Paul Beatty’s 2016 novel The Sellout, is a satirical novel depicting race relations in modern America through the perspective of the narrator, a black man known as Bonbon, whose real name is never given and is brought before the Supreme Court for charges of segregation and enslavement. Despite the satirical nature of the text however the book poses serious questions about race relations and the legacy, which slavery, Jim Crow and segregation has had on America as a whole. It is this depiction of race and segregation, which I feel is the cornerstone of the text, especially as it relates to Bonbon’s relationship with Hominy Jenkins and his struggle to ensure that his hometown of Dickens does not succumb to the annals of time and the indifference of American society.
From its opening pages The Sellout portrays a humbling image of race in America as Bonbon confronts social strife, discrimination and police brutality. These problems are prevalent throughout the novel through popular culture references such as the Little Rascals, a serial of short films from the 1920’s and 30’s, which although featuring coloured actors portrays them in racially stereotypical ways ultimately representing the racist views of Hollywood during the era. This is reflected in the portrayal of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member, of the gang, who seems to be a call back to Jim Crow, calling Bonbon master, wanting to be punished and whipped like a slave and will purposefully wait for a white person to come so he can give up his seat on the bus to them, juxtaposing him with the Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks.
Despite the legacy of racism as represented by Hominy and The Little Rascals Bonbon largely is initially largely unaffected by racism, only facing discrimination once in his life when his father took him to a gas station where he was charged an inflated price for a bottle of coke based on his skin colour, but he still considers systemic racism as a thing of the past. However he ultimately finds this idea challenged by the killing of his own father at the hands of two white police officers, an event that is largely implied to be because his father was black, which I feel to be a scathing indictment against modern day America on the part of the author, especially in light of recent events such as Ferguson riots and more recently the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others.
Additionally when considering the depiction of race I feel that the relevance of the town of Dickens to the plot is important as it reflects a pseudo-history of the United States being that its original charter was set up to exclude minorities but has since become in effect the “last bastion of blackness” (Beatty, 150) However Dickens is ultimately a failing community and Bonbon sees its decline as something that he must stave off to hold back the white world that he feels was determined to crush them. It is this fear of being supplanted that encourages Bonbon to reanimate Dickens and to resist his community’s destruction at the hands of the American authorities, which do not seem to care about the lives of the largely black and Mexican inhabitants. This seeming indifference perhaps bordering on hostility to the minority population of the fictional community is in many ways reflected in the issues facing American society today.
This mindset is especially important to the crusade, which Bonbon takes upon himself to try and save Dickens, which leads him to the conclusion that the only way to save Dickens from obliteration is to reintroduce segregation as he feels the cultural decline he is witnessing is directly tied to the dispute on whether “integration is a natural or an unnatural state.” (Beatty, 168) This decision to implement a segregated system leads Bonbon to “putting ‘whites only’ signs on bus seats near the front, supporting an all-white school, and painting a boundary line along Dickens’ border,” (Delmagori, 417) measures with Hominy believes will make Dickens more appealing to future white resettlement.
Furthermore the position which Bonbon represents in the social hierarchy and the position of Dickens as a dying town forces him to conclude that the problems indicative to the black community “could be solved if we only had a motto,” (Beatty, 10) linking the struggle of the black man in America with the liberal and radical ideas of revolutionary and political movements such as those of the French Revolution. The relevance of a motto is significant as it showcases the revolutionary or militant mindset, which I feel Bonbon gradually develops during the course of the novel.
Overall I think it is ironic that the narrator wishes to reinstate a system, which the Civil Rights movement fought to abolish. However Bonbon’s desire to take this route seemingly implies that integration in American society has failed, that it is something that is broken to which the only response is a radical agenda and to undo the progress that has seemingly been made. Despite this however The Sellout is a socially aware novel that intricately “wrestles with the dialectic of racism and class inequality in a neoliberal climate” (Delmagori, 417) in an entertaining narrative to address the key issues facing modern day politics, issues which are especially prevalent with the ever deepening divide in the Democratic and Republican parties and the revival of presence of militias such as the not fucking around militia, which have taken up the battle cry calling for secession.
I Am Not Your Negro. Dir. Raoul Peck. Amazon Studios, 2016. Digital.
Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print.
Colter Walls, Seth, The Sellout by Paul Beatty review – a galvanizing satire of post-racial America https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-sellout-by-paul-beatty-review-galvanizing-satire-post-racial-america
Delmagori, Steven, Super Deluxe Whiteness: Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout
Jackson, Chris, Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/07/our-thing-an-interview-with-paul-beatty/
Millward, David, Armed black militia in America issues threat to build ‘own nation’ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/26/americas-race-protests-take-sinister-new-turn-show-force-armed/
Wilderson III, Frank B., Afropessimism