The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel and winner of the Man Booker Prize, is a wildly free-wheeling satire of race relations in the United States that seems designed to offend just about everyone, several times over.
At its witty, angry, bitter heart, though, it has a message.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the central character — whose last name is Me and whose first name is never given — ruminates on the surprising byproducts of his seemingly nihilistic campaign to resegregate his small city of Dickens and its black population. It’s causing good things to happen, and he starts to get an idea of why:
Charisma had intuitively grasped the psychological subtleties of my plan even as it was just starting to make sense to me. She understood the colored person’s desire for the domineering white presence, which the Wheaton Academy represented. Because she knew that even in these times of racial equality, when someone whiter than us, richer than us, blacker than us, Chineser than us, better than us, whatever than us, comes around throwing their equality in our faces, it brings out our need to impress, to behave, to tuck in our shirts, do our homework, show up on time, make our free throws, teach, and prove our self-worth in hopes that we won’t be fired, arrested, or trucked away and shot.
I think what the character and Beatty are saying is that the pretense of integration and equality muddies the water. It sets up false expectations and is a trick-bag.
As Me himself notes at one point:
Here, in America, “integration” can be a cover-up. “I’m not racist. My prom date, second cousin, my president is black (or whatever).: The problem is that we don’t know whether integration is natural or an unnatural state.
“The specter of segregation”
Me comes up with a variety of actions that, at first, seemsto be simply guerilla theater — an effort to re-create his small all-black city of Dickens by painting a white line down the center of streets which used to form its borders, the posting of a “whites only” sign on certain seats on a city bus, the creation through a set of billboards of a soon-to-come (but actually fake) “all-whites” school Wheaton Academy across the street from an all-black school and his acceptance of a former Little Rascals actor, Hominy Jenkins, as his not-very-attentive slave.
These efforts highlight the reality of racism and poverty in the U.S., and, through what comes to be a self-imposed segregation, “brings out our need to impress…”
For instance, the bus that has the “whites only” signs is driven by Me’s once- and future-girlfriend Marpessa, and Charisma, the deputy principal at the all-black school, tells Me about how those signs have impacted Dickens, saying:
“Ever since you put those signs up, Marpessa’s bus has been the safest place in the city. She’d forgotten all about them, too, until her shift supervisor pointed out she hadn’t had an incident report since Hominy’s birthday party. But then she started thinking about it. How people were treating each other with respect. Saying hello when they got on, thank you when they got off. There’s no gang fighting. Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids do their homework? No home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.”
At another point, Charisma says:
“It’s like the specter of segregation has brought the city of Dickens back together again.”
“Die right now”
Dickens had been its own city, but, at some point in the recent past, when no one was looking, it had been legislatively erased off the map. Now, the community is part of Los Angeles, and its people are simply a few drops in the ocean of the LA population.
Me’s painting of the lines to re-assert the border and existence of Dickens make the city’s people again a group set apart. And that gives them a feeling of specialness. As Marpessa explains:
“Soon as we crossed that white line you painted, it was like, you know, when you enter a banging-ass house party and shit’s bumping, and you get that thump in your chest and you be like, if I were to die right now, I wouldn’t give a fuck. It was like that. Crossing the threshold.
Patrick T. Reardon