What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Sellout’?

Let’s take a closer look at the title of Paul Beatty’s fourth novel.

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A quick online search of the word sellout yields the following definitions: (1) “the selling of an entire stock of something, especially tickets for an entertainment or sports event;” (2) “a sale of a business or company;” and, most important, (3) “a betrayal of one’s principles for reasons of expedience.” The word, as we can see, is associated with inventory, commerce, and morals.

But there is also another definition, one that takes the aforementioned meanings and twists them into something much more derogatory, and reserved exclusively for Black people. According to law professor and author Randall L. Kennedy, the term sellout refers to Black people who “knowingly or with gross negligence act against the interest of blacks as a whole.” And it is such a person who is the central character of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its February 18 gathering.

The Sellout charts how a young Black man ends up at the Supreme Court for breaking civil rights law. Following the death of his father and the removal of his town’s name from all maps, the unnamed protagonist institutes a color line to segregate and restore his childhood city. After he does so, he feels somewhat fulfilled, rekindling his relationship with his childhood sweetheart and contemplating the purpose of life. Nonetheless, through a series of chaotic events, the narrator ends up in the hospital, inflicted with a gunshot wound, and facing a criminal trial.

Throughout the narrative, though, the protagonist is nicknamed a sellout. He is called a sellout when he meets with the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals and informs them of his nascent plans to reinstate segregation. He is called a sellout by his sweetheart, Marpessa, when he fails to back her up on the assertion that race is, indeed, more important than class when considering structural oppression. And the protagonist is commonly called a sellout by Foy Cheshire, his antagonist.

But it is not explicitly clear, while reading most of the novel, why the protagonist is being called such a name, until we arrive at the end, where he reflects on the concept of “unmitigated blackness,” which is his reach toward a kind of nihilism. Is it, then, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude that makes him a sellout? Is it the fact that the protagonist would rather go back in time and regress to more-inequitable relations, privileging white people above his own people? The answers seem to be yes and no. We learn that the narrator has done all that he has precisely because he thought his plans would uplift his community, even at the risk of damaging his own relationships and endangering his life.

What is most wonderful about The Sellout is that the novel does not offer resolution or answers. The questions that inevitably arise say more about ourselves and one another.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Beatty, click here.

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