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 its basketball-playing, up-from-the-ghetto hero at Harvard. It appeared in a time when a number of memoirs were around about the sometimes-hurtful experiences of black students at elite educational institutions. Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout, in which a son redeems his father’s legacy and finds self-acceptance—and which has just won the 2016 Man Booker Prize—comes at a moment of distinguished yet earnest black father/black son memoirs. Whatever Beatty’s intent, an expansive writer takes over. You have to commit to his paragraphs and then keep up with his wolf packs of sentences.
The first-person narrator of The Sellout is a black man who has never been arrested for anything; nevertheless, in a suit he looks like a criminal, he tells us. He has received a letter from the Supreme Court congratulating him on behalf of the People of the United States of America that his case has been selected from a number of appellate cases to be heard. Included with the letter are coupons to restaurants in Washington, D.C., and directions for how to get to the Supreme Court building by car, subway, and train.
Dickens, California, his hometown, “a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles,” had disappeared, become a nameless suburb. No announcement, signs were simply taken away. Most of its residents didn’t mind being from nowhere. But to bring it back into existence, the narrator established slavery and segregation within Dickens’s former boundaries. For this “heinous” crime, he has been brought before the Supreme Court. “The officers stare at me in amazement. I’m the Scopes monkey, the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life.” The premise is quickly forgotten and what unfolds in flashback amounts to a vigorous trashing of new and old racial stereotypes and cultural assumptions:
When I was young I had a reputation for being extremely lucky. I never suffered from the typical ghetto maladies. I was never baby-shook. Never contracted rickets, ringworm, sickle-cell trait, lockjaw, early-onset diabetes, or the “’itis.” Hoodlums would jump my friends but leave me alone. The cops somehow never got around to putting my name on a scare card or my neck in a choke hold. I never had to live in the car for a week. No one ever mistook me for that punk who shot, raped, snitched on, impregnated, molested, welched, disrespected, neglected, or fucked over someone’s peoples.
The narrator is not exactly nameless. A descendant of “the Kentucky Mees,” one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles, his father dropped the final e. Thus, the Supreme Court case “09-2606” is “Me v. the United States of America.” In Dickens he is known by his nickname, “the Sellout.” His ex-girlfriend and only love calls him “Bonbon.” He couldn’t care less about being black, he says. On the US Census form, next to the box marked “Some other race,” he proudly writes “Californian.” But when challenged he will sign next to the box marked “Black, African-American, Negro, coward.” What drive he has does not come from race pride, but rather from “the Oedipal yen.” The desire “to please Father” is powerful even in a neighborhood like his where fatherhood mostly happens “in absentia.” His problem was that “Daddy was always home.”
Me, “the Sellout,” grew up on a farm in an agricultural zone of Dickens with a few farm animals, lemon groves, grapevines, and fields of wheat and Japanese rice. He goes about the town on a horse. In the course of the novel, people crowd onto his property because the smell of manure is preferable to “the Stank” elsewhere in Dickens, Beatty’s black version of the Santa Ana winds.
The narrator never knew his mother, who was a paralegal in Atlanta when he finally tracked her down. He was homeschooled. His first scientific paper, written at age seven, concerned the LA municipal bus system, “Passenger Seating Tendencies by Race and Gender: Controlling for Class, Age, Crowdedness, and Body Odor.” His father, who dodged the Vietnam War draft by fleeing to Canada, was a pioneer of the field of “Liberation Psychology,” replicating famous social science experiments with his son, particularly aversion therapies.
Once when the narrator told his father there was no racism in America, he found himself whisked off to Mississippi, where his father tried to provoke a white mob:
Thanks to years of my father’s black vernacular pop quizzes and an Ishmael Reed book he kept on top of the toilet for years, I knew that “reckless eyeballing” was the act of a black male deigning to look at a southern white female.
His father advised him “to stay away from bitches who love Nina Simone and have faggots for best friends,” because they are the kind of women who hate men. The narrator also remembers that during Black History Month his father would look at the old news footage of Freedom buses burning and caution him, “You can’t force integration, boy.” When he suggested that the slaves might have had a better attitude had they thought of their labor as gardening, his father gave him a beating that would have made Kunta Kinte wince.
