In the supposed ‘post-racial’ age of the 21st century, Paul Beatty, through his prize winning novel The Sellout, urges us to reconsider the racial state of American society. The reintroduction of segregation to the small town of Dickens (based on modern day Compton) by the novel’s protagonist, Me, and his position as a slaveowner (albeit forcibly), bring him before the American Supreme Court, charged with serious offences. These ‘racist’ acts – perpetrated by a black man – which are seemingly unthinkable in our post-Civil Rights age, force us, as contemporary readers, to face up to the ways in which blatant, or more subtle forms of racism are rampant now, in what is often misleadingly construed as a racially idyllic and open-minded age.
As Me lies with a bleeding gunshot wound, in the care of a sympathetic deputy sheriff, he states that the reason his strivings for a new and better Dickens have been quite literally shot down is that he ‘whispered racist in a post-racial world’ (Beatty 262). In order to examine the position of race in contemporary society, I believe that Beatty sets up collective and individual goals of utopia in and through his characters.
By setting up and subsequently dismantling these utopias – all of which have a focus on the experience of ‘blackness’ – Beatty assures us that the notion of ‘post-race’ is nonsensical, exposing that at their very essence they are permeated by issues of race. Beatty strays away from engaging with the ‘Orwellian dystopic’ (‘Introduction’) that he observes in many contemporary satires, however. It is not the ‘laugh or else’ (‘Introduction’) position that Beatty takes, but the laugh because. His notions of the unreachable utopia are more tied to the absurdity of ‘post-race’ than its menace.
William Cross Jr.’s paper on black identity ‘The Negro-To-Black Conversion Experience’ features heavily, in a reimagined form credited to F.K Me, towards the end of the text. Beatty sets the text up as a psychological experiment from its very beginning, however. F.K’s stages of blackness are labelled ‘Neophyte Negro’ (Beatty 275) (the negro ‘afraid of his own blackness’ (Beatty 275)), ‘Captial B Black’ (‘heightened awareness of race’ (Beatty 275)), and ‘Race Transcendentalism’ (Beatty 275) (‘collective consciousness that fights oppression and seeks serenity’ (Beatty 277)). It seems that no matter which character we speak of in The Sellout, they flit between stages; all seeking for the serenity and utopia spoken of in stage three.
The utopia imagined by F.K is one in which his son, and subsequently the black nations, prove his psychological studies to be correct, and therefore meaningful. Me states, ‘If there is a heaven worth the effort that people to get there, then I hope for my father’s sake there’s a celestial psychology journal’ (Beatty 36). When his efforts to create the idealised black man out of Me fail, Me is considered ‘A statistically insignificant son who’d shattered his hopes for me and the black race’ (Beatty 34). F.K is later shot arbitrarily by the police (mirroring the experience of many black men) having never seen his dreams fulfilled. This is when the idea of the utopia initially fails, and is revealed to us within the first few pages. F.K, then, is the uttermost example of a black individual with an unreachable utopia.
Take the notion of blackness put forward by the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. The group, and the donut shop, can be considered literal utopias for its members. The building has utopian value as ‘the only non-Latino or black-owned business that wasn’t burned and pillaged in the riots’ (Beatty 45).
With the death of founder, F.K, the dynamic of this group changes – ‘Since my father’s death, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals had devolved into a group of star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics who met bimonthly to fawn of the semi famous Foy Cheshire.’ (Beatty 93). Even if they have nothing to contribute, or outright disagree with the standpoints of the group, individuals are present, standing quietly in the corner, or munching on donuts. The idea of an African-American group that meets to talk solely of their past and future development appeals to even the most base members of society (aka King Cuz) as a utopia of sorts. The group eventually stop meeting, however, and even this dream of ‘revoultion’ (Beatty 45) seemingly dies.
Me’s literal utopia can be found on the farm (as can be said of many Dickens’s inhabitants), and he strives to make the entirety of Dickens a utopia by the means of segregation – ‘I agonised over my satsumas and segregation. How do you grow the world’s most water sensitive citrus tree in monsoon conditions? How do you racially segregate an already segregated school?’ (Beatty 165).
Whilst he watches the fruit come to full growth, reinstating segregation in Dickens, although seemingly fruitful in regards to academic work, ultimately results in Me being shot and dragged in front of the Supreme Court. The satsumas are separate from racial issues, the utopian dream for Dickens is not. Here lies the fundamental difference. As Astrada notes, ‘the realities of pre- and post-segregation Dickens (as defined by the “white’s only” sign) are by objective standards the same (if defined by poverty, demographic segregation, and disenfranchisement)’ (115).
Cross’s theory held under the terms that African-American peoples ‘have been liberated, psychologically speaking, despite continued oppression’ (14). Notably, he rewrote his theory multiple times in the years following its publication, rendering it, as Beatty states, ‘less tied to gender, less tied to a nationalist sense of black consciousness… [and] the essay became weirdly less about race as he adjusted it’ (Jackson) – yet it is still ultimately about race. It is this continued oppression in the 21st century, not altogether far removed from the 1970s in which Cross wrote, that I believe renders it acceptable for Beatty to satirise the idea of the ‘post-racial’ age. His characters may be liberated, but their achievable utopias are limited to those outside of racial issues.
Astrada, Scott. ‘Home and Dwelling: Re-Examining Race and Identity Through Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout’. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy. Vol XXV, No 1 (2017), pp. 105-120.
Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.
Beatty, Paul. ’Introduction’. Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, edited by Paul Beatty, Bloomsbury, 2006, pp. 1-12.
Cross, William E.. ’The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience’. Black World 20.9 (1971), pp.13–27.
Fruit Town Brims – Rap Dictionary – Google Search, https://goo.gl/images/apq2kp
Jackson, Chris. ‘Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty’. The Paris Review. May 7, 2015, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/07/our-thing-an-interview-with-paul-beatty/