When the narrator is a child, his father teaches him to ask himself two questions: “Who am I? And how may I become myself?”, pointing out that this is “basic person-centered therapeutics.” The narrator returns to these questions throughout the novel, and they take on a number of different meanings. Following his father’s death and the removal of Dickens from the map, the narrator is left feeling lost, without a sense of identity and home. The search for one’s origins is a common literary trope and is particularly prevalent in African American writing, due to the severing of identity and ancestry that occurred during slavery. In The Sellout, this search takes a comic turn through the literal way the narrator’s hometown is erased from the map. However, questions over the author’s identity and the concept of blackness more broadly are nonetheless a serious dimension of this comic novel, but the book ultimately leaves them as questions rather than providing any real answers.
One of the central ways that the novel explores the narrator’s origins and identity is through the figure of his father. As with the narrator, we never learn the father’s first name, and their last name, “Mee,” is comically generic due to its proximity to the word “Me” (and the narrator even adopts the spelling “Me” for his Supreme Court case Me vs. the United States of America). Both the narrator and his father are in this sense identity-less. Indeed, the withholding of their names could be understood as a reference to the practice of renaming enslaved people. During slavery, the enslaved were not allowed to use their original African names, and were usually given the surname of the slaveholder. This aimed to erase the identity of the enslaved, and prevented both the enslaved and their descendants from tracing their ancestry.
The narrator did not know his mother; the only information he has about her is from the biographical note under her “Beauty of the Week” feature in Jet magazine. This reverses the stereotype of the absent black father, though it preserves the idea that the narrator is prevented from knowing his origins through the absence of one parent. Any connection the narrator has to his origins through his father is in turn broken when his father is killed by the police. The narrator’s father’s death demonstrates how ongoing racism and police brutality damage black families, creating absences and leaving people feeling lost.
In general, “home” is a difficult concept in the novel. The narrator’s hometown, Dickens, is a ghetto that is viewed with such disdain by the wider world that it is literally deleted from the map. This is a comically extreme example of the poor treatment to which majority-black communities in America are subjected. Dickens’ erasure suggests that the hatred directed toward black ghettoes is so intense that many people would rather that they simply did not exist. Dickens’ rejection is not limited to the borders of the United States, either. When the narrator attempts to match Dickens with a “sister city” from another country in order to put it back on the map, the matchmaking service indicates that it is most compatible with Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa, three cities known for being especially violent and undesirable places to live. However, even these cities do not want to associate with Dickens. Crucially, representatives from Kinshasa reject Dickens because it is “too black.” The fact that an African city calls Dickens “too black” indicates that blackness is not simply a marker of African descent. Rather, blackness is produced by the diasporic spread of people of African descent and, in particular, by slavery. Indeed, the trauma and identity erasure caused by slavery can be understood as why Kinshasa refuses to associate itself with American blackness.
Just as the narrator feels lost and disconnected from his origins and home, so does he feel confused and ambivalent about what it means to be black. Toward the end of the novel, when he witnesses a black comedian kick a white couple out of his show by claiming: “This is our thing,” the narrator wants to ask: “So what exactly is our thing?” Here the narrator appears to be jealous of the comedian’s understanding of blackness. Rather than achieving any certainty about his own home, origins, and racial identity, the narrator ends the book even more lost about these questions than he starts it.
Blackness, Origins, and Home ThemeTracker
Blackness, Origins, and Home Quotes in The Sellout
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I've never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
But I don’t feel responsible anymore. I understand now that the only time black people don't feel guilty is when we've actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief. In the way that cooning is a relief, voting Republican is a relief, marrying white is a relief—albeit a temporary one.
He's demanding to know how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave. How could I willfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together. Like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers. He wants to believe that Shakespeare wrote all those books, that Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves and the United States fought World War II to rescue the Jews and keep the world safe for democracy, that Jesus and the double feature are coming back. But I'm no Panglossian American. And when I did what I did, I wasn't thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.
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.
"If you ask me, Mark Twain didn't use the word 'nigger' enough," I mumbled. With my mouth filled with at least four of America's favorite cookies, I don't think anyone understood me. I wanted to say more. Like, why blame Mark Twain because you don't have the patience and courage to explain to your children that the "n-word" exists and that during the course of their sheltered little lives they may one day be called a "nigger" or, even worse, deign to call somebody else a "nigger." No one will ever refer to them as "little black euphemisms," so welcome to the American lexicon—Nigger!
Those pompous Dum Dum niggers wanted to ban the word, disinvent the watermelon, snorting in the morning, washing your dick in the sink, and the eternal shame of having pubic hair the color and texture of unground pepper. That's the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity. We want someone like Foy Cheshire to present our case to the world with a set of instructions that the jury will disregard centuries of ridicule and stereotype and pretend the woebegone niggers in front of you are starting from scratch.
“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?
During Black History Month, my father used to watch the nightly television footage of the Freedom buses burning, the dogs snarling and snapping, and say to me, "You can't force integration, boy. The people who want to integrate will integrate." I've never figured out to what extent, if at all, I agree or disagree with him, but it's an observation that's stayed with me. Made me realize that for many people integration is a finite concept. Here, in America, "integration" can be a cover-up. "I'm not racist. My prom date, second cousin, my president is black (or whatever)."
"You're supposed to wolf whistle! Like this…” Recklessly eyeballing her the whole way, he pursed his lips and let go a wolf whistle so lecherous and libidinous it curled both the white woman's pretty painted toes and the dainty red ribbon in her blond hair. Now it was her turn. And my father stood there, lustful and black, as she just as defiantly not only recklessly eyeballed him back but recklessly rubbed his dick through his pants.
I'm not so selfish as to believe that my relative happiness, including, but not limited to, twenty-four-hour access to chili burgers, Blu-ray, and Aeron office chairs is worth generations of suffering. I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.
"This is me at the Compton Cookout . . . I'm the third 'ghetto chick' from the right." I stole a glance at the snapshot. The women and their dates blackened and Afro-wigged, toting forties and basketballs, smoking blunts. Their mouths filled with gold teeth and chicken drumsticks. It wasn't so much the racist ridicule as the lack of imagination that I found insulting. Where were the zip coons? The hep cats? The mammies? The bucks? The janitors? The dual threat quarterbacks? The weekend weather forecasters? The front desk receptionists that greet you at every single movie studio and talent agency in the city? Mr. Witherspoon will be down in a minute. Can I get you a water? That's the problem with this generation; they don't know their history.
Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It's the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It's the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it's the nihilism that makes life worth living.
That's what I liked about the man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, "Get out. This is our thing." I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn't been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what he did or to stick up for the aggrieved white people. After all, they could've stood up for themselves, called in the authorities or their God, and smote everybody in the place, but I wish I'd stood up to the man and asked him a question: "So what exactly is our thing?”
“Why are you waving the flag?” I asked him. “Why now? I’ve never seen you wave it before.” He said that he felt like the country, the United States of America, had finally paid off its debts. “And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?” I asked him.
He just shook his head at me. Said something to the effect that my father would be ashamed of me and that I'd never understand. And he's right. I never will.