I don’t think I’ve ever been as uncomfortable enjoying a book as I was while reading Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout. I picked it up simply because it won the award, without any notion of its author or topic, without any notion of what I was in for.
But I was on my guard from the opening sentence: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” Was I supposed to laugh? Wince? But the electric ferocity of Beatty’s sentences pulled me along past my self-consciousness, and I gulped his words down. Beatty produces a biting satire of race in America today, through the lens of a contemporary urban black farmer who owns a black slave and actively works to segregate his local middle school. Crazy, right? You have no idea.
Of course, this work has numerous references and allusions that I’m sure I didn’t get, since I’m not a black American, and probably many that I misunderstood for the same reason. But Beatty’s humor is accessible and outlandish. He easily moves between high brow and low brow, and is amazing with deadpan. His cheekiness is delightful, like when his character Foy Cheshire invents “EmpowerPoint, a slide presentation ‘African-American software’ package…not much different than the Microsoft product except that the fonts have names like Timbuktu, Harlem Renaissance, and Pittsburgh Courier” (99).
He also loves to take racial pot-shots, like when he writes “some kids were just too white to get wet. Try to imagine Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, or the Lone Ranger soaked from head to toe, and you’ll get the idea.” (171).
All that to say, it was a somewhat complicated read as a white lady. And even as a white Christian, since the book deals with sometimes vulgar and explicit images and ideas. At the same time, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a satire that felt so brutally honest. There was an earnestness in tone even while he kept his tongue in his cheek. It was powerful.
One of the driving themes in the novel is a pair of questions originally asked by the narrator’s father, and asked again by the main character in the climax of the book: “Who am I? and How may I become myself?”
These questions are held out as beacons of hope: they promise that that the characters, under-valued black Americans, are indeed someone-s, someone-s worth identifying. Each of them is worth the investment of thinking through what would help them grow into their fullest selves. They underline a dignity that is present and needs to be revealed, not a dignity that was lacking and needs to be given.
I happened to read this book in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests, where white nationalists spewed their wicked ideology as they clung to a symbol of the Confederacy, and while the highest elected official in our country blamed the violence and death at the scene on “both sides.” I want to be clear: while I don’t think either side is perfect, there is no righteousness on the side of white supremacy, no light, no life, no hope. Only death, evil, wickedness, depravity. The book made me pause and consider that we are all, as Americans, answering Beatty’s questions so differently, that we end up worlds away from each other. Who are we as a country? And How may we become ourselves?
To our great shame, White Americans have too often sought to rip away from Americans of color their ability to own and answer that question for themselves individually, for themselves as communities, and we've certainly suppressed their voice in answering those questions together for our more perfect union. I’m sure “rip away” isn’t even strong enough language, given the variety and ferocity of means that have been employed against people of color in the United States.
I want to believe that we in the church can help change this. After all, we have the most compelling answers to these two questions, and we are grafted into Love Himself. Those of us who are white need to speak more, act more, and convince more white people of the importance of this conversation. I’m not saying I’d start with The Sellout—but if you’re a reader, maybe something like Waking Up White, or Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America would be a good start. I found the first book very helpful personally, and though I haven’t read the second, it was given as assigned reading by Cru this summer to emerging team leaders, and I know it was impactful for many of my friends.