Post-racial lies and post-Obama truths: “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty


It is uncomfortable to read a biting satire so poignant as “The Sellout”: the eponymous narrator sets up an agrarian district-state in which he brings back segregation and uses the n-word a lot. Implicit is the sarcastic line that ‘things can’t get much worse for African-Americans’, so one might as well press reset and have another go. More unnerving still was the reminder of how the argument was boisterously deployed by Donald Trump when courting black votes. That was a shot to nothing. And though it failed (Trump polled dismally with black people), it was sufficient a sleight of hand to make some believe Trump was respectable enough… Some of his worst traits could be overlooked because he thought about non-white Americans too, right?

Beatty is a prolific commentator on the state of the nation. His novel “The White Boy Shuffle” (1996) foreshadowed a reluctant national conversation about the contradictions of modern America: one in which Barack Obama can be elected twice and Eric Garner can be killed. Reading Beatty’s latest is to regard a storyteller at the height of his powers, and it is hard to remain unmoved by its critique of past predictions that Obama’s ascent meant the country had entered a post-racial era. This is plainly nonsense, as №44 acknowledged in his farewell address. America’s original sin is precisely that. Papering over the fault lines will be a victory for institutional politeness, the media will reflect as much and everyone with a college education can talk among themselves about being beneficiaries.

Just as careless is the notion that in 2017 a black American’s lot in life is worse than it was in 2008. Nonsense. Jay-Z put it (second-hand, I think)as: ‘Rosa sat, so Martin Luther could walk so Barack Obama could run. Obama ran so our children could fly’. And the president never missed an opportunity to remind us that America’s story is a working draft. History bends and weaves around incidents, trends, set-backs and travesties, but generally it arcs toward progress. Beatty’s entry into the canon is important for this reason.

Some would wish Beatty didn’t have to write such a searing satire; but to wish this is to ask for a short-cut to noble endings. Alas… it doesn’t work that way. The beauty of The sequence lies in its truth… the necessity of doing it the hard way. When J Cole’s “Be Free” charted his own frustrations, he wasn’t shouting into a void:

We so elated, we celebrated like Obama waited until his last day in office to tell the nation, brothers is getting their reparations, hey. No disrespect, in terms of change I haven’t seen any. Maybe he had good intentions but was stifled by the system And was sad to learn that he actually couldn’t bring any. That’s what I get for thinking, this world is fair. They let a brother steer the ship And never told him that the ship was sinkin’.

We need to talk about these things: reparations; social disadvantages that seem irreconcilable; and a Government that might silence dissent let alone satire of Beatty’s sort. No short-cuts, hacks or redrafts — everything should count.