Recognized as an unrestrained satire on contemporary American race relations, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout relentlessly exposes the hypocrisies of whiteness by speaking what has become unspeakable in the public discourse on race in a putatively “post-racial” America. The narrator, whose last name is Me, and is only called by the nickname Bonbon, slaughters a number of “sacred cows,” outrageously attempting to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, a lower-middle-class “farm” community on the southern fringes of Los Angeles, and making Hominy, the last surviving Little Rascal, his slave. In its willingness to commit the “crime” of “whisper[ing] ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” The Sellout uncomfortably displaces the pathologies of whiteness in contemporary America, one of which is the manufactured belief in a post-racial world and the refusal to speak of racism within it.
In rereading Beatty’s novel with William E. Cross Jr.’s five-stage conversion model as a heuristic for engaging a supposedly post-racial age, this essay examines the development of black consciousness and self-realization in the figure of Bonbon, traversing the economical, pedagogical, epistemological, and personal. What Bonbon’s experience eventuates in is a consciousness of “Unmitigated Blackness,” which, in eluding concrete definition, entails relinquishing guilt, anger, excessive self-consciousness, and self-censorship―“not giving a fuck”―as a pragmatic social strategy. In valuing praxis and efficacy over rhetoric and ideology, the concrete encounter over abstract theorizing, this strategy, if hazily, points a way toward a reconversion of racial attitudes and posturings in a world that remains too polite, or unwilling, to speak the realities of whiteness, its veiling of systemic structures of institutionalized racism. Ultimately, it is the question of commitment Beatty asks readers to reflect on; for Bonbon, it would seem to be the necessity of inventing unsettling, humorous ways of speaking racism, while renouncing the epistemological snares of white politeness and white innocence. The Sellout, in the final analysis, constitutes a caustically humorous reconversion therapy for readers, black and white, as Beatty whispers into the readers’ ears: “’cause right now, massa, you ain’t seeing the plantation for the niggers.”