The narrator says that it although it may be hard to believe because he is a black man, he has never stolen, cheated, robbed a house, held up a liquor store, or “pulled out my gigantic penis” and masturbated in public. Nonetheless, he now finds himself inside the Supreme Court, his car left illegally parked on Constitution Avenue. The narrator is here because he received a letter telling him that his case had been selected to be heard by the Supreme Court, signed by “the People of the United States of America.” Yesterday he walked through Washington, DC, visiting the Lincoln Memorial and wondering what the statue would do if it were to come to life now.
The novel begins with a provocation to the reader. The narrator’s assertion that it will be hard to believe he hasn’t participated in criminal activity presumes that the reader believes in racial stereotypes. This forces us to confront our own—perhaps subconscious—beliefs and expectations surrounding race. The narrator’s words imply that even those who do not believe themselves to be racist may be complicit in upholding racist assumptions and symptoms.
The narrator also visits the Pentagon and the national Mall, where he sees a white boy lying on the ground in such a position that it makes it look like the Washington Monument is his penis. He goes to the zoo, where a woman and her boyfriend comment that the gorilla, who is called Baraka, is “presidential.” The woman starts crying and claims that some of her best friends are monkeys, which makes the narrator laugh. His walk through DC taught him that in contemporary America, just as in Ancient Rome, “you’re either citizen or slave… guilty or innocent.”
The novel is set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s presidency, and questions whether the election of the first black president truly constituted a moment of progress. The gorilla’s name is a reference both to Obama and to the writer Amiri Baraka, who was one of the most important figures in the Black Arts Movement. The woman’s words point to the racist stereotype equating black people to monkeys.
Back in the Supreme Court, an officer tries to get the narrator to sit up straight in his chair, but instead he comes crashing to the floor. The narrator is wearing a suit for the first time, which he thinks makes him look like a criminal. When the narrator first arrived at the Supreme Court, this officer searched him with a dog while they both stood under a sign reading “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW.” Now the narrator figures that the crime he has been charged with is so awful that no one will bother to prosecute him for marijuana possession, so he cleans and fills his pipe. The officer lights it for him and he blows a huge cloud of smoke in the air.
The absurdity of the narrator’s decision to smoke marijuana inside the Supreme Court reflects the absurdity of the American legal system itself. Due to racial discrimination, there has never been “Equal Justice Under the Law” in America—instead, black people are often criminalized for their very existence. Perversely, the narrator now finds a kind of freedom through having been charged with a crime more serious than marijuana possession.
The narrator’s case is “the latest in the long line of landmark race-related cases,” including Dred Scott v. Sanford, which ruled that the descendants of slaves could not be United States citizens, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation. Feeling high, the narrator shouts “Equal Justice Under the Law!” He thinks about the fact that people have died for this goal of equal justice, and that most of them—whether innocent or guilty—have never made it inside the actual Supreme Court building. He thinks that the sign declaring EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW above the Supreme Court indicates insecurity.
In this passage, the narrator challenges the assumption that Supreme Court rulings have gradually moved in a progressive direction. Both cases the narrator cites caused the entrenchment of racist discrimination, halting progress and even causing regress. The narrative of progress is comforting, particularly in light of the people who have died trying to bring about equality—however, it is misleading.
When the narrator was younger, he believed that the problems of the black American community would be solved if only the community had a good enough motto. He reasons that other communities have mottos, from the Chickasaw nation to the police force. As a child, the narrator attempted to use his knowledge of Latin in order to invent a motto for black people. His first ideas was “Black America: Veni, vidi, vici—Fried Chicken!” followed by “Semper Fi, Semper Funky,” and then “Unum corpus, una mens, una cor, unum amor,” which means “One body, one mind, one heart, one love.”
In a style typical of the novel, the narrator blends two seemingly distinct realms of culture—Latin mottos and stereotypes about black Americans—to comic and thought-provoking effect. While none of the mottos he invents seem to have much potential to instigate political progress, the usefulness of a motto is rooted in the importance of having a sense of collective purpose and direction.
