Skip to main content

The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty


(c) David Hammons (1986), installation for bottle caps and 30 foot poles.

[Ta-Nehisi] Coates and [Michelle] Alexander have gained wide audiences; their books are bestsellers, and they are celebrated across liberal media outlets. Their animating idea — that to overcome racism, the United States must discard any pretense to colorblindness — has become accepted across broad swathes of the mainstream Left. For better or worse, however, it marks a stark departure from King’s appeal that skin color should be ignored. The battle between colorblindness and active anti-racism will have enormous consequences for American society.

In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.

‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green, or purple.’ We’ve all said it... He’s painting everybody over, painting this community purple and green, and seeing who still believes in equality.
— a judge in The Sellout


The Sellout confuses me. First, its reception: If anyone but a black person had written it, it would not have won its deserved awards. Speaker-based morals are perverse in the following way: this book is good to read, good to praise, good to buy - but not good to write, if you are not the right kind of person.

We all know the racist; that's the one that says "we need only know whether you are [white] or not, because non-[whites] are bad." The diversity advocate or standpoint theorist, at their worst, is the mirror: "we need only know whether you are [white] or not, because non-[whites] are good". (We'll come back to that symmetry.)

Secondly: The Sellout is filled with racism and racists - for one thing, the nearly-nameless protagonist, the Sellout, brings back segregated busses and schools, and (reluctantly) owns a volunteer slave - but the book is clearly itself not racist.

(I can even quantify how much racism's in it: at one point a pompous character counts the slurs in Huckleberry Finn, arguing for censoring it:
This is serious. Brother Mark Twain uses the ‘n-word’ 219 times. That’s .68 ‘n-words’ per page in toto.
Well, including 'werenigger' and 'niggerized', etc, Beatty manages 146, or .52 a page. It feels like more.)

That isn't the confusing bit; what is, is that none of the presented racists are white; in fact no substantial characters are. (The single named white person is present for all of seven pages, and is merely innocently patronising.) We could stretch and say that this is Beatty exclaiming at internalised racism. Or it could be a unusual claim about where racism (in the established sense of propositional or emotional racism, as opposed to structural racism) is openly expressed now: among nonwhites. (Or he could seriously just be trolling.)

Further, it isn't just a Modest Proposal, despite the prevalence of this mistake. A modest proposal is the deadpan presentation of a policy to make the reader realise that it is disgusting. In The Sellout, separatism and degradation work, they improve Dickens for the segregated: the policies are popular, grades go up, crime goes down, and people are polite within and without race categories. What does this say?

It's hard to work out Beatty's schtick, partly because the whole of the first 100 pages is a string of horrible and bravura one-liners, from "black literature sucks"

I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!
How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!
to
[the Sellout is] thinking about... how Freudian hermeneutics doesn’t apply to Dickens. A place where, often as not, it’s the child who raises the parents, where the Oedipus and Electra complexes are simple, sons, daughters, stepparents, or play-cousins, it doesn’t matter, since everybody’s fucking each other over and penis envy doesn’t exist because sometimes niggers just got too much dick.
to
Maybe race had nothing to do with it. Maybe Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat because she knew the guy to be unapologetically gassy or one of those annoying people who insists on asking what you’re reading, then without prompting tells you what he’s reading, what he wants to read, what he regrets having read, what he tells people he’s read but really hasn’t read. So like those high school white girls who have after-school sex with the burly black athlete in the wood shop, and then cry rape when their fathers find out, maybe Rosa Parks, after the arrest, the endless church rallies, and all the press, had to cry racism, because what was she going to say: “I refused to move because the man asked me what I was reading”? Negroes would’ve lynched her.
to
I’d rather be called ‘nigger’ than ‘giantess’ any day of the week.”

“Problematic,” someone muttered - invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterize anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable, impotent, and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me.

Reviewers resolve all this, in their neat way, by saying that Beatty is satirising "race in America" ("duh"). But that doesn't mean anything, for Beatty is indiscriminate: mocking stereotyped black behaviour and police brutality, and pious diversity pushers, and white arrogance, and classic Civil Rights heroes, and radical black intellectuals, and assimilated Establishment black elites, and colorblind universalists. So, you can say "it satirises [more or less every position you can take on] race in America". But what's the point of doing that?

I can think of three: 1) to say that there is no sensible position on this seething topic; or 2) to say that we haven't found it yet and must move past all the existing positions, or 3) to use the nasty symmetry I mentioned above, between the racist and the active anti-racist, to reflect well on Coatesian justice - maybe the thought is: 'colorblind egalitarianism is such a mad idea that even naked nineteenth-century racism is superior to it'.)

I don't know which (if any) is Beatty's view, but I know I can't agree. There's nothing actually wrong with MLK's principle, judge absolutely everyone on their own merits rather than treating them as a representative of their race or sex or anything, though it has usually been poorly realised.

But I respect the chutzpah of racial nihilism, of pissing everyone off. If nothing else it's original and bullshit-free, which are both vanishingly rare round these parts.
I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is the realization that as fucked up as it all is, sometimes it’s nihilism that makes life worth living.
or
Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he’d never heard a patient of color talk of needing “closure.” They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.

