Australian Book Review, December 2016

The morning after the US election, Los Angeles was still. Usually a roar of noise, my city was stunned silent. As I spoke with distraught friends and colleagues, the fact that our West Hollywood polling place had been in a funeral home now seemed prescient: it felt like a wake. Donald Trump, who ran a vile campaign that – amongst innumerable barbarisms – suborned sexual assault, abused minorities, made racist claims, and was cheered by the KKK, had been elected president. As evening fell across America, protests began.

After Barack Obama’s election, I, like many progressives, hoped we had moved into a post-racial world, that Dr King’s dream had been realised and people were no longer judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. How wrong we were. How naïve. As the day went on, election demographics were released: Trump’s votes came not from the dispossessed poor but the angry white. As commentator Van Jones said: ‘This was a whitelash against a changing country … a whitelash against a black president.’ In the following days, reports came in like long-delayed telegrams from another age: a black woman shoved from a path; a gay man beaten until he bled; Muslim women’s hijabs ripped from their heads; swastikas sprayed on walls. Racism and intolerance are alive and well, and Donald Trump has restored their ugly public voice.

Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-winning satire on race in America, The Sellout, was a vital work before Trump’s election. Its importance has only intensified. The word Swiftian is too often used, but here it is apt. Like Jonathan Swift, Beatty viciously exposes societal rot, shocking readers with sharp prose and uncomfortable humour as he confronts our blindness to structural racism, and the comforting falsehood of ‘post-racial’ America. As the narrator, Bonbon Me, drolly says: ‘Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n*****s on sight.’

The Sellout begins in the Supreme Court, where Bonbon, a young African-American man, is charged with owning a slave and segregating an LA town. The ‘black Justice’ demands to know how ‘in this day and age a black man can violate [such] hallowed principles’. The book looks back to tell us.

Raised in Dickens (loosely based on LA’s Compton) by a social scientist father, F.K. Me, Bonbon is an experimental subject: home-schooled and used to test racial assumptions. But when his father is shot by police for talking back and Dickens is suddenly removed from the map by planners, Bonbon is lost. ‘Like the entire town,’ he writes, ironically, ‘I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more.’ Bonbon sets out to discover himself by restoring Dickens, and that narrative provides the framework for Beatty’s satiric argument.

The disappearance of Dickens from the map reflects its societal equivalent: impoverished suburbs ‘exiled to the netherworld of invisible L.A. communities’. In response, Bonbon starts reclaiming Dickens by erecting a sign then painting a border. He is aided by Hominy, an elderly child star famed for playing a racist stereotype. When Bonbon rescues Hominy (depressed that fans can no longer find his house) from an attempted self-lynching, Hominy insists on becoming Bonbon’s slave, to find ‘relevance’: ‘sometimes we just have to accept who we are and act accordingly. I’m a slave.’ This dramatisation of racial disenfranchisement is heightened by cartoonishly violent whipping scenes.

Later, Hominy becomes a reverse Rosa Parks, standing for a white woman on the bus and posting a sign giving priority seating to whites. The passengers ‘shook their heads, not so much from disbelief that the city had the nerve to reinstitute public segregation, but that it had taken so long’. Hominy’s act reminds readers that LA’s suburbs, like many cities’, are actually ‘mind-numbingly racially segregated’. Hominy’s sign symbolically argues, too, that ‘the rights of African-Americans were neither God-given nor constitutional, but immaterial’ in America.

At the novel’s climax, Bonbon segregates Chaff Middle School, excluding white students to promote ‘community feeling’. This ironic reversal of Jim Crow segregation laws shows that the official policy of ‘“integration” can be a cover-up’, a fiction, because disadvantaged schools like Chaff  ‘had already been segregated and re-segregated many times over, maybe not by color, but certainly by reading level and behavior problem’.

Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal (which proposed the Irish poor sell their babies as food), Bonbon and Hominy’s outrageous behaviour is a satiric tool that savagely reveals social deficiencies. As Bonbon’s trial judge concludes: ‘In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and non-existence of these concepts, he’s pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.’

That false belief in equality is not limited to race: Beatty describes the African American ‘face that feigns acknowledgement that the better man got the promotion, even though deep down you and they both know that you really are the better man and that the best man is the woman on the second floor’. This mordant condemnation of institutional racism and sexism resonates after Trump’s election. Our first black president hands power to a white man whose racist rhetoric sought to delegitimise him. A vastly more qualified woman won the popular vote yet lost the presidency to a misogynist. And all around the country, citizens and immigrants who trusted deeply in the democratic promise of America, in tolerance and justice, are suddenly afraid.

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