Dickens, the fictional “ghetto community” where the narrator grew up and the entire novel is set, is a city within the greater Los Angeles area. The vast majority of Dickens’ population is black, with a small number of Mexicans. Shortly after the death of the narrator’s father, Dickens is quietly removed from the map of California. While the residents remain in place, the narrator feels that the municipal erasure of Dickens means it has “disappeared”; his mission to “bring back Dickens” forms the backbone of the novel’s plot. Part of the narrator’s attachment to Dickens connects to the importance of origins and home. After the death of his father and the disappearance of Dickens, the narrator is left completely rootless, lost, and confused. This sense of rootlessness caused by the loss or erasure of home is a major theme in African-American literature and culture. In The Sellout, it is literalized by Dicken’s sudden removal from the map, an act that also speaks to the way in which black people (and especially poor black communities) are treated as disposable by the American authorities. There is so much stigma associated with being from Dickens that some residents are relieved when Dickens disappears, because they no longer have to admit that they come from the city. However, over the course of the novel the narrator inspires pride and enthusiasm among his fellow “Dickensians” through acts such as his decision to paint a border around the city.
Eventually, the narrator decides to re-segregate Dickens in order to bring back the city. This process starts with Marpessa’s bus, before spreading to Chaff Middle School and other public institutions. Although it may seem counterintuitive to resurrect a majority-black city through segregation, the narrator’s plan is successful, suggesting that segregation may not be inherently harmful if it is done in service of black communities, rather than as a way of entrenching racial inequality. At the end of the novel, the narrator returns to a “Welcome Home” party in Dickens after his Supreme Court case in Washington, DC. “Welcome Home” here has a double meaning—not only is the narrator being welcomed to his home, but Dickens itself is being welcomed back, as on the day of the party it is included in the weather report, revealing that the narrator’s plan to bring it back was successful. The overall arc of the novel thus takes the form of a homecoming story akin to Homer’s Odyssey, with the added twist that home itself—while it may physically exist— is something that must be searched for and resurrected.
Dickens Quotes in The Sellout
In a way most Dickensians were relieved to not be from anywhere. It saved them the embarrassment of having to answer the small-talk "Where are you from?" question with "Dickens," then watching the person apologetically back away from you.
“Segregate the school.” As soon as I said it, I realized that segregation would be the key to bringing Dickens back. The communal feeling of the bus would spread to the school and then permeate the rest of the city. Apartheid united black South Africa, why couldn't it do the same for Dickens?