Born in Dickens, Los Angeles, the narrator of The Sellout spent his childhood as the subject in his father's racially charged psychological studies. He is told that his father's memoir will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed, he discovers there never was a memoir.
Fuelled by despair, he sets out to right this wrong with the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Release date: March 3, 2015
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Print pages: 304
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I suppose that's exactly the problem-I wasn't raised to know any better. My father was (Carl Jung, rest his soul) a social scientist of some renown. As the founder and, to my knowledge, sole practitioner of the field of Liberation Psychology, he liked to walk around the house, aka "the Skinner box," in a laboratory coat. Where I, his gangly, absentminded black lab rat was homeschooled in strict accordance with Piaget's theory of cognitive development. I wasn't fed; I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn't punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes. I wasn't loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment.
We lived in Dickens, a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, and as odd as it might sound, I grew up on a farm in the inner city. Founded in 1868, Dickens, like most California towns except for Irvine, which was established as a breeding ground for stupid, fat, ugly, white Republicans and the chihuahuas and East Asian refugees who love them, started out as an agrarian community. The city's original charter stipulated that "Dickens shall remain free of Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats, Frenchmen, redheads, city slickers, and unskilled Jews." However, the founders, in their somewhat limited wisdom, also provided that the five hundred acres bordering the canal be forever zoned for something referred to as "residential agriculture," and thus my neighborhood, a ten-square-block section of Dickens unofficially known as the Farms was born. You know when you've entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction-good weed. Grown men slowly pedal dirt bikes and fixies through streets clogged with gaggles and coveys of every type of farm bird from chickens to peacocks. They ride by with no hands, counting small stacks of bills, looking up just long enough to raise an inquisitive eyebrow and mouth: "Wassup? Q'vo?" Wagon wheels nailed to front-yard trees and fences lend the ranch-style houses a touch of pioneer authenticity that belies the fact that every window, entryway, and doggie door has more bars on it and padlocks than a prison commissary. Front porch senior citizens and eight-year-olds who've already seen it all sit on rickety lawn chairs whittling with switchblades, waiting for something to happen, as it always did.
For the twenty years I knew him, Dad had been the interim dean of the department of psychology at West Riverside Community College. For him, having grown up as a stable manager's son on a small horse ranch in Lexington, Kentucky, farming was nostalgic. And when he came out west with a teaching position, the opportunity to live in a black community and breed horses was too good to pass up, even if he'd never really been able to afford the mortgage and the upkeep.
Maybe if he'd been a comparative psychologist, some of the horses and cows would've lived past the age of three and the tomatoes would've had fewer worms, but in his heart he was more interested in black liberty than in pest management and the well-being of the animal kingdom. And in his quest to unlock the keys to mental freedom, I was his Anna Freud, his little case study, and when he wasn't teaching me how to ride, he was replicating famous social science experiments with me as both the control and the experimental group. Like any "primitive" Negro child lucky enough to reach the formal operational stage, I've come to realize that I had a shitty upbringing that I'll never be able to live down.
I suppose if one takes into account the lack of an ethics committee to oversee my dad's childrearing methodologies, the experiments started innocently enough. In the early part of the twentieth century, the behaviorists Watson and Rayner, in an attempt to prove that fear was a learned behavior, exposed nine-month-old "Little Albert" to neutral stimuli like white rats, monkeys, and sheaves of burned newsprint. Initially, the baby test subject was unperturbed by the series of simians, rodents, and flames, but after Watson repeatedly paired the rats with unconscionably loud noises, over time "Little Albert" developed a fear not only of white rats but of all things furry. When I was seven months, Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, "Nigger, go back to Africa!" loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting "Sweet Home Alabama" in the living room. To this day I've never been able to sit through even the most mundane TV crime drama, I have a strange affinity for Neil Young, and whenever I have trouble sleeping, I don't listen to recorded rainstorms or crashing waves but to the Watergate tapes.
