The Sellout challenges the idea that the story of the contemporary United States is one of racial progress in any straightforward sense. Many things that are supposedly confined to the past—including slavery, segregation, and blackface—appear in the novel, suggesting that these parts of history are not really over, but instead linger in different forms in the present. Examples of progress and regress (that is, going backwards) become completely mixed up, indicating that progress is never a direct linear phenomenon but rather is always accompanied by backlash, regress, and the return of pieces of history that were presumed long gone.
The novel begins and ends with the narrator’s Supreme Court case, Me vs. the United States of America. The narrator places this case in a lineage that includes Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson, two cases in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of upholding racial discrimination. The story of the Civil Rights movement is often told through the series of Supreme Court cases that dismantled racial discrimination, but Dred Scott and Plessy remind us that not all cases led to progress. The narrator’s own case, in which he—a black man—is charged for owning a black slave, takes this idea of regress to absurd, comic proportions. In the novel, then, the Supreme Court (and the U.S. government as a whole) is not posited as an instrument of justice, but rather an institution that has inhibited the path to progress at least as much as it has enabled it.
The character of Hominy Jenkins is one of the most important ways in which the novel explores the idea of regress. Hominy is an elderly man who tries to hang himself in a scene that bears a strong resemblance to lynching. Instead of being lynched by a mob, however, Hominy attempts to lynch himself, thereby introducing the fact that he is bizarrely determined to resurrect the worst elements of America’s treatment of black people and inflict them on himself. This continues when, after the narrator saves Hominy’s life, Hominy insists on enslaving himself to the narrator, who he begins calling “Massa.” The idea that a black man would voluntarily lynch or enslave himself is obviously absurd, but the novel uses this comic absurdity to challenge understandings of racial progress. The trauma of America’s historical treatment of black people lingers in the present, causing black characters like Hominy to behave in nonsensical, self-sabotaging ways.
Another major example of regress in the novel is the narrator’s effort to re-segregate the city of Dickens. Following Dickens’ removal from the map, the narrator decides that the only way to reinstate the city is to re-segregate it. This again challenges the idea that progress is linear. The narrator’s desire to bring back Dickens is a desire to bring back something that already existed but was taken away—but it’s an open question whether or not this counts as a desire for progress or regress. Hominy hopes that re-segregating the city will encourage white people to move to it. He points out that this is the opposite of “white flight,” what he humorously calls “Ku Klux Influx.” White flight might be considered part of a regress narrative, as it is a sign of increased racial segregation that leads to the economic depression of areas that white people have left. On the other hand, the “Ku Klux Influx” the narrator seeks is arguably just another name for gentrification, a very real phenomenon that also defies easy categorization as either progress or regress. Gentrification means increased economic prosperity, but it also involves the destruction of existing communities (usually those of people of color). As the narrator’s actions show, it is also closely tied to racial re-segregation. The narrator’s explicit efforts to re-segregate Dickens may initially appear absurd, but in fact these efforts reflect the impact of gentrification in real life. This shows that the desire for economic prosperity and white “influx”—which some people would consider indicators of progress—are directly tied to the regression of racial equality.
The narrator’s ambivalence about the inauguration of Barack Obama at the end of the novel encapsulates the text’s relation to the tension between progress and regress. As Foy Cheshire celebrates Obama’s inauguration with a sudden display of patriotism, the narrator looks on in bemusement. The implication of this is that unlike Foy, the narrator is not convinced that Obama’s presidency is proof that America has progressed to a point of racial equity. When Foy tells the narrator that he’ll “never understand” and the narrator agrees, the narrator appears to resign himself to the nonsensical combination of progress and regress that defines life in America. He refuses to join in with Foy’s celebration of the apparent progress of Obama’s election because he knows that pure progress is not possible.
Progress vs. Regress ThemeTracker
Progress vs. Regress Quotes in The Sellout
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.
"That's gay," countered her Latino nemesis, who was juggling the gonads with one hand.
"Juggling is gay!"
"Calling people who call you 'gay' just because you called them' gay' is gay!"
"Okay, that's enough." Charisma scolded. "My God, is there anything you kids don't think is gay?"
The fat boy thought for a long moment. "You know what's not gay...being gay."
“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)."
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.
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.