Paul Beatty’s searingly caustic and smart satire, The Sellout, begins with the unnamed narrator about to appear before the Supreme Court for unspecified crimes against the Constitution. After the prologue, the narrator takes us back to his childhood before showing how he ended up with a slave and segregating his hometown of Dickens, California. The fact that the narrator is African American creates a dissonant absurdity as he meditates and rants about race. The Sellout is a thought experiment more than it is a novel. In retrospect, its internal logic doesn’t quite work for me. The satire and the arguments of the novel are more than enough to make up for any shortfalls in the plot.
Dickens was the home to J.K. Me, the narrator’s father. Me, Sr. was a radical sociologist who constantly (sometimes violently) experimented on the narrator. The narrator was also homeschooled on a strong diet of racially charged history, sociology, and psychology. Me the Elder was also Dickens’ “n—-whisperer.” He was called out when any of Dickens’ black citizens became a danger to self and others and needed to be talked down. Me is later shot to death in the street; the narrator buries him on their farm. On his own, the narrator’s life does calm down, though he takes on his father’s role of local on-call psychologist.
The narrator is a skilled botanist and farmer. If it were up to him, that’s all he would do. But he reluctantly becomes a “slaveowner” when Hominy Jenkins—one of the last surviving Little Rascals who specialized in playing minstrelized, highly racist roles in the films—tries to hang himself. Hominy gloms on to the narrator and refuses to leave or to stop calling him “massa.” The narrator ends up having to pay some dominatrixes to beat Hominy (at Hominy’s insistence) weekly. The arrangement stabilizes Hominy mentally, but the old man is only happy when confronted with memories of pre-Civil Rights era racism (segregation signs on buses, old tchotchkes in blackface, etc.). Hominy’s dissociation with the world sets the narrator to mulling over the “positives” of segregation. The upshot of this pondering is putting “No Whites Allowed” signs all over Dickens. Weirdly enough, students’ test scores go up at the local schools and gangs appear to have declared a truce after segregation.
Since 1954, Americans have been taught the separate is fundamentally unequal. Yet, most of us live in homogenous neighborhoods. There are places across the United States that are de facto segregated. Then there’s the unconscious and institutional racism. Once Dickens is segregated, the citizens (mostly black and Latino) band together against an unseen Them. The narrator isn’t without opponents, activists who are fighting for a united We. Hilariously, the narrator’s chief antagonist leads a re-integration group of white students to Dickens’ school. (Well, it’s hilarious until the antagonist comes completely unglued.) The question that The Sellout asks is, why can’t Americans be a We? Why is it always Us versus Them?
There are no answers in The Sellout, but there is one brief passage that provides some illumination. The narrator muses, “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and son. History is the things that stay with you” (115). We—black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, etc., etc.—can’t move on from our history. It’s too bloody and full of hatred and anger. We deal with it by not dealing with it. Even now, with police murdering African Americans and protests in a number of cities, we can’t find a way through the rage and racism so that we can be an American We. The Sellout, as I said, does not give any answers. Instead, the book requires readers to mentally confront racism, slavery, and Jim Crow. It’s not enough. It’s only just a start.
I don’t want to give the impression that The Sellout is unrelentingly angry and miserable. There are several parts that made me laugh out loud. My favorite part of the whole book (that was actually enjoyable and didn’t trigger any guilty feelings) was a passage in which the narrator illustrates how deeply unfunny his father was. Me used to write jokes to be performed at open mic nights at stand up clubs. Unfortunately, Me’s jokes would come with academic titles, jargon-heavy abstracts, and citations. I laughed and laughed. I work with academics. Most of my friends are academics. I daresay I know people who would format jokes in APA. No matter what the narrator says, jokes in Academese are hysterically funny.
Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for all Americans. This is an uncomfortable read, but it’s a necessary read.