Paul Beatty Writes Satire About Race In America

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sellout
by Paul Beatty

It’s difficult to pin down the exact day when post-racial America was born. Maybe it was when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, or when Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first African American member of the Supreme Court. Maybe it was when Barack Obama was elected president, or the first time a white person claimed to be “colorblind.” It’s honestly hard to tell, because as we keep seeing proved again and again, “post-racial America” is completely indistinguishable from what came before.

Enter the narrator of Paul Beatty’s new novel The Sellout. When we’re first introduced to him, he’s sitting in front of the Supreme Court, openly smoking marijuana and being berated by a furious associate justice. His crime, as he explains it to a police officer: “I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” Specifically, he owned a slave and resegregated public transportation and education in his hometown, making the charges a little more complicated. “I’m the Scopes monkey,” he reflects, “the missing link in the evolution of African-American jurisprudence come to life.”

Post-racial America or not, it’s hard to see how anything funny could come out of slavery, police violence, gangs and racial discrimination, all subjects Beatty tackles in his fourth novel. It’s the equivalent to an improv comedy troupe dedicating an entire performance to abortion. But somehow, The Sellout isn’t just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century.

Too many writers shy away from any discussions of race, especially when those discussions involve humor. Beatty is not one of them. The very first sentence of the book sets the tone: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” That’s the narrator, whose last name is Me, though he’s called “Bonbon” by his ex-girlfriend, “Massa” by his slave, and “Sellout” by his archrival, a frustrated intellectual named Foy Cheshire.

Our hero lives in Dickens, Calif., a city whose original charter mandated it “remain free of Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats, Frenchmen, redheads, city slickers, and unskilled Jews.” The town is now mostly African American and Latino, and the site of urban farms, many of which have gone to pot. (In the narrator’s case, that’s literally true — though he’s famous for his citrus, he makes money from selling marijuana and watermelons on horseback.) After the narrator’s father, a psychologist, is killed by police officers, he inherits the older man’s land — and not too long after, the town of Dickens is removed from the map.

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Michael Schaub

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