Paul Beatty’s (2015) novel The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize in 2016, and although I was vaguely familiar with the title I knew little about the book. In shopping at a used bookstore on my recent trip to Seattle, Washington, I came across the book and decided to pick it up and give it a read.
The book is laugh-out-loud hilarious. But there is a caveat here. The book might be what one calls crass; it satirizes race, life in Los Angeles and the United States, and a range of humans in ways that might not be accessible to all audiences. Beatty utilizes and plays up racial stereotypes with racist language – using racially derogatory terms for people throughout the book; he pokes fun at popular culture, both historic and contemporary; and the book harnesses sexual imagery and innuendo throughout. If one was unfamiliar with satire, or Beatty’s superb use of the form, one might easily be offended on the first page. However, the genius of the book appears to be Beatty’s mastery of the form – his ability to harness these jokes through all 300 pages in order to make some broader points and critiques of the United States, and Los Angeles specifically. My marginalia are filled with “LOL” marks – it is superbly funny if you can handle and appreciate satirical racial and sexual humor.
Race as Developmental
This book centers race – and nobody is left unscathed. White, Black, Asian, Latino, Mexican (a nationality treated as a racial group) – the book satirizes each of these communities for the absurd ways each deals with discussions of race; actions that perpetuate racist assumptions; and the ways our racial identities (developmentally) influence our life choices and behaviors. This is not just a book about Black and White racial relations. Beatty also takes up intra-racial conflict within the Black community, the relationship between the Black and Latino community in Los Angeles, and though less prominently, also discusses intra-racial relationships between the Black and Latino communities and the Asian community. More on this below (The Future of Racism).
But one theme of the book is that of Black Identity Development – what does it mean to be Black and how do we determine Blackness? This is a subtle undertone to the book that can be easily missed, primarily because discussions of racial identity as a developmental process only deliberately arise in the final section of the text, titled “Unmitigated Blackness.” It can also be missed if one does not read the “Acknowledgments” section of the text. Here, Beatty acknowledges William E. Cross, Jr., “whose groundbreaking work in black identity development. . .I read in grad school and has stayed with me ever since” (p. 291).
In the closing section of the text, racial identity development theory is utilized as a defense in oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court. Beatty plays with Cross’ stages, breaking them into 4 (rather than the original 6) (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010), and some intriguing quips and social commentary comes up – including a jab at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is described as a ‘Neophyte Negro,’ one “afraid of his own Blackness. . . suffering from poor self-esteem and extremely ashy skin” (p. 275). The additional stages, Stage II Blackness as Black Pride; Stage III Blackness as Race Transcendentalism; and Stage IV Blackness – Unmitigated Blackness, are each described.
Since I am familiar with Cross’ theory, and its application to how we think about people’s behaviors and actions, this use of the theory as a defense strikes me as intriguing. We don’t get a good sense of which stage Bonbon is at, or how the lawyer is arguing the case – yet we are really drawn to question where he might fall along this racial identity development scale. Similarly we can examine some of the other Black characters in the text – Foy Cheshire, Bonbon’s father, Marpessa – and think about where they might fall within a racial identity development model.
This is one way to read the text – as a questioning of how racial identity is developed. Is it purely psychological? Sociological? Environmental? How does it shift across space-time? How does it influence our behaviors, actions, and understanding of the world? Many of the small plot lines in the book deal with this question – including the relationship between Bonbon and his Father that dominate the first half of the text (and is a fascinating study in how a Black Father prepares his Black son for navigating a racist world).
One of the central plot lines in the book centers on the narrator – named Me, and also referred to as Bonbon – attempting to re-establish his city on the map. Dickens, a fictitious neighborhood in Los Angeles, is one day wiped off the map through gentrification. The neighborhood is renamed and Bonbon sets out to re-establish the city. To put it back on the map.
One way he does this is through painting a line on the streets, outlining the boundaries of the city. He meticulously paints the border and puts up new highway signs and street signs that signal one has entered Dickens. This act changes the behavior of people in his community:
Sometimes I’d chance across an elderly member of the community standing in the middle of the street, unable to cross the single white line. Puzzled looks on their faces from asking themselves why they felt so strongly about the Dickens side of the line as opposed to the other side. . .why was that? When it was just a line. (p. 109).
People feel value in their community, even if the community is run-down, poor, or faces a series of challenges such as high murder rates (which is how Dickens is described in the book). There seems to me a theme in this book about the value of place, community, and home. Bonbon’s decision to re-establish the boundaries of his community, to re-instill pride and ownership in the community, is an argument for the importance of place, and also a scathing critique of gentrification.
The Future of Racism
This book is dealing with the tensions that are arising in a demographically changing United States. In addition to re-establishing Dickens, Bonbon re-establishes segregation and slavery, acts which land him in front of the United States Supreme Court. While these actions seem absurd and satirical in the book, I believe Beatty is really asking: what will racism look like in the future of the United States?
Since racism is really about institutional power, one way to read this text is as a subtle warning to racial and ethnic groups who have traditionally been oppressed in the United States that they, too, could become the oppressor. This happens in very subtle ways throughout the text. For example, Beatty takes up the issue of immigration from Mexico. “Mexicans are to blame for everything” (p. 154), Bonbon states, noting that
For Black people, ‘too many Mexicans’ is the excuse we, the historically most documented workers in history, give ourselves for attending racist rallies protesting the undocumented workers seeking better living conditions. (p. 154)
This sentence implicates the Black community for their potential role in perpetuating racist actions ingrained in the structures of the United States. It also highlights a tension in the text about inter-racial and inter-ethnic tensions between historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. While these tensions have always been present, the dominant discourse of racism as solely a black-white problem often leaves these historical and contemporary issues out of discussions.
On the final page of the text, this issue comes up again. Barack Obama has just been elected President of the United States, and Bonbon notices Foy Cheshire, one of his father’s old friends, “honking his horn and waving an American flag” (p. 289). Bonbon questions this act of nationalistic fervor in Foy, asking him why he is suddenly so patriotic. “He said that he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid of it’s debts” (p. 289). This perplexes Bonbon. He retorts back:
And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect? (p. 289)
In part, Beatty is reminding us that we cannot forget our history, particularly those who were and are oppressed. “The problem with history,” Bonbon states, is that “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 song. History is the things that stay with you” (p. 115). For me, Beatty is really articulating that while there may be small strides – such as the election of a Black man as President – there are still large, looming, and consequential parts of our history that we have not dealt with and that we cannot forget.
We are not post-racial. The United States will never be post-racial. The question is how will racism play out in a country with changing racial and ethnic demography? These seem to be looming questions that Beatty asks us to consider, ever so subtly, in the novel.
We often have to write to process how we feel about a text. When I finished this novel, I was not sure what to think – there is much that is left unresolved, and the end of the novel seems to close down rather rapidly. I read some reviews online, many of which were disappointing in their shallow examination of the book (See New York Times Book Review; NPR Review; and The Guardian Review). But in writing this blog post, I have realized that this book is exploring some incredibly difficult territory in a satirical way. I have attempted to point out some of these themes and questions that strike me as important – but, if you’ve read the book, please comment below on your thoughts. What is Beatty challenging us as readers to think about? What did you take away from the book?
Beatty, P. (2015). The sellout. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.