The Sellout


Paul Beatty

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Sellout can help.

In the prologue, the narrator admits that, though this may be surprising to hear from a black man, he has never committed a crime. Nonetheless, he now finds himself handcuffed inside the Supreme Court after receiving a letter informing him that his case was selected to be heard. He spent the previous day walking around Washington, DC. Now, sitting in the Supreme Court, he smokes marijuana from a pipe, reasoning that the crime he has been charged with is so extreme that he will not be prosecuted for anything as minor as pot smoking. After inhaling, he exclaims: “Equal justice under the law!” The court session begins. The narrator’s case is named “Me v. the United States of America.”

In Chapter One, the narrator explains that his father was a social scientist and the founder of something he called Liberation Psychology. They lived in Dickens, a “ghetto community” on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator’s father spent decades as interim dean of the Psychology department at West Riverside Community College, and would use the narrator in his experiments. The narrator’s father was known as “the Nigger Whisperer” because of his habit of spending time on the streets, encouraging his down-on-their-luck neighbors to improve their lives.

When the narrator was young, he assumed he would lead an average life and stay in Dickens. However, both his father and Dickens disappear, leaving him with no idea who he is. The narrator’s father is killed by the police. At first, the narrator feels sure that his father is going to leap back to life and explain his death as just another way of teaching his son about the plight of the black race. Growing up, the narrator did not know his mother; he tracks her down later in life and learns that her name is Laurel Lescook.

The narrator is granted a $2 million settlement after the wrongful death of his father at the hands of the police. He feels relieved on the day of his father’s burial. He reflects again on the difficulties facing black people, and concludes: “fuck being black.” Five years after the narrator’s father’s death, Dickens is quietly removed from the map of California. Signs announcing the town’s existence are also removed. The narrator takes over his father’s role of “Nigger Whisperer,” however he isn’t very good at it. He studies agricultural science at UC Riverside in the hope of turning his father’s land into an ostrich farm.

When Dickens disappears, the narrator goes to help an elderly man named Hominy Jenkins. The narrator is also having an affair with a woman named Marpessa Delissa Dawson who he has known since childhood. Hominy tries to hang himself, but the narrator cuts him down. In gratitude for having saved his life, Hominy then starts calling the narrator “Massa” and acting like his slave. The narrator tries to free Hominy several times, but Hominy refuses to be freed. The narrator pays some white dominatrices to whip Hominy for over $200 an hour.

The narrator decides to put Dickens back on the map, and reinstalls a sign announcing the city’s existence. He attends the next meeting of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group his father founded. The “lead thinker,” Foy Cheshire, tells the group that he rewrote Huckleberry Finn, excising the N-word in order to read it to his grandchildren. During roll call, Foy never uses the narrator’s name but instead refers to him as “The Sellout.” The narrator and Foy argue about the use of the N-word. The narrator thinks it’s ridiculous that Foy and the other Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals want to ban the N-word, “disinvent the watermelon,” and erase the existence of all other racist ideas and stereotypes. The narrator announces that he’s “bringing back the city of Dickens,” and everyone laughs at him. However, one member, King Cuz, takes the narrator aside and admits that he is in favor of the proposal. Foy accuses the narrator of trying to take over the Intellectuals and swears that he will not let the narrator “fuck my shit up.”

The narrator decides to paint boundary lines around Dickens, and as soon as his neighbors realize what he is doing, they all start to help. A police officer teases the narrator, giving him a missing poster she’s made for the city of Dickens. The narrator thanks her and sticks it up with a piece of chewing gum.

The narrator recalls the development of his romance with Marpessa. When he was 17 and she was 21 they rekindled their childhood friendship; she was his date to his high school prom. Marpessa has a child whose middle name is Bonbon, which was the narrator’s childhood nickname. On April 2, Hominy’s birthday, the narrator and Hominy are on a public bus that Marpessa is driving. Marpessa tells the narrator she dumped him because he is a “sellout.” Later, they talk about why they first fell in love.

