In his landmark paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel suggested that an organism is conscious when there is something that it is like to be that organism. It’s a beautiful definition, I think, and one that can be expanded to all sorts of questions of identity. What is it like to be American? To be a farmer? To be an art critic? To be a woman? To be Latino?
Is it possible that we partake of many forms of consciousness simultaneously? I think so, and in Paul Beatty’s delicious, raucous, and profound novel on racism in America, The Sellout, Beatty describes in laugh-out-loud satire and rollicking detail what it is like to be black, only to undermine his own exploration with the discovery that blackness is unintelligible lest it be understood in the context of what it is like to be human.
I’ve read a number of great books in the last few years, but none that I would say were better than this one, and few that I would say were as good. Great art has a sort of recursive genius, a multi-layered exposition that cannot be planned or forced, but arises seemingly of its own volition and I daresay surprises even the artist at times. Individual lines echo major themes. Sequences illumine facets of the whole, and a spirit emerges from the work itself that speaks at every point, yet wriggles out of sight whenever we try to grasp hold of it. This book has that quality in self-referential spades.
We first catch sight of the book’s slippery theme in the Prologue, when the narrator—who is on trial at the district court for reinstituting segregation and slavery in his hometown, as part of an effort to restore the community’s lost identity and literal place on the map—asks why his only plea options are guilty or innocent. “Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’, or ‘both’?” he asks. Then he says, “Your Honor, I plead human.” His lawyer instantly intervenes to clarify an innocent plea, then jokingly requests a change of venue, with Salem, Massachusetts and Nuremburg, Germany being the obvious choices.
The narrator’s father is F.K. Me, a social scientist “of some renown” who conducted experiments on the narrator throughout his childhood. In a reprisal of research conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark on color consciousness in black children, Me presents his son with two dollscapes—one of Ken and Malibu Barbie chilling by the Dreamscape pool, and a second of famous black civil rights leaders being chased through a swamp by plastic German shepherds. Harriet Tubman is a 36-24-36 (bust-waist-hips) Barbie painted black, and the North Star is a Christmas ornament. When the narrator says, “I’m down with Ken and Barbie,” (because they have better accessories), his father yells, “What? Why?” And the research program is terminated. The narrator is sent out to work in the fields.
Dr. Me wears a number of hats, one of which is the local “nigger whisperer.” The narrator witnesses his father’s therapeutic talents on full display when a local gangster takes to the bed of his truck with a nickel-plated .38 and begins reciting poetry from his notebook in iambic pentameter, giving birth to the “crack rock era.” Dr. Me intervenes so the SWAT team doesn’t have to, and when asked by his son what he said to calm the drug dealer down, he replies, “I said, ‘Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ “
These same two questions bookend the novel, and are asked again by the narrator, of himself, near the novel’s conclusion when he is reflecting on all that has transpired. Despite the many efforts he has made to restore dignity—albeit an obscene variety of it perhaps—to the community of his youth, he still hasn’t been able to answer the most basic questions about himself. While the fact that he is black permeates the entire course of his life, it is not a fact that affords him any genuine self-knowledge. At one point the narrator says, “Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it.”
This is the paradox that Beatty reveals so masterfully. Blackness isn’t an answer in and of itself, but nor is it anything but relevant to the narrator’s experience of being human. Through prose that cuts and bites and rips with humor—several times I laughed out loud in an otherwise empty room—Beatty grapples head-on with the very real tragedy of racism. He left me with the realization that there is, in fact, something it is like to be black in America, something encoded in the world and its history which we cannot simply strike down with a wand, but also it is a thing which defies absolutes. Its boundaries are diffuse, and whatever it is, we’re all involved in it somehow, whether inside or out.
When we look closely at it, as closely as we can, we find that the center of blackness, as of whiteness, and of every other –ness we would discern, is our tragic inability as humans to hold difference and sameness together. This failure is the essential human handicap. We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human, and that each is necessary to the other—that we, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes, can only truly possess our humanity when our uniqueness and our commonality are respected as treasures equally worth preserving. It is this paradox, surfacing in passage after passage to peek at us through Beatty’s delicious harangue of racism in America, that gives this novel life.