Me’s father founded “the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals” back when he noticed that the donut shop was the only non-Latino or black-owned business not burned during the riots. “My father recognized the donut shop was the one place in Dickens where niggers knew how to act.” Donut shop patrons passed back and forth the nondairy creamer and respected Pew Research Center data. Under his father’s direction, the shop began to host regular debates. “And in ten years,” Me tells us,
through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, people of color, like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension, I hadn’t spoken a single word.
His father was also the town’s “Nigger Whisperer,” the guy who defused violent situations involving black people on payday. Every Friday night he was “inundated by teeming hordes of the bipolar poor” getting off the couch to commit either suicide or murder. But in time the father himself ended up a “bullet-riddled body.” Following a traffic incident, police officers shot him in the back. Me couldn’t even bring himself to curse the system. He went off to agricultural college:
Although they’re not hard to grow, and I’ve been selling them for years, folks still go crazy at the sight of a square watermelon. And like that black president, you’d think that after two terms of looking at a dude in a suit deliver the State of the Union address, you’d get used to square watermelons, but somehow you never do.
His satsuma oranges and marijuana plants are superb.
In Beatty’s funhouse revision of social reality things mostly turn out to be something else. That white lynch mob isn’t provoked when the narrator whistles Ravel at a particular white woman. One of them asks if there is “a black buck” she hadn’t fucked “from here to Natchez.” “Well, least she knows what she likes. Your dumb peckerwood ass still ain’t decided whether you like men or not.”
After his father is killed, he muses, “I’d like to say, ‘I buried my father in the backyard and that day I became a man,’ or some other droll American bullshit, but all that happened was that day I became relieved.” The police aren’t held accountable in the killing of his father, but he is able to buy the farm his father never could with the $2 million settlement from the wrongful death suit.
Some people would seem to have their blackness thrust upon them, and in the years since his father’s death Me speaks of having had the courage to wear his self-hatred on his sleeve. Still the neighborhood looks to him to become “the next Nigger Whisperer.” But he is not the natural his father was. While the father seems to be Beatty’s poke at the didactic, contradictory, bullying, sometimes violent, sadistic, race-proud black father figure in recent memoirs, his legacy is nevertheless felt as a serious burden for Me. Me says he didn’t know how to be himself after the disappearance of both his father and his hometown.
He meets others whose blackness is in as bad shape as his own. “Being black ain’t method acting. Lee Strasberg could teach you how to be a tree, but he couldn’t teach you how to be a nigger.” It is Hominy Jenkins, the last of the Little Rascals, who gives Me the idea for how to bring back Dickens. Because his town has lost its identity, so has he. Me’s protective relationship with Hominy, the depraved, has-been black child actor, says that maybe he feels as lost as the relic of bug-eyed, coon-style black comedy. “If he could have figured out a way to stand up on bended knee, he would have.”
Beatty can’t resist inventing one outrageous Little Rascals episode after another for Hominy to relish and regret. Moreover, he has Hominy beg Me to enslave and whip him. Beatty may be sending up another stereotype, yet so much attention to the servile figure of Hominy creates sympathy for him, strangely enough. “That’s the beauty of minstrelsy—its timelessness.” It also gives us a sense of unease: the culture was supposed to be done with this kind of black guy. Me notes how lucid Hominy is when he describes life on the Little Rascals set and begins to see him as someone who has been through something and emerged with his humanity after all.
The black clown is both scapegoat and sage, Beatty says in his introduction to Hokum, and “nigger-themed jokes” are folklore. In The Sellout, the narrator asserts something uncharacteristic, middlebrow, and sentimental: that history isn’t what’s written on paper. “It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” He has encounters with gang leaders, school teachers, a faded talk show host, a slick attorney, and the secondary characters debate with him, but the characters who matter, more so than even his ex-girlfriend—who tells him she didn’t mind dating a black man who couldn’t fuck, but she refused to date a black man with no sense of humor—are the two father figures, Hominy Jenkins and Me’s father, one representing his feelings of shame, the other his craving for retribution.
Whites laughing at blacks, blacks laughing at whites because they don’t understand what they’re laughing at, blacks laughing at themselves, at other blacks, for the right or wrong reasons—Beatty’s dissent is to saturate the page with riff after riff on the great accumulation of racist imagery in the culture, especially popular entertainment. Comedy has been that place where what could not be said elsewhere got an airing. A safe place for blacks to be in the know, to be in the right.