The problem with closure is that once you have a taste of it, you want it in every little aspect of your life. Especially when you’re bleeding to death, and your slave, who is in full rebellion, is screaming,... you attempt to stanch the bleeding with a waterlogged copy of Vibe magazine someone has left in the gutter. Kanye West has announced, “I am rap!” Jay-Z thinks he’s Picasso. And life is fucking fleeting.

Here's what I think is going on: It's hard to get through to people with the usual homilies and pieties, because they are deadened by cliché, bureaucratic muscle, tribalism, and historical ineffectuality. After hundreds of pages of troublingly hilarious japes (including ironic delight in old racist tv shows), Beatty has softened you up, left bare the old wound. That all may be healed, all must be shown.





(c) Richard Vogel (2016)

So, is the Sellout a charming pervert? A self-hating masochist? Or a nihilist with moral purpose?

Spoiler! It's the first and third. Beatty has no answer and is again brave enough to say so; the book's last page admits no synthesis can win over that particular sceptic: Obama isn't enough, nothing is enough:
I remember the day after the black dude was inaugurated, Foy Cheshire, proud as punch, driving around town in his coupe, honking his horn and waving an American flag. He wasn’t the only one celebrating; the neighborhood glee wasn’t O. J. Simpson getting acquitted or the Lakers winning the 2002 championship, but it was close. Foy drove past the crib and I happened to be sitting in the front yard husking corn. “Why are you waving the flag?” I asked him. “Why now? I’ve never seen you wave it before.” He said that he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid off its debts. “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?” I asked him.

He just shook his head at me. Said something to the effect that my father would be ashamed of me and that I’d never understand. And he’s right. I never will.


The protagonist segregates, and says things like this:
I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

And yet he is not a separatist; he knows it's wrong when the minorities are shouted out of the public space:
What the fuck you honkies laughing at?” he shouted. More chuckling from the audience. The white couple howling the loudest. Slapping the table. Happy to be noticed. Happy to be accepted. “I ain’t bullshitting! What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? Get the fuck out!”
There’s nothing funny about nervous laughter. The forced way it slogs through a room with the stop-and-start undulations of bad jazz brunch jazz. The black folks and the round table of Latinas out for a night on the town knew when to stop laughing. The couple didn’t. The rest of us silently sipped our canned beer and sodas, determined to stay out of the fray. They were laughing solo because this had to be part of the show, right?
“Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

No more laughter. Only pleading, unanswered looks for assistance, then the soft scrape of two chairs being backed, quietly as possible, away from the table. The blast of cold December air and the sounds of the street. The night manager shutting the doors behind them, leaving little evidence that the white people had ever been there except for an unfulfilled two-drink, three-donut minimum.

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 liked 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... but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?

Which is my laughter, but not my flight. The Sellout doesn't have an ism: they are all found wanting. I'm just glad it is still possible to explore this godforsaken crater of a subject without being screamed down. I'm glad Beatty didn't let it get to him, even if he leaves the Sellout hanging.





Scrap points:
  • What is the Sellout? He's a Compton agronomist fluent in Latin, with catholic taste and no respect for anything including himself.

  • The books it's most similar to are A Confederacy of Dunces, White Noise, Vile Bodies. (Nastier.)

  • What can we do ?
    • Assimilation: the mainstream view. The thought that races are not the intrinsic source of conflict, We all can get along - we just gotta, we gotta.

    • Separatism: the thought that races cannot successfully mix. Not the same as supremacism, conceptually speaking.

    • Supremacism: the thought that one race is better, more morally deserving. This is held to imply policy somehow. Black Power was ambivalent between separatism and supremacism.


  • What I don't think Beatty's doing:
    1. America is not post-racial.
    2. Therefore, make it more racial! intensify the contradictions!!!!

  • It's not just race - there's also a very rich satire of social science and its bullshit. (The Sellout's father is a mad sociologist.) And a loving depiction of stoner culture. And a loving portrayal of all L.A., though particularly Compton.

  • The distinction between racism as a theme and racism as a message is lost on some greener activists.

  • That crap about being better off under slavery is too much even for you, isn’t it, Foy?”
    “At least McJones cares.”
    “Come on, he cares about black people like a seven-footer cares about basketball. He has to care because what else would he be good at.

  • Godard approached filmmaking as criticism, the same way Marpessa approached bus driving.

  • Years back, the Guardian published some really clumsy provocation by one Orville Lloyd Douglas, "Why I hate being a black man":
    Honestly, who would want to be black? Who would want people to be terrified of you and not want to sit next to you on public transportation? ... Not discussing the issue doesn’t mean it goes away...

    I believe a dialogue about self-hatred should be brought to the fore in the public sphere, so that some sort of healing and the development of non-label-based pride can occur.

    While it's brave, as Beatty is brave, it lacks all his subtlety and comprehensiveness. I think Douglas accidentally elides between two meanings of 'black': Black-as-oppressed-subaltern vs black-as-very-recent-African-ancestry. Like: no one wants to be the first one; the proper solution is to break the contingent link between them. We just apparently don't know how.

  • I haven't looked at Eliminativism here, the idea that race is fictional and incoherent and we should stop even thinking about it. I think its practical upshot is colorblindness, too. Some people I respect are into it but this is long enough already without bringing in ontology.

Comments