Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

”…when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.”
My copy of this novel is spiked with tabs marking something deeply insightful, stabbingly funny, or needing revisiting. There is simply too much to point to: Beatty has been cogitating a long time about race relations in America to cram so much into this relatively short novel. He never tells us why his fictional California town is named Dickens—it can’t be about the author—but I think it has to do with a classic American imprecation “Go to [the] Dickens!” though I am certainly willing to be challenged on this supposition. Dickens is also used as an exclamatory “What the dickens!” standing in for “What the F@*k!” in marginally polite white dialogue, and perhaps even in the L’il Rascals film archives, though I am going to have to check on that.
"They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person."
Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me, is the sellout. He just doesn’t seem to get the “black” thing. He identifies as human first, black second. Beatty doesn’t target black folk alone. Everyone is skewered everyone in this wild ride through a Los Angeles southwest suburb that still has farm zoning, allowing families to live among livestock, chickens, cotton, watermelon, and weed. A proud descendant of the Kentucky family called Mee and one whose forefather subsequently dropped the extraneous “e,” our narrator Bonbon Me has a case before the Supreme Court, a “screw-faced” black Justice, about his ownership of a slave in the present day. That alleged slave, Hominy Jenkins, literally declaimed his status one day to our narrator as a result of Me still having agricultural interests and therefore probably needing a slave. Hominy moved in. What could Me do?

Well, shortly after rapacious real estate developers convinced officials to remove signs demarking the township of Dickens, Me made and put up new signs and drew a white line around the streets and houses comprising Dickens and re-segregated: “No Whites Allowed.” One may be curious why he would do this, since the town was already black, but he felt he was saving something, making a point. They can’t just muscle in and erase a town…a culture…a people. That’s not fairness. People actually do care if you are white, brown, black or yellow. Sellout Bonbon had mused for some that if the black community in Dickens just took “their racial blinders off for one second, they’d realize [Dickens] was no longer black but predominantly Latino.” So he was just making Dickens “equal” by excluding whites. It’s not discrimination exactly. It’s equality.
"The Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s getting a taste of mother’s milk. It’s constitutional pornography in there…and what…about obscenity? I know it when I see it…Me vs. the United States of America demands a more fundamental examination of what we mean by ‘separate,’ by ‘equal,’ by ‘black.’"
Beatty demurs when critics point out his work as a satire. It isn’t, he says. It’s reportage. The material in this book is, in fact, observable in everyday America.
"Black people don’t even talk about race. Nothing’s attributable to color anymore. It’s all ‘mitigating circumstances.’ The only people discussing ‘race’ with any insight and courage are loud middle-aged white men…well-read open-minded white kids…a few freelance journalists in Detroit…"
Author interviews with Beatty are some of the most uncomfortable I have ever read or heard. Beatty stutters and avoids, sometimes flat out refuses to entertain a question. (Examples: Boston NPR WBUR Onpoint, and Ebony.) Beatty clearly doesn’t like talking about “what his book means.” He wants his book to start the conversation. We’re supposed to be telling him what it means…to us…as individuals rather than as a class. He says often in interviews, “I am uncomfortable talking about this.” He does not appear to be uncomfortable writing about what he sees and what he thinks about what he sees, so folks interested in making him a spokesperson for black people will have to turn to his writing. But there aren’t answers there, either, really. It is just raw material for the discussion we are all meant to have.

In a reading Beatty gave at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Beatty told the audience that he teaches a writing course at Columbia University and one of his students said to him, “I feel sorry for you guys” as though the race issue were finished, and is nothing now compared with yesterday. Beatty was shocked. It reminded me of young, upwardly mobile women saying they don’t experience sexism today.

Me, I incline towards Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Not that money will fix anything. It is the discussion about reparations that might fix something. Nigerian novelist Chris Abani, in a riveting conversation with Walter Mosley, says "America has had a unique relationship with blackness that, say, Europe really hasn’t had. As much as people like to pretend, slavery isn’t really over."

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