The Sellout explores the tense relationship between black people and legal authority, highlighting the often-absurd nature of the American legal system. Due to its discriminatory treatment of black people, the law is shown to be an arbitrary, destructive force that has drifted far from its supposed goal of implementing justice. The novel also explores how, because of the criminalization of ordinary black people in America, the idea of criminality has taken on an inherent racial inflection. Yet just as the text emphasizes that racism will not be solved by ignoring racial stereotypes, it suggests that simply attempting to be respectable and law-abiding will similarly not defeat discrimination.
In the prologue, the narrator explores the impact of legal discrimination on the psychology of black people. He suggests 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.” Although there is an edge of irony and humor to this statement, the overall point is actually serious. Because simply existing as a black person is so often treated as a criminal act, black people are left with a profound sense of “cognitive dissonance” wherein they are made to feel guilty and paranoid even when they have done nothing wrong. While it may be an exaggeration to say that going to jail is a relief, it is in fact plausible that, for some people, this is actually true. The legal system targets black people in such a way that—particularly for those without resources and opportunities—jail can sometimes seem inescapable. The seeming inevitability of being sent to prison thus means that, when it actually happens, it can indeed be something of a “relief.”
The novel features many references to ways in which black people’s existence has been criminalized in America. For example, the narrator’s father takes him to Mississippi to participate in “reckless eyeballing” in order to prove that racism still exists. “Reckless eyeballing” refers to when black men look at white women in an apparently desirous manner—a simple and innocent act that has in many cases been punishable by death. The word “reckless” indicates that something as ordinary as looking at another person becomes a charged and dangerous act for black men.
The example of reckless eyeballing also shows how black people must navigate the dual threats of a discriminatory criminal justice system and the vigilante acts of racist individuals. Although lynching is sometimes posited as a thing of the past, The Sellout is haunted by the ongoing threat of lynching and other forms of violence against black people. Indeed, there is a connection drawn between vigilante acts and the unjust, inhumane treatment of black people by the police, most notably the shooting of the narrator’s father. While not a lynching in the traditional sense, the father’s death could be considered a form of lynching insofar as it was an act of brutality inflicted on him simply because he was black. The lack of accountability and responsibility associated with the police in the book suggests that there is no meaningful difference between police officers and random racist members of the public in this sense.
Aware of the extent to which black people’s mere existence is treated as criminal, the narrator at times chooses to embrace criminal activity. Perhaps the most comic and absurd example of this is when he chooses to smoke marijuana inside the Supreme Court, reasoning that the more serious crime he is charged with (holding a slave) will mean that nobody cares about something as minor as pot smoking. In a sense, the narrator’s decision to smoke marijuana also suggests that there is no point in taking great effort to avoid engaging in criminal activity when one will be treated as a criminal regardless. Although the scene in which he smokes marijuana is comic, it is serious in its rejection of respectability and conformity to the law as solutions to the mistreatment of black people by legal authority.
Criminality, Authority, and the Law ThemeTracker
Criminality, Authority, and the Law 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.
“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)."
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.