The Sellout


Paul Beatty

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The Sellout Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Paul Beatty's The Sellout. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty was born in Los Angeles and moved to the East Coast for higher education, graduating with an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in Psychology from Boston University. In 1990 he was named Grand Poetry Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poets Café, which helped him to secure his first book deal. In addition to The Sellout, he is the author of Tuff, Slumberland, and The White Boy Shuffle, along with two collections of poetry. The Sellout was the first book by a non-Commonwealth author to win the Man Booker Prize after the rules for eligibility were amended; it also received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Beatty lives in New York City with his wife, Althea Amrik Wasow, to whom The Sellout is dedicated.
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Historical Context of The Sellout

The main event to which The Sellout is responding is the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Published at the end of Obama’s two-term presidency, the novel critiques the idea that the election of a black president signals the end of racism and a triumph of racial progress. Other significant historical events include certain Supreme Court rulings such as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which ruled that the descendants of slaves did not count as US citizens, and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the constitutional acceptability of segregation. The Civil Rights Movement is also of major importance in the novel, particularly events such as Rosa Parks’ protest and the ensuing bus boycott, along with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, and the famous integration crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, that followed. The “Little Rock Nine” were the first nine black students to enroll in a previously all-white high school, and they were initially blocked from entering by the governor of Arkansas himself.

Other Books Related to The Sellout

The Sellout is part of a long and illustrious tradition of African-American satire. This includes such works as The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman, which was a Harlem Renaissance novel critiquing racial politics within the black community through dark humor. Like The Sellout, Claude McKay’s controversial Home to Harlem (1928) depicts working-class black people and experiments with the representation of racial stereotypes. Perhaps the most important figure in the African-American satirical tradition is Ishmael Reed, whose most famous novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), lampoons religion, various black leaders, class tensions, and respectability politics. Reed’s campus novel Japanese By Spring (1993) takes aim at academics in a manner reminiscent of The Sellout’s presentation of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. Fran Ross’ Oreo (1974) is another satirical novel that, like The Sellout, revolves around its central character’s search for her own origins and identity.
Key Facts about The Sellout
  • Full Title: The Sellout
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 2015
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Literature, 21st Century African-American Fiction
  • Genre: Satire
  • Setting: Dickens, a fictional city in Los Angeles
  • Climax: When Foy Cheshire shoots the narrator
  • Antagonist: Foy Cheshire
  • Point of View: First person from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, who is the book’s central character

Extra Credit for The Sellout

No Laughing Matter? In interviews, Beatty has mentioned that he is surprised that the book is so uniformly read as simply a satire, as much of the narrative is in fact realistic and serious.

Cynical Wisdom. Beatty has said that he was not surprised by the election of Donald Trump and that to him, “Trump’s America has always existed.”