The Sellout by Paul Beatty

thesellout‘For Hominy any day when he could personify American primitivism was a good ol’ day. It meant that he was still alive, and sometimes even the carnival coon in the tank misses the attention. And this country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs people like him. It needs somebody to throw baseballs at, to fag-bash, to nigger-stomp, to invade, to embargo. Anything that, like baseball, keeps a country from actually looking in the mirror and remembering where the bodies are buried.’ (Loc. 1353)

Sellout is one of the nicknames of the narrator of The Sellout (his other is Bonbon), a black man who reinstates his city, Dickens, a deprived area unofficially labelled as L.A.’s hood, through a mass programme of segregation inspired by the surviving actor of a racist television series from the 30s and 40s, Hominy. Hominy begs to become Sellout’s slave, going as far as asking to be whipped.

What begins as a birthday gift for Hominy – redrawing the old city limits of Dickens in paint and putting segregated seating signs in a local bus – grows into creating a segregated local school by faking the coming of an all-white school over the road, to selling signs like ‘Blacks Only’ and ‘No Whites Allowed’ to shops, businesses and even the local hospital. Crime rates and unemployment drops, the children’s attendance and attainment levels soar, even the rival gangs celebrate hood day without violence.

But segregation and slavery, even if Hominy could opt out of his self-enforced slavery at any time, are crimes against amendments to the constitution and against human rights.

Already a story brimming with provocation, The Sellout doesn’t stop there. Sellout was brought up by a father obsessed with psychology and desperate to provoke his community into self-improvement. Sellout’s childhood was a series of social and psychological experiments that intended to turn him into some kind of uber black man, conscious of the history of his people in America, aware of the plight of black people across the globe, ready to challenge the world with intellectual prowess.

But Sellout fails the test. In his father’s eyes he sells out to the promises of consumerism and remains a farmer, farming in the strange belt of arable land protected in Dickens. It is only after his father dies that he is forced to rethink himself. He doesn’t know who his mother was. He didn’t fully understand who his father wanted him to be.

His dad used to be a ‘nigger-whisperer’. Someone the local police called upon when a member of the Dickens community went mad and tried to kill themselves and/or others. Sellout inherits this title. In fact, this is how he reconnects with Hominy.

Sellout is also forced to contend with his father’s other project, The Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals. This is a group of black intellectuals who discuss crime rates, academic achievement rates, unemployment rates, house prices etc. etc. in the local area. All professing to know how to deal with racial stereotyping and to create a truly equal society.

Though it may seem as if I’m spoiling the plot, an outline of the plot line (a sketchy one at that) of The Sellout, doesn’t at all do justice to the book (there are a lot of satiric jokes about American Race history that I’m certain I don’t even get). This is about honest self-scrutiny.

The one thing Sellout’s father used in all his ‘nigger-whisperer’ cases was this: You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself? The idea is introduced in Chapter One and it remains present throughout, restated as late as Chapter 22.

Towards the end of the novel, Sellout goes to a comedy show with his girlfriend and remembers a night he was there with his father.

‘When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong. No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer, nigger and otherwise. It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep. That’s what I like about the man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what he did or to stick up for the aggrieved white people. After all, they could’ve stood up for themselves, called in the authorities or their God, and smote everybody in the place, but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”’ (loc.4148-4163)

The Sellout challenges the reader to look honestly at themselves. Though the book is about race and racial stereotype from within and without, this is about identity at every level: individual, racial, community, country, human. Who are we and how can we become ourselves?

England isn’t America and yet if recent political events have taught us anything, it’s that we don’t really know ourselves and we need to. It’s one of the reasons books like The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla are so important. I’d say go and read both. Let’s all take a long hard look in the mirror.

For the next few weeks I’m going to take a break from the blog while I focus on redrafting my novel. I’ll be back the second week of December.