Author: Paul Beatty.
Publisher: Oneworld Publications.
Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, The Sellout (2016) tackles the racial politics of USA head-on through bold, unapologetic humour. The novel follows a character referred to as “Me” as he tries to get his town, Dickens, back on the map as it is removed due to being an embarrassing settlement. He reintroduces slavery and self-segregation into the busses, schools and neighbourhoods.
From the description, the novel sounds counterproductive and seems as though it promotes racism, but what Beatty accomplishes is a thought-provoking, hilariously cut-throat insight into the experiences of black communities and communities of colour. The situations in the novel are ridiculous; for example, Hominy, a former black child actor, becomes the slave of “Me,” a black man who tries to put Dickens back on the map. These over-the-top situations are absurd today, but Beatty dislikes the labelling of his book as “satire” because it was once very real, and not too long ago. This is completely understandable because “satire” suggests that it is removed from reality, and the discussions in this novel are extremely grounded in contemporary issues. Instead, Beatty prefers to treat the novel and its language as colloquial in order to discuss the present landscape of race in America.
As the segregation becomes more prominent, the black community starts to become prosperous, and the children in the black school get higher grades than the white school. In a hilarious moment of racial inversion, the white parents bang on the doors of the black school to try to get their kids into what they see as a “privileged” school because their kids’ grades will improve there. Scenes like this are prominent in the novel where Beatty plays around with historical and contemporary racial politics as a way to comment on race in present day USA.
Hominy’s character really steals the show. He desires to be a slave because he believes he no longer has any purpose and misses the certainty of the past when black people “knew their place.” He used to be a child actor getting stereotypical roles as the black character, including a role in The Little Rascals. His character underscores the representations of black people in movies and in TV shows, and chronicles the historical treatment of black people.
Wonderfully written, the language Beatty uses really gets under your skin, it’s like poetry. An absolute must-read for those interested in racial politics. It has a substantial, intelligent engagement with contemporary issues while being accessible to an everyday reader.