Laughing to Keep from Crying

The Sellout

by Paul Beatty
Picador, 288 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Paul Beatty, New York City, April 2015; photograph by Gregg Delman
Gregg Delman
Paul Beatty, New York City, April 2015; photograph by Gregg Delman

Nothing is sacred. Paul Beatty as an African-American satirist is like his great predecessor Ishmael Reed in his willingness to say not just anything about racial politics and American culture, but what feels like something that had to be said once he’d said it. In his introduction to Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006), Beatty recalls (or pretends to recall) that the summer before he entered ninth grade, having read Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, and E.L. Doctorow when he was eight years old, he received Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, from his Los Angeles school district. It was the first work by a black writer that he’d known, he claims:

I made it through the first couple of pages or so before a strong sense of doom overwhelmed me and I began to get very suspicious…. I ventured another paragraph, growing ever more oppressed with each maudlin passage. My lips thickened. My burrheaded afro took on the appearance and texture of a dried-out firethorn bush…. My eyes started to water and the words to “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” a Negro spiritual I’d never heard before, poured out of my mouth in a surprising sonorous baritone. I didn’t know I could sing. Quickly, I tossed the book into the kitchen trash. For a black child like myself who was impoverished every other week while waiting for his mother’s bimonthly paydays, giving me a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the educational equivalent of giving the prairie Indians blankets laced with smallpox or putting saltpeter in a sailor’s soup. I already knew why the caged bird sings, but after three pages of that book I now know why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage, so he can wallow in his own misery.

This is disdain for Maya Angelou the middlebrow writer. “Thank goodness they didn’t send me her poems.” In his work Beatty argues for a complex black cultural identity, a definition of self not wholly determined by what the larger society or the hood has planned for you. Angelou’s handbag of tears is easy to mock. Beatty’s real target might be the tendency in the education of black youth to urge them to read in order to identify with a work, to value it first of all because they can see themselves in it. He would seem to be someone who has achieved through his reading a sense of what is possible in the wider world, as Ralph Ellison said of Richard Wright. Beatty is also resisting the heaviness of the black autobiographical tradition itself.

Indeed, his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle (1996), is an exuberant parody of the coming-of-age story, with…

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