History. The Sellout, primarily, is a story about the history of racism. It’s the idea of being so attached to this idea of blackness, of black history. Being hung up about it. At one point in The Sellout the main character (pretty much nameless, but goes by the nickname Bonbon) talked about how black people are different to every other group of oppressed people in that instead of wanting history to stay with them forever, black people want to forget history. After all, that’s what happens to the metaphorical black/asian/latino and non-white criminal ghetto lair Dickens, California – it gets erased from the maps, becomes forgotten. And The Sellout features a socially messed-with protagonist who brings back segregation and slavery (to some extent) in order to bring Dickens back on the map.
History is the things that stay with you.
What I love and find remarkable about black protest writing (at least what I have read and heard of, what has been celebrated and banned and hated and spat on) is that you get the feeling that black writers are – and this is the highest praise ever – obsessed with themselves. That their hurt and their suffering is so much, so loud, it bleeds out of the pages, takes a shape of its own. And this is praise, because that shit is damn hard to get across. I study history, and I try to study a bit of my own history as a Bengali and a Muslim and all other sorts of messed up oppression, and there is very little history that is about the Other’s experience. I have to glean what I can from the hazy periphery of the French Revolution, the rise of German nationalism – heck from even studying Queen Elizabeth I!
Racism thrived, is thriving, under Trump has a guaranteed Trademark sign of thriving on. Beatty’s writing about history, and how we’re forgetting it. We talk about reverse racism, about what racism consists of (can you only be racist towards oppressed people, is racism always historical, or is racism just insulting someone else’s race ergo white people can be victims of racism, right?) but we talk about it so much it’s bloomed into this big Thing too big to encompass such a little word. Racism has become multi-faceted and in doing so, people have started to forget its real flavour. You would think that Beatty brings this flavour back. He doesn’t. He writes a book with the flavour of today’s, yesterday’s, everyday’s racism. Beatty makes us taste the real flavour of racism. In one of Ross Gay’s poems Gay laments about being mistaken for two other African American poets. He states that this poem is not about good hair, but about “history which is the blacksmith of our tongues. Our eyes.”
Back to the point of black people being obsessed with themselves: there is a culture of resistance that rises out of protesting against the oppression of black people. I have watched two theatre productions that do this incredibly well: One Night in Miami, and Les Blancs. This culture of resistance is wide enough to encompass pretty much any other horrible historical event (all the literature about anti-Semitism), about unknowable history such as pre-colonialism (like in the not so ancient Namibia where one group of black people ruled unjustly over another), about the Massa-slave dichotomy Aristotle (and literally everyone else, yes, even you) love to bits.
History that stays with you, in India. I am a Bengali whose great-grandfather migrated across the Indian-Bangladeshi border (that didn’t exist back then, Bangladesh was founded in 1971) from Asham (a North Indian state) to Sylhet (back then probably just another North Indian state). I come from ancestors who most likely made up the Bengali minority in Asham (apparently they don’t have complex and well-developed fish curry in Asham, so thank god my great-grandfather decided to move bricks to Bangladesh). Having been, historically, part of the diaspora, a minority, always misplaced, what wars and political contentions and horrors have I missed? Have we missed?
What horrors are we not writing about, like Beatty and countless others and myself and everybody else who writes about the plight of black Americans, of the Jewish people, of the Muslim people, of the LGBTQ+ people and countless others? Now and always. What are we not getting angry about, not writing satirical all-encompassing politically scathing humanity-lauding novels about? What are we not winning Man Booker prizes for?
History is the things that stay with you.
Every now and then I get pissed at this book. It’s lovely. It’s full of nuanced and elaborate stereotypes. Of everyone. Like on page 116, when one of the characters remarks:
I’m going to fuck that black bitch up.
And then I remember that it’s part of the point he is making. This here, The Sellout, is an absolute satire.
You see, J. Cole, self-proclaimed B-list celebrity, and rising political rapper, sung about the sexist black rap industry, in his song No Role Modelz – a song (and album, and brand) that emphasises and celebrates the ‘black experience’.
And “fuck that black bitch up” is pretty much highlighted in Cole’s song in the pre-chorus:
One time for my LA sisters
One time for my LA ho
LA niggas can’t tell the difference
One time for a nigga who know
Don’t save her
She don’t wanna be saved
Beatty tips his hat towards Catch-22 – one of my favourite books, the first to introduce me to the literary form of satire, and a book that also goes so far, and so well, that you know it’s about insanity simply because the book itself is insane! In The Sellout we have a black man who is segregating buses, getting someone to whip his black old slave, and sometimes it is really difficult to read this book without hating it. And like Catch-22, there were more times where I couldn’t even breathe for how good it was, and how well it gave a shape to all the little aspects of racism we can barely give name to (reverse racism, really? You’ll love this baby).
A Little Aspect of Racism We Can Barely Give Name To Highlighted in The Sellout #1098378
“I’ve experienced direct discrimination based on race only once in my life.”
In one chapter the protagonist and his father travel road-trip tourist-style to a nameless small Mississippi town sightseeing for racism, the old relic (!). The gas station they pull up on had a black employee who was really cool and good at his job (still looking for the racism #1) and Bonbon’s black father talks down (instead of talking normally he puts on an accent for the black – poor – guy). Then, the protagonist reflects on how the long road trip made him think about how black people fled to Canada when times were rough (how bad had it have to have been for black people to think that Canada was near enough to cross to?) and that if black people ever do get slave reparations they’ll have some hefty debt to pay back to Canada.
So, his father, a leading psychiatrist who experimented quite a bit on his young black son about blackness and its psychological make-up, brought him to that town to do some “reckless eyeballing” – that is to say, his father wanted him to wolf whistle at a Southern white woman. His father prompts his son to whistle at the woman. The son doesn’t know how to whistle. One of the white men recognises the non-tune that the protagonist attempts to whistle as Ravel’s Bolero (still looking for the racism in the white, uneducated and extremely conservative people, #2). His father gets pissed, wolf whistles lustily at the Southern woman himself, and the woman and his father high tail it out of there together.
The white men reminisce:
“Is there a black buck Rebecca ain’t fucked from here to Natchez?”
“Well, at least she knows what she likes”.
The other one defends himself:
His friend replies scathingly:
“Ain’t no such thing. You either is or you ain’t. Man crush on Dale Earnhardt, my ass.”
(Still looking for the heavy Southern persecution of LGBTQ+ people, #3).
Eventually the protagonist ‘finds racism’ when he is in need of a piss and the black attendant denies him because he had been drinking the cheap Coke (white man’s coke, lol) and tells Bonbon:
“Buy black or piss of.”
The jokes are crude, y’all. He ends up being directed to an old bus station, in an old acrid and rotting toilet. With the sign “whites only” on top of it. The guy writes next to the plaque through the grit “Thank God”. And then he pisses on an anthill outside because “apparently the rest of the planet was ‘Colored Only’.”