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Post Road Magazine #31

Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Wendy Rawlings

In 1963, Governor George Wallace stood in the entrance of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama and declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Fast forward fifty-two years: a five minute walk from Foster Auditorium, I'm getting ready to teach Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout.This is an undergraduate course focused on writing comedy, a class I've taught before. But I've never taught this book. In the novel's opening paragraph, the black narrator, by way of establishing his ethos, announces that he has never "boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face." Okay. Deep breath.

I've never taught a comic novel about race written by a black writer before, and this first one is a doozy. Of twelve students in my class, one is an African-American woman. Another is the son of first generation Cuban immigrants. Everyone else is white, including me. They're a smart group, but the novel is linguistically challenging and dense with allusions to American history, particularly our country's lamentable racial history. After the narrator's slave, Hominy Jenkins (yes, this black narrator owns a slave, in the 21st century), begs to be whipped by his master and then attempts suicide when said master refuses, the narrator, nicknamed Bonbon, remarks, "Believe me when I tell you human bondage is an especially frustrating undertaking." The novel proceeds from there with propositions so outrageous—among them, re-segregating a high school in southern California—that the net result of reading this book is feeling as if Paul Beatty has given the middle finger to anyone claimingthat America is a post-racial society.

Our class discusses the book's title: what it means in African-American culture to "sell out" others of one's own race. I show a brief Youtube video that features a voiceover discussing the implications of "selling out" as images depicting African-Americans in stereotypical roles flicker by, a painful four minutes of Stepin Fetchits shucking and jiving and cartoon Mammies singing spirituals. The stereotypical representations of African-Americans lead one student to notice that the book jacket of The Sellout features a pattern of tiny black lawn jockeys holding lanterns."What's that all about?" the student asks.I explain that they're statues people—usually white people—used to place in their front yards. "My grandparents had a white one," a student says.

We reflect on why some of us automatically perceive lawn jockeys to be racist symbols. "Someone should Google it," I say, and Rachel, the African-American student, takes out her phone and reads from Wikipedia, "It is said that the lawn jockey had its origins in one Jocko Graves, an African American youth who served with General George Washington at the time he crossed the Delaware to carry out his attack on the British.'" She goes on to tell us that the General thought the boy was too young to take on such a dangerous mission, so he left the boy to wait for him on the shore. The story goes that the boy, "faithful to the post and his orders, froze to death while waiting for his master to return, the lantern still in his hand." Rachel pauses for breath as the rest of us gasp. "The general was so moved by the boy's devotion to his duty that he had a statue made and installed at Mount Vernon. He called the sculpture 'The Faithful Groomsman.'"We sit in silence for a moment, picturing the faithful, frozen kid with his arm extended.

A few weeks earlier, after using the expression, "That'll be a cakewalk," I decided to look up the etymology of that word. It turns out that some historians claim the term originated in the practice of slaves on plantations dressing up and dancing for the entertainment of their masters, with a cake as the prize to the winning couple. While the masters were enjoying the spectacle of their slaves performing, the slaves were mocking the mannerisms of their masters. I ask my students about the meaning of "cakewalk." Everyone knows the colloquial expression that refers to something easy to perform or achieve. Several who grew up in the Deep South remember county fairs where they walked around tables laden with cakes. When an adult called out for them to stop, each child claimed the cake nearest. "No one wanted carrot," one student recalls.

My description of the slave cakewalks fascinates and upsets the students. They're now caught in the conundrum of knowing that customs and iconography they previously perceived to be benign, are anything but. "I wish I could go back to being ignorant," says the student with the bright red dyed streak in her hair.

"No, you don't," says the Cuban student.

The Sellout addresses the knottiest, most perverse aspect of American history—that we allowed some human beings to own other human beings—in the most logical way it can: with the knottiest, most perverse narrative imaginable.While we're laughing, we get sucker punched: this book reveals the ugly, still-beating heart of racism on campus, here in Alabama and at every crossroads in America.

As Bonbon says, human bondage is an especially frustrating undertaking.

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