Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a work that uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and or criticise prevailing immorality or foolishness’, satire is a common literary device used to comment on political issues in society. I would argue that, particularly in today’s political climate, it is hard to see Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout, as anything less. In the opening chapter of the novel, the words of our narrator, who we know only as BonBon or Mr Me, weigh heavily in the argument that the writer was intent upon showing a scathing criticism of modern society and the place systemic racism holds within it;
‘I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief’ (18).
An African American man, who has been raised in a Los Angeles neighbourhood known as Dickens, the novel’s protagonist wittily offers us his version of events as they took place. Seemingly unscarred by systemic racism until his father’s death at the hands of two white police offers – an image that is all too familiar in today’s society – BonBon appears apathetic to the notion of systemic racism and privilege in his society. His throw-away yet jarring comments about his own life and his newly re-established Dickens, ‘a community-cum-leper colony’ (109) leave us as a reader unsettled and uncomfortable. Delmagori offers, ‘the novel provides a more effective lens for exploring the critique of privilege because it illuminates the larger social order and the ways in which privilege is actualised at the individual and systemic levels’ (417). Subverting the role Rosa Parks played in the American Civil Rights movement, BonBon begins to reinstate segregation through his sign on the bus, ‘Priority seating for seniors, disabled and Whites’ (128). The notion that this is Hominy’s birthday present confuses the reader. I regularly found myself uncertain if I should be finding humour in Beatty’s playing on important events of history or if abject horror at the context of these situations is the only acceptable reaction.
Irony is the thread that stitches this novel together, but none so much as the character of Hominy Jenkins, who establishes the role of a modern-day slave. Desperate to take on this role, he appeals to BonBon, ‘I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play’ (77)). It is important to note Hominy’s rhetoric here, he himself was a child star in the 1930s sketch show Little Rascals, – a role he has clung to for his entire adult life – and so suggesting he was born to play the role of a slave is a loaded statement. On one hand it shows his desire for a theatrical purpose, to ‘feel relevant’ (77) within BonBon’s social experiments, but the statement also suggests that Hominy – as a black man – was literally born to be a slave. In a 21st century society, where many would hope to be abhorred of this idea, the starkness and brevity of this suggestion reinforces Beatty’s using satire to criticise modern society’s entanglement with systemic racism and privilege. The irony of the situation being BonBon’s emphasis on Hominy’s poor work ethic stating, ‘slaves don’t do what you tell them to do’ (81) and exclaiming, ‘human-bondage is an especially frustrating undertaking,’(82). Hominy desires to be recognised as a slave, but he is not required to work.
Beatty’s ridiculing of modern society owes in part its success to how the narrative is interspersed with prophetic metaphors that illuminate the failings of current society, and how we interpret history. ‘That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stays with you’ (115). However, the coarse language amongst such lyrical text is jarring for reader, forcing us to focus our attention on what is being written. We are living history at this moment. With the protests following the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the loss of countless other lives to police brutality, privilege based on the colour of one’s skin undermines the wish that society has progressed beyond the days of slavery.
To conclude, in a society where the Black Lives Matter movement is increasing its visibility despite a pandemic, and there is increased public outcry at police brutality, does Paul Beatty go far enough with his satirical trope in order to criticise a society? I would argue that yes, he is successful in projecting a distrustful and disenchanted critique of our society and privilege. In an unstable political climate such as the one we are currently facing, novels such as Beatty’s serve as important vehicles to educate the privileged and illuminate the voices of those less recognised.
Beatty, Paul. The Sellout, London: Oneworld Publications, 2016. Print
Delmagori, Steven, Super Deluxe Whiteness: Privilege Critique in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Online
Cross, William E, The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience, 1971. Online