“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.
In The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”
In a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.
When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.
In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.
The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”
Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.
Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:
You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.
Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.
With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.
Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:
“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”
Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.
Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”
Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.
In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.
So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”