I’d be overdoing it to class Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout alongside Gulliver’s Travels, but the same idea is behind both books–helping us see clearly the craziness in the world by taking some of the craziness to its logical conclusion. Jonathan Swift was more extreme in suggesting the Irish poor sell their children to the rich English to eat, but writing a novel about reintroducing slavery and segregation is touching raw nerves. Luckily the rich humour in the book should calm even the most sensitive, although one American friend said she had to stop reading the book half way through.
Me, the narrator, makes Hominy his slave because Hominy begs him to. Hominy is the only survivor of the Little Rascals, a series of short films of a gang of poor children made in the 40s. Hominy was the funny black boy in the white gang. He grew up with casual racism, and he hankers after it. Perhaps too he liked the idea of being beaten once a week. Me discovers that having a slave, especially a lazy one, is hard work and ultimately hires a dominatrix to do the weekly beating. Everybody is happy.
The next step to make Hominy happy is to put up a sign above the seats on the front third of the bus that passes through Dickens, the black ghetto where Me and Hominy live, that says:
PRIORITY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED, AND WHITES.
Unfortunately Dickens is so black that a white person never gets on the bus. Hominy sits waiting for one. Eventually Me hires a white whore to ride the bus. Hominy gives up his seat with joy, and the bus diverts to a Pacfic beach for skinny dipping.
The unforeseen result of reintroducing segregation (when there aren’t actually any whites anyway) is that the bus becomes by far the best behaved bus in Los Angeles–no crime, no hustling, everybody sensitive and polite.
The logical next step is to introduce segregation into schools. As there are no whites, Me does this by creating an all-white school that is beautiful looking but has no pupils. But people don’t know that. The Dickens school opposite the white school immediately sees its grades and scores improve, so that late in the book rich white parents want to bus their children to the school. (Remember the rows over bussing.) They are denied entry, and eventually Me is arrested and charged on multiple accounts.
But what exactly has he done wrong? The case gets to the Supreme Court, where one of the justices summarises the case thus: “I think that we’ve established the legal quandary here as whether a violation of civil rights law that results in the very same achievement these heretofore mentioned statutes were meant to promote, yet have failed to achieve, is in fact a breach of civil rights.”
Like Swift, Beatty is using satire and comedy to make a social and political point: despite a black president the US is as racist as ever: “The racism is as rampant as usual, but no more virulent than a day trip to the Arizona state legislature.” Indeed, as it’s fashionable to argue right now that having a black president may have led to a “backlash” that gives the US Trump and more racism than ever. Certainly there seem to have been a spate of blacks being gunned down by policemen.
Beatty discusses how difficult it is in the US and many other (perhaps all) countries to talk about race and how in the US “race” means blacks: “When folks say, “Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?” What they really mean is “Why can’t you niggers be reasonable?” or “Fuck you, white boy. If I said what I really wanted to say, I’d get fired even faster than you’d fire me if race were any easier to talk about.” And by race we mean “niggers” because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America’s newest race, the Celebrity.”
I enjoyed Me’s confusion over what to plead when before the Supreme Court: “I stood before the court trying to figure out if there was a state between “guilty” and “innocent.” Why were these the only alternatives? I thought. Why couldn’t I be “neither” or “both”? “Your Honor, I plead human.”
We should all plead human, with all its implications of contradiction, confusion, muddled thinking, bad urges, and lack of understanding. Beatty describes this as “Unmitigated Blackness,” which “is the acceptance of contradiction to being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.” That makes me unmitigated black.
Beatty is about both moving beyond race and celebrating blackness, positions that don’t seem to me comfortably compatible. This is how the book ends, as Obama is elected:
He [a Black activist, albeit a phoney one] said that he felt like the country, the United States of America had finally paid off its debts [by electing a Black president]. “And 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 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.”
- I’ve failed in this commentary to illustrate the comedy in this book. It’s funnier than Gulliver’s Travels and on every page, but it’s but not laugh-out-loud comedy, which I find is rare in books (probably because you read books alone).
- I was tempted to use the word “nigger” when writing these reflections. The book is full of the word, and it’s used rather like fuck to add pepper to a sentence. As you can see above, I felt able to use the word in a quote–and now I’ve used it self-consciously in this note. But will I ever be able to use it freely? I doubt it. The word carries more baggage than any other.
- The similarity between this winner of the Booker Prize and the previous winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, struck me: both are black books, both funny, both savage, both set in ghettos. What might this mean?