By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Paul Beatty
Narration by: Prentice Onayemi
Paul Beatty writes what many Americans fear to hear in his novel “The Sellout”. He implies that most minority Americans who succeed in the United States are sellouts. He suggests “Brown versus Board of Education” diminishes equality of opportunity for minorities because it denies cultural identity and its inherent value. The inference is that minorities desire their own identity, separate and equal from a cultural majority; and only on that basis is there freedom and equality of opportunity.
Beatty creates a black character that is raised by a father in a rural area near Los Angeles. The father is known as the Negro-whisperer because he is called upon by the police to quell psychologically disturbed black Americans when they appear to be a danger to themselves or others. The father is trained as a psychologist. He is a single parent who lives on a farm with his son. The son is raised by a father who uses a psychological practice popular in the 1960’s called Operant Conditioning. As his son matures, his father rewards good behavior with positive reinforcement. However, Beatty shows that this father ignores B. F. Skinner’s findings that suggest punishment is not a useful tool in shaping behavior (Skinner argues that lessons from punishment are as often negative as positive; i.e. instead of positively changing behavior, the punished may choose to simply hide or sublimate bad behavior). The son is punished for unacceptable behavior by a father who is the intellectual center of the community. The town is called Dickens.
There may be comic intent in Beatty’s story (some suggest it is largely a comedy) but an underlying theme is that white America is governed as a tyranny; i.e. the tyranny of a majority. As a minority American, Beatty suggests one can be anything they want to be; as long as the minority understands and obeys the cultural rules of the majority. Beatty comically and seriously creates a story that explains why some Americans read “The Final Call” and believe in the separatist teachings of the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam believes black Americans should have their own land in America with their own right to govern.
Beatty explains that the town of Dickens disappears because most residents leave the town. The hero of Beatty’s story chooses to stay in Dickens. His father is murdered by the local police over a misunderstanding. The court system awards the son $2,000,000 dollars for his father’s murder. The son decides to keep the farm, raise cattle and fruit, and re-direct his goal in life to resurrect the town of Dickens.
The son’s first action is to compel resurrection of a segregated school system in Dickens because current schools are failing minority students. Only black teachers will teach black students; and inferentially, only Mexican teachers will teach Latino students; etc. Beatty writes that the segregated system improves standardized testing for minority students in his newly re-formed town.
Beatty injects the irony of a slave that insists on being a slave to the son of the deceased psychologist. This slave is a former actor that acted in the Little Rascals series created in the early 20th century. The overt racism of the Little Rascals is a backdrop to the theme of black financial success as long as minorities conform to rules of a majority. The slave insists on being beaten by the son with an underlying inference that the slave feels he needs to be punished for having been a “…Sellout” for being an actor in the Little Rascals series.
Irony piles on irony in the end. The son attends a comedy session where a black comedian tells jokes about his race to a black audience. There are two white couples at the front of the black audience. After telling several black jokes that create laughter in the audience, the comedian turns to the white customers and tells them to get out. The son thinks about the black comedian’s point in telling the white people to get out but fails to come to the comedian’s defense. The son sees himself as “The Sellout”.
One has to ask themselves, when one is black or some other minority can they be themselves without being tyrannized by a cultural majority? Malcolm X grew to believe he could. Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam, believes he could not.