At first the narrator was pleased with this last attempt, but then remembered that the black community objects to being thought of as a monolith. He says that, secretly, “every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person.” Now the narrator isn’t sure if the community needs a motto, though he thinks that it would be smart to make money offering to translate individual people’s mottos in Latin for them. He could set up shop at a tattoo parlor so his customers could immediately get their new motto tattooed on them. The narrator translates phrases like “strickly dickly” and “you snooze, you lose” into Latin in his head.
In certain ways, the narrator is presented as an anti-hero. He does not possess above-average intelligence, looks, courage, or morality. On the other hand, the narrator does possess a range of odd skills, such as his knowledge of Latin, which sets him apart from the community of characters in the novel.
The narrator’s lawyer, Hampton Fiske, takes his pipe from his hands and sprays some air freshener to cover the smell of pot. The narrator is too high to greet Hampton verbally, so he just nods. Hampton is “an old-school criminal defense attorney” who prefers to represent only the most desperate people, those he calls “the wretched of the Earth.” When the crimes of which the narrator was accused were first read aloud in district court, he struggled to understand why he couldn’t be considered both guilty and innocent. Eventually, he pleaded “human,” and Hampton quickly asked that the trial be heard in the Supreme Court.
Although we do not yet know the crime with which the narrator has been charged, his desire to be considered both guilty and innocent is important and sets a precedent for the narrative to come. As a satirical novel, “The Sellout” uses humor, irony, and absurdity to challenge any simple understanding of right and wrong. Here the narrator suggests that to be human is to be both guilty and innocent.
Back in DC, a black woman in the front row of the Court berates the narrator while she discusses the history of black people in America. Then she slaps him in the face. The narrator knows that she wants him to feel guilty, and he keeps expecting a feeling of “black guilt” to descend on him, but instead nothing comes. He is shocked to feel no guilt for the first time in his life. He makes one last attempt to access guilt by closing his eyes and picturing the Civil Rights movement. However, the images in his head become distorted, transforming into a mix between a zombie movie and Coke advert.
Inappropriate emotions are one of the main sources of humor in the novel. The narrator’s inability to feel guilt points to the wayward nature of lived human experience. Although most people would like their emotions to line up with their circumstances and principles in an appropriate manner, this often does not turn out to be the case.
The Supreme Court justices enter, and Hampton drags the narrator to his feet. The black Justice is “absentmindedly” wearing a $50,000 Rolex watch. The narrator feels that at this point he is unsure whether he is the plaintiff or the defendant. His case is named “Me v. the United States of America.” The narrator’s family name was originally Mee, but his father decided to change it to Me. While Hampton speaks, the black Justice fidgets uncomfortably in his seat. Eventually, he cannot help but blurt out: “Nigger, are you crazy?” He asks how it’s possible that a black man in today’s world can own a slave.
The fact that the narrator is being charged with slaveholding is absurd, but here this absurdity is juxtaposed with the absurdity of the black Justice’s lavish lifestyle and extremely informal way of speaking. There is also a possible connection between the hypocrisy of a black man owning a slave and the hypocrisy of the justice earning a high income by presiding over a legal system that discriminates against black people.
The black Justice “believes in the system” and therefore is horrified. The Justice wants to believe in progress, but the narrator himself rejects this, thinking: “Since when did a little slavery and segregation hurt anybody.” The narrator is very high, and accidentally says “… so fucking be it” out loud. The black Justice stands up, looking like he wants to fight. He shouts that the narrator’s parents must have raised him better than to embrace segregation and slavery. He shouts: “let’s get this hanging party started!”
Here the novel again challenges any easy mode of distinction between right and wrong by presenting two mistaken points of view side by side. The narrator’s thought that “since when did a little slavery and segregation hurt anybody” is comically false, but the black Justice’s belief in “the system” and progress is also misguided.