Satire by black writers in American literature has been aimed at blacks as much as if not more than at whites. It’s partly how they got away with it. The Sellout makes jokes throughout about the collective guilt of blacks that somehow keeps them from showing up for work Monday mornings and “shooting every white motherfucker in the place.” The black comic heritage of laughing to keep from crying, of laughing in order to keep going, is anger management.
“Apartheid united black South Africa,” Me comments; “why couldn’t it do the same for Dickens?” In Dickens, “the supposed Murder Capital of the World,” everyone is black, regardless of race, and degree of blackness is not determined by skin tone or hair texture, “but by whether they said ‘For all intents and purposes’ or ‘For all intensive purposes.’” A gang leader applied for membership in NATO.
Me castrates a calf, and a little girl gets into it as gruesomely as possible. Schoolchildren take part in a book burning. The torched works belong to a series in which the classics are rewritten from a supposedly Afrocentric point of view: Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Point Guard in the Rye, The Great Blacksby, or The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.
Early on, Me segregates the bus system. (His ex-girlfriend is a bus driver, so plenty of comedy—and reflection—ensues.) The route is already all black or Latino because of residential segregation and he has to struggle to find a white passenger. Nevertheless, the signs for white and colored on the bus have the effect, he says, of making black people humble, of reminding them how far they’d come and how far they still had to go. In the segregated school, grades and test scores show improvement. They need a certain kind of white person who comes to LA “aspiring to be white…Bel Air white…Bret Easton Ellis white. Three first names white.” Their presence makes black students tuck in their shirts, do their homework, make free throws, and prove their self-worth in the hope of not getting shot or trucked away.
Even so, Döllersheim, Austria, birthplace of Hitler’s maternal grandfather, declines Dickens’s invitation to be its sister city. Me must accept the offer from
the Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolaño’s prose.
What blacks and whites now have in common is the complaint “Too many Mexicans.” Me doubts that the murder, mental anguish, rape, and rampant disease that his ancestors experienced was worth it just so he could have Wi-Fi, “no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.” The Sellout keeps telling us that he is a black man who is a weak man, or used to be. “Maybe I was like every other contemporary artist, I had only one good book, one album, one despicable act of large-scale self-hatred in me.” Probably his relationship to himself, his own identity, and his ambivalent experience of blackness is the most mysterious in the novel. “On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed.” And yet in the end the narrator is a success, He has put Dickens back on the map, and the Supreme Court case is nowhere.
Race is a nightmare we can’t escape. If we can’t get out or wake up, then Beatty’s defiance is in his absurdist treatment of it. Often there are two or three jokes per sentence. There is rage in such compression. Me says of one comedian on open-mike night at the donut shop that he did more than tell jokes: “He plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” The comedian throws out a white couple that thinks they can laugh at his race jokes:
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…. 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.
Black comedy here is still for a black audience first, because it is a form of instruction or criticism as well as a freeing ritual.
Black militants used to argue that black separatism was nothing like segregation, that it was a coming together in order to find strength, but you wonder if Beatty really means to portray Dickens as a testing of the argument. Me’s father feels strongly that integration can be just a cover-up, and Me himself is skeptical about equality and well-off, right-on people who say they, too, are for it. He doesn’t trust history either. It is easy to say what this novel is about and harder to describe what it might mean. Beatty’s phrases are not empty. He loads them for reasons, probably among the first having to do with the arduousness of being black, the profound self-consciousness of being black; and he has an astonishing facility to invest his takeoffs on racial images with the old power of tribal code.
Beatty is as unafraid as Ishmael Reed to be bookish in his argumentative blackness. He writes, “Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction.” And it’s not clear that he admires that. The Sellout is fast with references to Fanon, Kafka, Twain, Trey Ellis, Genet, Tolstoy, Erich Maria Remarque, Virginia Woolf, Gwendolyn Brooks, and ghetto verses in the style of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” The book’s freedom of composition and use of different fonts, foreign languages, relentless puns, mottoes, lists, and one chart also recall the irreverence and cleverness of Fran Ross. Beatty said that it was important to him when he found her weird novel, Oreo.
The ex-girlfriend asks when Me first fell in love with her. He remembers that it was when she went off on his father in the Dum Dum book club he’d convinced her to join. He said she said:
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!