The narrator has signed Dickens up to Sister Cities Global, a matchmaking service for cities. Ms. Susan Silverman, a “City Match Consultant” for the company, calls the narrator and tells him she can’t find Dickens on the map, but that this doesn’t matter. She tells him that the three cities with which Dickens would be most compatible are Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa. The narrator says he accepts all three, but Ms. Silverman replies that all three cities rejected the match, including Kinshasa, because Dickens is “too black.” Hominy is so disappointed that he attempts to sell himself, but nobody buys him. The narrator ends up choosing to match Dickens with three cities that also no longer exist, including Döllersheim, Austria, known as “the Lost City of White Male Privilege.”

The narrator goes to Chaff Middle School for Career Day to teach a group of students at Chaff Middle School about agriculture, giving them a lesson on castration. He suggests to his friend Charisma, who is a teacher there, that the school be racially segregated. Charisma tells him to “go ahead,” but adds that “there’s too many Mexicans.” Hominy loves the idea of re-segregating the school, hoping that it will encourage white people to move to Dickens.

The narrator once “foolishly” told his father that there was no racism in America. In response, the narrator’s father took him on a trip to a random small town in Mississippi, where they linger by a gas station and engage in “reckless eyeballing.” The narrator’s father ends up having sex with a white woman he’d been ogling, and while he is gone the narrator is forced to pee outside after being turned away from the gas station bathroom.

The narrator goes to Marpessa’s house; King Cuz is standing outside along with Marpessa’s brother Stevie, who has just gotten out of prison and is also a feared gangster. The narrator puts up a sign announcing that The Wheaton Academy Charter Magnet School of the Arts, Science, Humanities, Business, Fashion, and Everything Else will soon be constructed in Dickens. The image the narrator attaches features only white students. When Foy sees the image, he declares it is the work of “the forces of evil,” adding: “This is war.”

The narrator and Marpessa have sex, and the two of them begin going on dates again. However, Marpessa also makes the narrator perform stand-up comedy, telling him she will only have sex with him if he makes her laugh. Eventually he is successful. Marpessa tells him that Charisma believes the re-segregation policy is working out successfully.

At the next meeting of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, Foy announces that he has a “secret weapon” to be used against the Wheaton Academy: a book called Tom Soarer, which he calls a WME: “Weapon of Mass Education.” Foy inscribes a copy for the narrator, addressing it: “To the Sellout, Like father, like son…” The narrator realizes that even if Dickens were to be recognized as a city again, there would be no fanfare—barely anyone would even notice. Still, over the next few months the narrator enjoys re-segregating the city. He invents an event named “Whitey Week,” a celebration of white contributions to the “world of leisure.” He feels slightly nervous about segregating the hospital, as he knows this likely will lead outsiders to notice his work for the first time.

The narrator goes to watch Hominy perform at the LA Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation. The audience finds Hominy, who is completely deadpan and sincere, hilarious. Later, the narrator asks himself who he is, and realizes that he is “as lost as I ever was.” Nobody attends the next meeting of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. Foy stages a protest outside the Wheaton Academy, singing We Shall Overcome and then shooting the white students’ school bus with his gun. Foy points the gun at the narrator, then at his own temple, and then, finally, shoots the narrator. Hominy cries and attends to the narrator while he bleeds.

The narrator is picked up by an ambulance, and when asked who his lawyer is he points to an advertisement for Hampton Fiske. At the grand jury indictment, Judge Nguyen tells the narrator that his case will go the Supreme Court. The narrative then jumps forward again to the session of the narrator’s Supreme Court case in Washington, DC. Fiske is wearing a bell-bottom jumpsuit, and gives a speech about what it means to be black. The narrator tries to smoke another joint, and he decides to leave the room while Fiske continues speaking. He sits on the steps of the Supreme Court and makes a pipe out of a soda can. He reflects that “Unmitigated Blackness” means accepting that “sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”

In the end, Foy is found innocent of attempted murder, but the narrator wins his civil suit against him. Hominy kisses the narrator and tells him that he’s “quitting” slavery, and that they will discuss reparations the next day. Marpessa and the narrator watch TV, and during the weather report Dickens is included along with the other cities in the area. The narrator is so happy that he cries. On the anniversary of his father’s death, he and Marpessa go to open-mike night at Dum Dum Donuts. The black man performing standup chases out a white couple, calling them “honkies” and telling them: “this is our thing.” The narrator closes with a memory of the day “the black guy” is inaugurated as president. Foy drives around Dickens waving an American flag. When the narrator questions him about it, Foy tells him he’ll “never understand,” and the narrator agrees.