Blurring the Satirical: Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” & the Alt-Right Movement

“What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans. This is a big empire that would accept all Europeans. It would be a place for Germans. It would be a place for Slavs. It would be a place for Celts. It would be a place for white Americans and so on.” –Richard Spencer, Alt-Right movement

“People eat the shit you shovel them.” –Paul Beatty, The Sellout

I was driving home one day, a week after we’ve all been forced to say “president-elect” when referring to Donald Trump, when I heard this interview on NPR. The host, Kelly McEvers, was careful and intentional about warning listeners of the kind of rhetoric that “many people will find offensive, even hateful.” I braced myself.

She then introduced Richard Spencer, who runs a think tank that pushes alt-right ideals. She mentioned that the “alt-right” is a white nationalist movement with a goal of fostering white identity politics.

The interview only confirmed Spencer’s white supremacist agenda and persona, in an unbelievably ludicrous manner, that he almost sounded like a caricature.

“I care about us more. That’s all I’m saying,” he told McEvers. As proud supporters of Trump’s presidency, he also touts Trump’s stance on issues of foreign policy and immigration. What’s disturbing about his views and the alt-right movement is that it he goes to the extreme: it’s not just “illegal immigration” that he’s concerned of, he is looking at (and possibly pushing to abolish) legal immigration as well because according to him, it’s damaging.

As troublesome as all of it sounds, I wasn’t surprised. One, because I’ve long believed that the “real America” has always been racist, white supremacist, misogynist — with a few liberal democratic things popping off here and there which it counts off as “progress” — and it’s finally showing its true colors (pale, egg-toned, low-fat white). Two, because I’ve been reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a satirical work of literary fiction on blackness and race relations in the country.

It was only when the Man Book Prize for fiction was awarded to The Sellout did I find out about this book. As the first American to win the prize, I couldn’t not get the book specially after he said the following in his acceptance speech: “I don’t want to get all dramatic, like writing saved my life … but writing has given me a life.”

sellout

The book is a biting satire set on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with the black protagonist (at times referred to as “the sellout”) as the narrator of his life. An urban farmer, pot smoker and occasional surfer, the sellout recounts his life while waiting for his trial to commence at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. His “crime”? Re-instituting slavery and segregation in his hometown Dickens, California.

To be clear, there is a difference between what happened in Dickens and what Spencer is actively trying to do and it cane in the form of a has-been Little Rascals star, old man Hominy Jenkins.

Much of what the sellout then does is work around Hominy’s wishes, which is what gets him in trouble. He wanted to be the narrator’s willing slave and wanted bus segregation as a birthday gift. Hominy took delight in offering his seat in the front of the bus to white people. 

The son of a sociologist, the narrator has always been privy to various social experiments: “I was eight when my father wanted to test the ‘bystander effect’ as it applies to the ‘black community.'” I found it really clever that Beatty had these two figures: the father and Hominy — both central to the narrator’s life — who projected their ideals of what being black meant, although on opposing ends.

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 stay with you.

If there’s anything that I love most in this book, it’s Beatty’s style of writing. He’s literally in your face. While I had mixed feelings reading the book as a non-black woman of color, I also felt like there were many things that I identified with as the unfortunate recipient of microaggressions and institutional racism.

This is the first book of Beatty’s I’ve ever read, so I’m not entirely familiar with his overall style. He writes about the thorniest issues of race other writers wouldn’t even dare to step into, in a way that makes you stop and think: did I just read that or was I already thinking of it before I read it? He does this thing where he presents a really profound truth and interjects it with a reference from popular culture to gently guide his readers to a deeper understanding.

That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost white to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall.

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.

And then there’s his tenderness, evident in the way he loves Marpessa (the famed bus driver), the ocean, Los Angeles. He ends a chapter with the best way to bodysurf, a sure fact to make lovers of the ocean like me swoon: wait for the exact moment the tide drops to the pit of your stomach. He describes in detail the darkness that envelopes Los Angeles when night falls (“I mean really falls”) like a lover making the bed while you’re still in it.

There are also a number of tirades I found humorous and sincere at the same time, like when he talked about class and transportation in L.A.:

…because LA is about space and here’s one’s self-worth comes from how one chooses to navigate the space. Walking is akin to begging in the streets. Taxicabs are for foreigners and prostitutes. Bicycles, skateboards, and Rollerblades are for health nuts and kids, people with nowhere to go. And all cars, from the luxury import to the classified-ad jalopy, are status symbols, because no matter how shoddy the upholstery, how bouncy the ride, how fucked-up the paint job, the car, any car, is better than riding the bus.

I started thinking about how Spencer may have read this book and took it for fact, kind of how so many fake news articles are being propagated online. To turn the country back decades, and perhaps even centuries is a scary thing. I am scared. Spencer espouses the same kind of language that so many activists have been using for decades, except his definition of progress is actually regressive.

Towards the end of the interview, he told McEvers that what the alt-right movement’s trying to do is to change people’s consciousness, that paradigms are meant to be broken… away from woke consciousness and towards white supremacy.

I remember a particular concept in the book that struck me quite vividly:

Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he’d never heard a patient of color talk of needing “closure.” They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.

We’re entering a time when we’re way past “needing to have closure” because with the existence of movements like the alt-right, what they’re speaking of is complete erasure. More than ever, it is a time to ask the right questions and inhabit a state of even deeper consciousness for survival. The sellout said it best:

You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself?

* * *

selloutThe Sellout 
Paul Beatty
Published on March 1, 2016
Picador (304 pages)

The Sellout

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