Many people around the planet expected the election of the first black leader of the free world to usher in a new era of diversity, multiculturalism, openness and that vaulted post-racial society. It was seen as a seismic event where the evils of the past would slowly dissipate into nothingness, where Michael Jackson wouldn’t need to sing about skin color not mattering and where businesspeople, scientists and politicians would be comprised of different ethnicities in roughly the same proportion as the general population. It was a world where we expected America to vote for the first woman president, where the U.K. would remain in the European Union and where Vladimir Putin would soon decay into Europe’s Kim Jong-Un.
Instead, we got an overgrown 12-year-old now occupying the Oval Office while dissing anyone smarter than him, we got the U.K. deciding to become Little England and we got another reboot of an evil empire in Eurasia. Probably the only positive was the schadenfreude us brown folk felt at watching the Western World crumble and gasp under the flood of refugees pouring in, and even that was undercut by all the dead children.
As one sits in the few post-racial-ish spots that remain after that promised world was eviscerated by know-nothing populist fire, one wonders where it all went wrong. And then one realizes that it was never right in the first place — that people of color didn’t stop getting screwed after the first black leader of the free world was elected, that escaping the weight of a racist history was not so simple as blocking out memories of Jim Crow, internment camps and offensive Hollywood stereotypes. Realizing what failed to go right means confronting it head-on in all its naked glory, and there is no book better for that than Paul Beatty’s Booker-prize winning novel “The Sellout.”
The narrator of “The Sellout,” a surfing marijuana and artisanal watermelon farmer with a talent for cultivating “cantaloupes that taste like multiple orgasms,” is faced with such a problem of history. His fictional hometown of Dickens, a historically black urban farming community within the Los Angeles area, has suddenly been wiped off the map, ostensibly because affluent California wanted to get rid of this dark stain that was keeping its “property values down and blood pressure up.” This particularly distresses Hominy Jenkins, a (fictional) former child actor and member of the Little Rascals troupe, because Dickens’ disappearance meant he stopped receiving fan mail and visitors, giving him little purpose to continue living. After the narrator — who goes by the nickname Bonbon — saves Hominy from committing suicide, Hominy becomes convinced that he is now Bonbon’s slave and refuses to be freed.
Early on in the book, Bonbon muses that if you tell someone you’re from Dickens, then you have to immediately apologize and reassure them that you’re not going to shoot them. But the Dickens he portrays is pretty normal, minus the occasional shooting, the weekly attempted suicide and a resident parliament of foppish thinkers known as the Dum-Dum Donut Intellectuals. While Bonbon is glib, nihilistic, easygoing and sarcastic, the Dum-Dum Donut Intellectuals spend their time coming up with politically correct novel retellings and African-American versions of PowerPoint. If one of them read this book, they would probably get a righteously indignant heart attack. Not just from the pretensions laid bare, the liberal swearing and Hominy’s nostalgia for his vaudevillian past, but also from Bonbon’s plan to bring back Dickens. The plan? Bring back segregation.
It’s hard to explain where exactly Bonbon comes up with this idea. Maybe it starts with Hominy, who follows up on his voluntary servitude to Bonbon with an even more bizarre request for his birthday: the opportunity to give up his seat on the bus to a white person. Bonbon thus convinces his bus-driving girlfriend Marpessa to place “priority seating for whites” signs at the front of her bus. But after Marpessa forgets to take down the signs, someone notices that her bus has inexplicably become the safest place in Dickens. So naturally, Bonbon decides to segregate the whole town, starting with the middle school, in the hope that it will unite Dickens, end violence and bring back some communal feeling. Unfortunately, it only remains a matter of time until the authorities catch onto Bonbon’s wildly illegal city revitalization plan, and he ends up at the Supreme Court, on trial for reinstituting slavery and segregation in Dickens.
NPR, The New York Times and even the Man Booker Prize committee all refer to this novel as satire of the greatest order. But it’s more than that; reading this book will not make you laugh out loud like a Little Rascals short, but it will leave you amused and bemused, uncomfortable and mildly offended. “The Sellout” manages to disembowel, then roast every sacred cow of racially-conscious, liberal/progressive, woke-but-not-quite-woke, white-with-some-brown-sprinkled-in upper-middle-class America to a fine crisp, then mix the ashes into chocolate milk and force them down the reader’s throat.
The Civil Rights movement? The only tangible benefit, Beatty writes, is that “black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.” Black History Month? He introduces Whitey Week, where the local black and Latino children can listen to “white music” and choose whether they want to experience Regular Whiteness, Deluxe Whiteness or Super Deluxe Whiteness. The N-word? So liberally sprinkled throughout the book that if it were salt, it would give you a heart attack. Hell, the book itself begins with Clarence Thomas screaming “N*****, are you crazy?” to Bonbon, who has just openly smoked marijuana on the steps of the Supreme Court and is in the process of rolling another joint during his lawyer’s arguments.
Beatty pushes every button, eviscerates every convention of multicultural polite society and ultimately makes you ask yourself some very tough questions. Are you a racist for finding his plantation jokes funny? Do you subconsciously put on blinders when someone brings up redlining, Japanese internment, the Tuskegee experiment, Blackface, Rodney King and Tamir Rice? Are you like the fragile white underemployed actress that Bonbon hires for Hominy’s birthday party, who is so convinced that people of color get all the jobs and that racism is nothing more than class discrimination? Or are you, like Foy Cheshire, the head of the Dum-Dum Donut Intellectuals, preoccupied with erasing history to make yourself feel better? Approaching this novel as someone who isn’t African-American is tricky; you won’t get all the references, you will be wary of being appropriative while reading it and you will keep asking yourself these questions.
The book ends with Bonbon reminiscing about President Obama’s inauguration. Foy Cheshire, of the Dum-Dum Donut Intellectuals, is proudly waving an American flag and honking his horn, proclaiming that the United States has finally paid off its debts. Where, Bonbon wonders, does everybody else — the Mexicans, the Native Americans, the Japanese, the poor, the forests, the air and water — collect their payment? Eight years later, it looks like that payment has bounced. Paying off the debts of history is a much trickier process than it would seem.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.