Race and the Legacy of Segregation in The Sellout

From Cairo to Moscow: how the world reacted to Ferguson | US news | The  Guardian

Gary Boal

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.

George Floyd street art in Berlin

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.

Dorothy Counts attending a North Carolina school

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.

Primary Sources

I Am Not Your Negro. Dir. Raoul Peck. Amazon Studios, 2016. Digital.

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print.

Secondary Sources

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

7 thoughts on “Race and the Legacy of Segregation in The Sellout

  1. I enjoyed your exploration of race and the legacy of slavery in Beatty’s text, Gary; I particularly liked your observation that black “integration in American society has failed” and is “broken”, suggesting that Beatty’s response has the effect of undoing the “progress that has seemingly been made” in America.

    This notion is highlighted by Bon Bon on p.167 – ‘”Segregate the school.” As soon as I said it, I realised that segregation would be the key to bringing Dickens back.’ He essentially undoes the work of the Civil Rights Movement in one line, and I think this confrontational approach is important when considering Beatty’s text as a whole. I feel that this text is a loud scream (and disturbing laugh) at/against solidified race and class systems in America. By shifting between dark humour and absurdities, he places the reader in an uncomfortable no-mans land of feeling.

    I also want to add that I felt overwhelmed by the text, perhaps that’s why it took me so long to finish. It seems that every other line has a witty, disturbing claim about contemporary American society that deserves the time to be aptly unpacked. I think I definitely need to re-read it at some point.

  2. I enjoyed your blog post Gary, I felt that you raised a lot of interesting points. I wasn’t actually aware of the Not Fucking Around Coalition so that is something I will have to research at a later point.

    I agree that the novel is very socially aware, I think it displays a sort of nihilistic defeat through Hominy and the bus scene, raising questions on the apparent success of racial integration. I think Beatty wants to question this, is our system broken? Or is the systemic and violent oppression which black people face exactly how it was made to function? The reader’s discomfort in reaction to the text would suggest an obvious yes; white America continuously fails the black community. Your inclusion of the recent Black Lives Matter protest was also important and well thought out.

    I agree Megan! At points I felt very overwhelmed by the text but I also think it is worth rereading once I have a better understanding of it.

  3. I really enjoyed your reading of ‘The Sellout’, Gary. I agree with your suggestion that Beatty is inferring that motivation behind BonBon’s father’s death is racial, something that in our current political climate is hard to ignore.

    Much like Danielle, I too hadn’t heard of the Not Fucking Around Coalition. Having subsequently looked them up, I think your acknowledgement of them in relation to issues raised in the narrative is fitting.

    I particularly liked your observation that BonBon adopts a somewhat ‘militant mindset’ over the course of the novel. The raising of this point has me further questioning my view of BonBon and his motives, along with Beatty’s intentions for his purpose in the narrative. Is this a further indictment of today’s society and what it forces on minority community’s? Does this reading lend itself to the recognition of a broken system? This point and our discussion in today’s class have me reconsidering these questions in relation to this novel

    1. Hi guys, wish I could respond to you all as I feel that you have all very good points concerning the novel and responses concerning my post, but I will address Katie’s point specifically as one of the questions she posits is very important to me.

      In your comment Katie you pick up, as I did, on BonBons ‘militant mindset’ this is something I am very glad you pointed out and was one of the reasons I wanted to address your comment specifically. I feel that the militant mindset is important when talking about America because that is ultimately one of its founding premises as the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the concept of a militia to be raised to resist foreign power and to assure the security of a free State. This is largely how I believe BonBon intends to use it in the novel as he wishes to resist outside influence and secure the sovereignty of Dickens.
      This is something that, to answer you second question and if “this reading lend[s] itself to the recognition of a broken system?” I believe yes it does. In the recent political climate that America has been subjected to, has led to a splintering in how the American’s view themselves as well as others around them, which I hope will have some good in future years to perhaps repair the damage that has seemed to be wrought on the society in recent years. However whereas many people may look back at the Trump administration and see the horrible injustices of it, I am also concerned of the answer to it in the Biden administration, especially in light of the increasing presence of militia’s.
      Furthermore you ask if “this reading lend itself to the recognition of a broken system?” I feel that it does lend itself to that kind of reading, as it seems that, despite the significant election of Joe Biden, as well as the continued presence of armed militia’s such as the Not Fucking Around Coalition and more recently those that were involved in the ‘Michigan Plot’ to kidnap serving Governor Whitmer by coronavirus skeptics, ultimately the system which America possess is broken and it is unfortunately going to take some time to fix.

  4. I agree that ‘The Sellout’ is a socially aware novel. Beatty uses white stereotypes of blackness, such as the use of the phrase ‘professional nigger whisperer’. The frame of the novel exposes stereotypes such as; growing watermelons in his garden and smoking weed on the steps of the US Supreme Court under “Equal Justice Under the Law” sign.

    The humour in the novel left me feeling uneasy. Again, Beatty himself did not want to be seen as satirical author. He is exposing the racism in modern society. The black body that he struggles with is only due to other people’s racism.

    I wonder if there would be a differencing between a white reader and a black reader on how they perceive Beatty’s humour. For me, I felt uncomfortable.

    Well done, Gary. A very interesting and stimulating blog.

  5. Well done on an interesting piece, Gary. I particularly like how you focused in on the cultural references in the novel, for example, Little Rascals. You are very right in saying that just because the show decided to include black actors does not make it a model of inclusivity and acceptance, especially because of the ways it stereotypes black people. Beatty’s social criticism of popular culture is strife through his satire.

    The context you have provided on the town of Dickens itself is very relevant and helps to give a deeper understanding of Beatty’s aim in writing this book. I also agree that there is a feeling of indifference in America on the poor treatment and oppression of minority groups in both the novel and in real life.

    You argued your point well and I enjoyed reading it!

  6. This blog post was an enjoyable read, Gary. I think you highlighted some of the central elements and themes of Beatty’s novel nicely. I would also add that one of the key points of Beatty’s satire for me is in how Me actually reinstates this segregation. The fact that through the addition of nothing but a few signs the town is immediately re-segregated I think speaks to the unseen or unspoken spectre of segregation in contemporary American life that only needed consciously acknowledged to be literalised. Moreover, the apparent ‘success’ or relief that follows apparently provokes the uncomfortable conclusion that integration is impossible, or at the least, illusory. Although, it does seem that Beatty’s larger critique has to do with skewering the usual depictions and responses to the contemporary place of black America, from liberal hypocrisy to outright racial hatred.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *