copeland resents as his being considered "still 'the threatening black man,' " one of a handful of such dubious conclusions that dilute the book's authority.

Copeland's prose can also veer into the deeply melodramatic. In describing his depression, for example, he often resorts to such statements as "I was a damaged mind trapped inside a useless, nonfunctioning body." And sentences such as "Then it hit me in the face like a cold blast of winter wind" hit the reader in the face like, well, not like winter wind. When Copeland recovers from his depression as quickly (and as unexplored) as he descended into it, he pulls into his driveway and is greeted by his son with a hug and a "Hi, Dad," and the reader is offered an all-too-tidy resolution of Copeland's relationship with his own father, Sylvester: "As I held my son in my arms, I realized how much time I had wasted thinking that I had missed out all those years. I hadn't. Not really. Sylvester had."

In translating "Not a Genuine Black Man" to the page from the stage, inevitably, elements are lost. This is not to say the book is a failure, it is just spotty. When it's on the mark, the reader by turns laughs out loud or struggles along with Copeland. From anecdotes of a nerdy black kid in a racist town, to his grandmother's confusing advice to "Act your age, not your color," to his mother's struggle to be a proud black woman and simultaneously assimilate, to his own struggle to represent himself as an adult and a public figure, Copeland's memoir is, for the most part, engaging, and always well-intentioned and genuine. ||