The narrator lists the laws of “ghetto physics.” Halfway through his junior year of college, he rides his horse to a meeting of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a “neighborhood think tank” his father founded. At an intersection, he finds his father’s body lying face down with his hand clenched into a fist. The narrator brushes dirt from his father’s face. A police officer present asks if the narrator is his father’s son, and then tells him that as he was about to die, his father warned the officers: “you don’t know who my son is!” However, the narrator tells the officer: “I’m no one special.”
“The Sellout” may be an absurd and surreal comic novel, but it addresses many of the most important and serious issues of contemporary America. After a life spent fighting racism, the narrator’s father is killed in an act of police brutality. The fact that he lies dead with his hand in a fist shows that, until the very end, the narrator’s father stood up to racist authority on behalf of himself and other black people.
The narrator knows he is supposed to cry, but he doesn’t. He cannot help thinking that his father’s death was another “trick” to teach him about the oppression of black people. The narrator does not feel strongly about his racial identity. He once tried to write “Californian” as his race in the census, but after being chastised by a black man he changed it to “Black, African-American, Negro, coward.” The narrator reflects that some kids grow up desperately longing for an absent father, but that his “problem was that Daddy was always home.”
The narrator’s father’s efforts to teach his son about black identity, race, and racism seem to have backfired. Rather than inheriting his father’s passion for justice, the narrator feels ambivalent about his race. His eventual decision to write “coward” as part of his racial identity on the census shows that, unlike his father, he is rather meek and avoids having to assert himself when he can.
After the police draw the chalk outline and take the evidence photos, the narrator takes his father’s body into Dum Dum Donuts and requests his father’s usual order. The narrator slurps his milkshake while the rest of the Intellectuals look on skeptically. The narrator’s father founded the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals when he realized that the donut shop was the only local business not pillaged in the riots. The narrator’s father began giving presentations about economic inequality between the races, even using an overhead projector, while the other patrons looked on in horror. One of the first people to make a comment was Foy Cheshire, an assistant professor of urban studies at UC Brentwood whose first book was named “Blacktopolis: The Intransigence of African-American Urban Poverty and Baggy Clothes.”
The narrator’s father’s decision to begin giving academic presentations inside a donut shop shows that his scientific research was inextricably rooted in the community in which he lived. Far from the stereotype of the academic who remains within the “ivory tower,” the narrator’s father chose to spread his knowledge to the people of Dickens, even if this meant giving presentations to unsuspecting patrons of Dum Dum Donuts. Also note the comic juxtaposition of “Dum Dum” with “Intellectuals” in the group’s name.
The narrator’s father quickly became friends with Foy, and the two cofounded the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. However, over the years Foy got famous while the narrator’s father remained in obscurity. Foy got his own talk show during which he interviewed “B-list Celebrities,” while the narrator’s father claimed that Foy stole his ideas. One of these ideas included a cartoon called The Black Cats’n’Jammin’ Kids, which made Foy a fortune. However, he blew the money on drugs and women and eventually had his possessions seized due to tax evasion. Before long, Foy asked the narrator’s father to “nigger-whisper” him out of suicide. He agreed, and never told anybody about Foy’s troubles.
Foy Cheshire is the main villain of the novel. Foy is a hypocrite; although he, like the narrator’s father, conducts research on urban black communities, rather than giving back to the community he revels in his own wealth and acclaim. Foy steals ideas from the narrator’s father, and then relies on the narrator’s father to rescue him from suicide. The narrator’s father’s willingness to do so while preserving Foy’s dignity and reputation shows that, despite his flaws, he is the far better man.
Although the narrator’s father was an atheist, Foy nevertheless prays over his dead body, embracing it. Yet the narrator suspects that “deep down he was happy my dad was gone.” Then the narrator takes his father’s body away on his horse. People cry out for “the Nigger Whisperer,” but their cries go unanswered. The crisis negotiator, Murray Flores, was a friend of the narrator’s father. Off the record, he tells the narrator that two officers gave his father a ticket, to which his father replied: “Either give me the ticker or the lecture, but you can’t give me both.” The officers raised their guns, the narrator’s father ran, and they shot him four times in the back. Flores then tells the narrator that in the whole history of the LAPD, zero officers have been convicted of murder while in the line of duty.
The idea of “the Nigger Whisperer” may at first appear ridiculous and offensive (since it implies that black people are like animals who need a special kind of human to understand them). However, this passage shows that the narrator’s father’s role is actually deeply valued and needed within the community, in part due to the problem of police brutality. Given that police are killing black people without consequences and “leaders” like Foy are self-interested and hypocritical, the ordinary people of Dickens desperately need an alternative to help them deal with difficulty and trauma. This role used to be filled by the narrator’s father, but is now vacant.
While he was alive, the narrator’s father had a habit of sleeping with his teenage students. The narrator’s mother was a Jet magazine “Beauty of the Week” named Laurel Lescook. For a long time, the only information the narrator had about her came from her Jet profile, which listed her as a student from Florida who liked “biking, photography, and poetry.” Years later, he found his mother, who was working as a paralegal in Atlanta. She remembered the narrator’s father as a man who creepily harassed her.
While the narrator’s father often performed heroic deeds within the community, he was far from a hero in any straightforward sense. Not only did he abuse the narrator, but he also harassed women and slept with his students. Men who are seemingly heroic can nonetheless mistreat women and children in private.
Using the $2 million settlement he is awarded after his father’s death, the narrator buys the farm that his father had always dreamed of purchasing. The farm comes with three horses, four pigs, a goat, and twelve stray cats. When he and his father did farm work during his childhood, the narrator figured they were living out the unrealized promise of Reconstruction: “Forty acres and a fool.” His father used to tell him: “People eat the shit you shovel them!” In the present, the narrator buries his father and feels relieved that he is now no longer under his father’s persistent, critical gaze. He doesn’t miss his father, but there are questions he wished he’d asked while he was alive. The narrator laments: “Fuck being black,” thinking of the disadvantages heaped upon black people.
The narrator’s reference to Reconstruction is significant. The novel consistently undermines the idea of linear progress, and the history Reconstruction and its aftermath dramatically disrupt the idea that racial progress in America has been linear. During Reconstruction, efforts were made to provide rights and opportunities to newly freed slaves, including the “Forty acres and a mule” policy the narrator references here. However, many of these were not delivered, and the backlash against Reconstruction was so intense that it overshadows any progress made in the first place.