I’ve never exactly been sure what “post-racial” meant, much like the term postmodernism, or Kafkaesque, I’d heard it used before, but never actually knew the exact definition, so I decided to look into the meaning of the hyphenate, and the definition I found was “denoting or relating to a period or society in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist”, which is a ludicrous concept. As it turns out, there are people actually believe that we live in a post-racial society, however from watching the news for even a half hour on any given day, we know this is false. However, I suppose there are enough white people out there who claim to be “colorblind”, or that they can’t be racist because they had a black president, or because they really liked The Wire. Anyway, with only the results of the 2016 election in mind, we know that post-racial america doesn’t exist.
Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout takes aim at the concept of a post-racial America, and does a fantastic job of lampooning it. Our first introduction to the main character and narrator of the novel is him on trial at the Supreme Court, openly smoking weed, with his opening line being “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything”, which essentially sets the provocative comedic tone for the novel. No, rather than being on trial for what one would consider a stereotypical black crime, such as stealing, or drug sales (although he does make money selling pot off horseback), his crime, as he describes it: “I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” To be more specific though, he is on trial for owning a slave and resegregating his hometown of Dickens. So, yeah, this book is pretty outrageous in its material.
Now, while I understand that it is insanely difficult to see humor in dark subjects such as, slavery, police brutality, gangs, and issues of race, but you have to believe me when I say this, Paul Baetty pulls humor out of these subjects masterfully, I can’t tell you how many times I busted out laughing reading this novel.
After inheriting an urban farm from his deceased father, who was killed by police officers, the narrator’s hometown of Dickens is wiped off the map, literally. The town, while still actually existing, is no longer represented on maps, and road signs leading to the town are no longer where they aught to be. This destroys the narrator’s friend Hominy Jenkins, a fictionalized version of the actor who played Buckwheat in the Little Rascals, best known for playing stereotypical African American roles. Hominy, being Dickens’ most famous resident, fears that he’ll no longer get visits from his fans, so naturally he begs the narrator to keep him as a slave. So the two set out to put Dickens back on the map, which ends with them instituting segregation back into the community, much to the chagrin of my absolute favorite character, Foy Cheshire, who re-writes Huckleberry Finn, but replaces all uses of the n-word with “warrior”, and slave with “dark-skinned volunteer”, the title of this new version being “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit”.
Essentially what I’m saying here, is that the plot of this book is absolutely absurd, which makes sense given the absurdity of what it’s setting out to mock. Essentially the goal of satire is to exaggerate and attack societal issues, and when the thing you’re exaggerating is already as absurd as the idea of a “post-racial” america, you have to bring out the big guns.
Paul Baetty’s The Sellout is a hilarious novel unconcerned with with offending readers, which is an incredible change of pace, given our society’s propensity to engage in outrage. All in all, I’d say that this was probably a more enjoyable read than A Little Life.
Based on NPR’s review of The Sellout