“Stings A Little, Don’t It?”

Steven Barnes
6 min readSep 19, 2019

— Sho Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem (“The Last Dragon” 1985)

Maybe thirty-five years ago, I was at the LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fiction Society) clubhouse in Burbank. I was one of only two black people who generally showed up on Thursday evenings. The other was a guy named Ken. Ken was a smart guy, tall and fat and jolly. He was often the butt of jokes, and he seemed to roll with it without complaint. This night, they were serving snacks at the clubhouse, and as it was summertime, there was watermelon. I love watermelon, but avoided it in this context. Ken dove in, and to the delight of the white fans, began “cooning” and grinning about it in a way that irritated me, but I kept it to myself. Another member, who was a Southerner who believe in racial superiority, wondered why I didn’t join in the fun. Why couldn’t I be more reasonable? It was just in good fun, couldn’t I see that? Weren’t we all just friends?

Over the years, I saw Ken do things like that many times. And the fans, who meant no harm, thought it amusing. But there was something in Ken’s eyes I didn’t like. Something way back there, like a trapped and feral animal.

Years passed. Ken’s health collapsed, as did his career, and he found himself in bad straits. And one of the last times I saw him he was at a fannish party, drunk. And sitting by himself. He looked old, and tired, and scared. I asked him how he was, and he SEETHED with rage, and pain, and regret. And at the core of it was race. That he had played the game, buried his feelings all his life. He’d been told that if he fit in, just rolled with it, all would be well. It hadn’t worked out like that, and his self-hatred was a frightening force, radiating off of that huge, slack body like waves of heat off an Arizona highway. I’d never seen him like this…although I’d always suspected those emotions were there, deep inside. Poisoning his life.

In vino veritas. He hadn’t been a jolly dancing bear after all. He’d been a human being desperate for love and acceptance, who had cut off a piece of his soul trying to fit in a Procrustian bed called “social acceptance.” Seeking tribe by denying his own humanity.

It didn’t work out too well. It never really does.

Not too long after that, I heard he was dead.

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I saw another comment today that “PC Culture” has ruined comedy. This ranged from people making GENERAL comments and jokes, and also specifics — group A…

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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.