Portland artist-writer-scenic designer damali ayo has been making needed waves since she arrived in town in 1997. Now the young creator of "Hello, My Race Is..." name tags has hit the national scene with a book, How to Rent a Negro, that grew out of her satirical website. Ayo's book is a spirited examination of the unexamined racism lurking within even the most well-meaning of WASPS, down to Fox's Bill O'Reilly, whom ayo has debated on his show. Like all good satire, ayo's makes a serious point, and it's sharp. We assigned Steffen Silvis (full disclosure: Silvis' photo appears as an illustration in the book's rogue gallery of whites) to ask his friend about her controversial work.
WW: What was the inspiration for your book?
Ayo: I got a bit tired with liberal white people chatting me up to show how progressive they are and then saying something totally idiotic and offensive. Even worse, when corrected, they would get offended and challenge me-"How can you say that's racist?"-as if they had more expertise than I did. I decided to document this liberal phenomenon.
Do you think people understand your intent? Is the book being blithely dismissed as pure comedy?
My work only uses reality, not fiction, so it provides a mirror. Ironically, people so far either get the satire and love the book, or don't get the satire and decide I'm angry and racist. My favorite customer review on Amazon.com is this woman who said that underneath the humor was anger and bitterness, and when she was finished, she threw the book in the trash. So who is angry and bitter? I wish she had recycled it instead.
Initially, there was hesitation among some PC white booksellers to stock your book because of the title.
It's happening in black stores, too, and I'll admit, the title of the book is tricky. People haven't seen a book on race like this. We have either low-brow comedy or high-brow intellectualism. But when did we lose all courage in this society? I think Shakespeare would be appalled if he saw the kind of cowardice, complacency and all-around lack of chutzpah the arts possess these days.
Ayo will read at 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 27, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. Free.