The Sellout satirically manipulates stereotypes to the point of absurdity in order to challenge our understandings of race, gender, sexuality, psychology, history, and other serious, complex topics. In doing so, it forces the reader to confront their own assumptions and indirectly critiques the norms of representation, particularly when it comes to issues of race and blackness. By exaggerating stereotypes to the point of absurdity and scandal, The Sellout illuminates how nonsensical these stereotypes really are.
In the prologue, the narrator references a large variety of stereotypes about black men. For example, the novel opens with the narrator’s claim that the reader will be surprised to learn that he has never participated in criminal activity. By explicitly presuming that the reader holds stereotyped views, the novel forces the reader to confront the expectations and stereotypes that they might have. Later in the prologue, when the narrator discusses having a large penis and smoking marijuana inside the Supreme Court, the reader is again forced to reflect on the stereotypes that circulate around black men. The beginning of the novel may be shocking and absurd, but it is also familiar, because these stereotypes are deeply ingrained in the public imagination. While we as readers might disavow that we believe in these stereotypes, they remain recognizable and therefore meaningful, showing the harmful effect that they carry despite their ridiculousness.
The abundance of stereotypes in the novel suggests that the best way to fight them is not necessarily to avoid them altogether. At one point, while looking at photos of Butterfly and her sorority sisters in various forms of blackface and other stereotypical racial costuming, the narrator observes that the problem with stereotypes isn’t necessarily inherent to stereotypes themselves—it is that people constantly return to the same very small number of them. This flattens the reality of different races and cultures by limiting them to only a handful of stereotypes, rather than acknowledging the diversity within any particular group. Indeed, we could read The Sellout as emphasizing this diversity through its display of so many different stereotypes, many of which contradict one another. In this way, the novel directly confronts stereotypes, pushing them to their extremes while simultaneously undermining their power.
The danger of turning away from stereotypes completely is especially emphasized by Foy Cheshire’s efforts to erase them. Foy rewrites children’s books in order to make them less racist, and the narrator suggests that Foy and the other Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals would “disinvent the watermelon” if they could (referencing the stereotype that black people love watermelon). The narrator believes that attempting to ignore and erase stereotypes is not a viable solution to the problem of racism. After all, problems persist even if we pretend they do not exist.
Of course, irony, satire, and absurdity also play a crucial role here. By deploying stereotypes satirically, the novel is able to confront stereotypes while demonstrating how ridiculous they are. Indeed, exaggerating stereotypes to the point of absurdity is one way of investigating how stereotypes operate and what role they serve. If various types of prejudice and bigotry are inherently absurd at their core—since they involve flattening different groups into ridiculous parodies of their true humanity—then an especially powerful way to highlight this absurdity is through the medium of extreme satire, as Beatty employs throughout the book.
Stereotypes and Absurdity ThemeTracker
Stereotypes and Absurdity 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.
"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 frigid. Not in the sense that I don't have any sexual desire, but in the obnoxious way men in the free-love seventies projected their own sexual inadequacies onto women by referring to them as "frigid" and "dead fish." I'm the deadest of fish. I fuck like an overturned guppy. A plate of day-old sashimi has more "motion of the ocean" than I do. So on the day of the shooting and drive-by orange-ing, when Marpessa stuck a tongue suspiciously tangy with satsuma tartness into my mouth and ground her pudenda into my
pelvic bone, I lay there on my bed—motionless.
"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.