The Sellout: Satsumas, Shootouts, and the Unreachable Utopia

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.

Gang graffiti in Compton’s Fruit Town

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.

From Cross’s Article

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.

Works Cited: 

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/

6 thoughts on “The Sellout: Satsumas, Shootouts, and the Unreachable Utopia

  1. Hi Amy,

    Well done on tackling the most difficult text on the module so far! There’s so much cultural and historical referencing to wade through that it must have been difficult, but I really enjoyed your slant towards utopianism.

    The character of Me is particularly difficult to gauge. You root his personal utopia in the farm, which he almost purposely and defiantly marks with racial iconography (the weed, watermelons and eventually Hominy). Do you think it’s enough of a utopian ideal for Me that the continued existence of racism, segregation and Dickens itself is recognised?

    Moreover, Beatty continues to bombard his readership with his discomfiting commentary on ‘post-racial’ America through the character of Me, but do you think that Hominy is a part of this, or does he represent something different entirely? Hominy searches for utopia in the past, and seems to find a sense of agency and peace in deference. I can’t help but wonder if his determination to be a slave is saying something more broadly about the ability of power structures to institutionalise individuals.

    Overall, a very interesting read!

    – Chelsea

    1. Hi Chelsea,

      Thank you for your comment!

      You make a really interesting point there. I guess you could say that the recognition of the continued existence of racism, segregation, and Dickens itself is a utopian ideal in itself for Me. I had always considered him to be somewhat apathetic, but when you consider things this way, then it appears that his utopia possibly doesn’t fall so flat in the end.Viewing things this way might also render the text less bleak and absurd. Maybe there is hope that if racism is addressed, things will change?

      In regard to Hominy, I also found him quite a hard character to place. It would be interesting to look at him more closely in the text to figure out if his ideas of utopia are quite what we think them to be, or if, as you say, he speaks to less individualised issues.

      Best,

      Amy

  2. I take Paul Beatty to be doing two things rather successfully:
    1. Jarring his audience with ‘outrageous’ attempts at humor and
    2. Making a lot of money with this book
    There seems to be no room for any political discourse to surface. Making light of racist attitudes tend to show Beatty’s own racial prejudices, playing them off as jokes.

    It is all well and good to write a novel about racism in America. But the novel should reflect what is actually happening: fictional characters in the non-fiction reality. As soon as Beatty’s narration delves into comedic banter, he loses all credibility as a critique of American society and joins the ranks.

    But, after winning The Man Booker prize, does any criticism really matter? What else is there to say? If the book is really about race, it doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to the popularity and monetary concern that round out the bottom line.

  3. Hi Amy,

    I really enjoyed your interpretation of the utopias placed within this novel and I particularly liked the part stating ‘it is not the laugh or else approach … it is the laugh because’ as I think this is exactly what Beatty is attempting to do with this novel.

    As you have mentioned, from this novel we get the sense that the satirisation of post race is due to the fact that post race unfortunately does not exist. I wonder then, with this being a primary topic within the novel, what aspects fall under the category of satire? Taking the example of utopia and the constant dismantlement of such, does Beatty satirise this because he wants to make a point of the absurdity of post race? Or does he satirise this knowing that the unfortunate reality is that we still have not reached a post race era? Also, is it part of the satire to have the characters so dependent and expectant on what is perceived as an unachievable utopia? Or is he simply trying to highlight the sad reality we live in?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    Stephanie

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I think talking about Beatty and satire is really, really interesting, and I’m honestly not sure where I stand on the topic in relation to The Sellout. Obviously, it very much sets itself up to be labelled as such.

      Beatty says some really interesting things about it here (https://scroll.in/article/827378/satire-is-an-easy-word-to-just-hide-behind-paul-beatty-on-his-man-booker-winning-novel) though, and whilst I know we shouldn’t take the author’s word as the ultimate truth, it is a good read.

      I do think that he wishes to highlight the sad reality that we live in, however, which works really well in contrast to the novel’s humour. I guess we all, whether we know it or not, depend on something or someone, and by setting this up in light of racial issues, Beatty is able to darkly, and humorously comment on our flawed human position.

      Best,

      Amy

  4. Hi Amy, Brilliant Post.

    I really liked how you engaged with the concept of a “racial utopia” to deconstruct “post-racial” ideology. As Chelsea has already pointed out, Hominy presents an interesting hurdle to this assessment.

    I believe that Hominy completely dismantles the idea of a post-racial world. Having taken on an Uncle Tom persona in The Little Rascals and lived though Jim Crow, Hominy’s identity is the by-product of racist structures. Franz Fanon, in “Black Skin, White Masks,” suggests that the costume forced on black people in this era became part of their identity. (22) Insofar as Hominy began to identity with the racial structures forced upon him, the new era of post-racial politics and political correctness stripped him of this identity. Perhaps, his reversion into slavery is an attempt to redefine himself? In other words, his utopia is a recognition of himself?

    As you have mentioned, Hominy is a difficult character to place. I would, however, love to know your thoughts.

    Lauren.

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