Family lore has it that from ages one to four, he'd tied my right hand behind my back so I'd grow up to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. I was eight when my father wanted to test the "bystander effect" as it applies to the "black community." He replicated the infamous Kitty Genovese case with a prepubescent me standing in for the ill-fated Ms. Genovese, who, in 1964, was robbed, raped, and stabbed to death in the apathetic streets of New York, her plaintive Psychology 101 textbook cries for help ignored by dozens of onlookers and neighborhood residents. Hence, the "bystander effect": the more people around to provide help, the less likely one is to receive help. Dad hypothesized that this didn't apply to black people, a loving race whose very survival has been dependent on helping one another in times of need. So he made me stand on the busiest intersection in the neighborhood, dollar bills bursting from my pockets, the latest and shiniest electronic gadgetry jammed into my ear canals, a hip-hop heavy gold chain hanging from my neck, and, inexplicably, a set of custom-made carpeted Honda Civic floor mats draped over my forearm like a waiter's towel, and as tears streamed from my eyes, my own father mugged me. He beat me down in front of a throng of bystanders, who didn't stand by for long. The mugging wasn't two punches to the face old when the people came, not to my aid, but to my father's. Assisting him in my ass kicking, they happily joined in with flying elbows and television wrestling throws. One woman put me in a well-executed and, in retrospect, merciful, rear-naked chokehold. When I regained consciousness to see my father surveying her and the rest of my attackers, their faces still sweaty and chests still heaving from the efforts of their altruism, I imagined that, like mine, their ears were still ringing with my high-pitched screams and their frenzied laughter.
"How satisfied were you with your act of selflessness?"
Not at all Somewhat satisfied Very satisfied
1 2 3 4 5
On the way home, Pops put a consoling arm around my aching shoulders and delivered an apologetic lecture about his failure to take into account the "bandwagon effect."
Then there was the time he wanted to test "Servility and Obedience in the Hip-hop Generation." I must've been about ten when my father sat me down in front of a mirror, pulled a Ronald Reagan Halloween mask over his head, pinned a defunct pair of Trans World Airlines captain wings to his lab coat, and proclaimed himself a "white authority figure." "The nigger in the mirror is a stupid nigger," he explained to me in that screechy, cloying "white voice" comedians of color use, while attaching a set of electrodes to my temples. The wires led to a sinister-looking console filled with buttons, dials, and old-fashioned voltage gauges.
"You will ask the boy in the mirror a series of questions about his supposed nigger history from the sheet on the table. If he gets the question wrong or fails to answer in ten seconds, you will press the red button, delivering an electric shock that will increase in intensity with each wrong answer."
I knew better than to beg for mercy, for mercy would be a rant about getting what I deserved for reading the one comic book I ever owned. Batman #203, Spectacular Secrets of the Batcave Revealed, a moldy, dog-eared back issue someone had thrown into the farmyard and I brought inside and nursed back to readability like a wounded piece of literature. It was the first thing I had ever read from the outside world, and when I whipped it out during a break in my homeschooling, my father confiscated it. From then on, whenever I didn't know something or had a bad day in the neighborhood, he'd wave the comic's half-torn cover in my face. "See, if you weren't wasting your life reading this bullshit, you'd realize Batman ain't coming to save your ass or your people!"
I read the first question.
"Prior to declaring independence in 1957, the West African nation of Ghana was comprised of what two colonies?"
I didn't know the answer. I cocked my ears for the roar of the rocket-propelled Batmobile screeching around the corner, but could only hear my father's stopwatch ticking down the seconds. I gritted my teeth, placed my finger over the red button, and waited for the time limit to expire.
"The answer is Togoland and the Gold Coast."
Obediently, as my father predicted, I pressed the button. The needles on the dial and my spine both straightened, while I watched myself in the mirror jitterbug violently for a second or two.
"How many volts was that?" I asked, my hands shaking uncontrollably.
"The subject will ask only the questions that are listed on the sheet," my dad said coldly, reaching past me to turn a black dial a few clicks to the right, so that the indicator now rested on XXX. "Now, please read the next question."
I began to suffer from a blurring of vision I suspected was psychosomatic, but nonetheless everything was as out of focus as a five-dollar bootleg video on a swap-meet flat screen, and to read the next question I had to hold the quivering paper to my nose.
"Of the 23,000 eighth-grade students who took the entrance exam for admission into Stuyvesant High, New York's most elite public high school, how many African-Americans scored high enough to qualify for admission?"
When I finished reading, my nose began to bleed, red droplets of blood trickling from my left nostril and plopping onto the table in perfect one-second intervals. Eschewing his stopwatch, my father started the countdown. I glanced suspiciously at him. The question was too topical. Obviously he'd been reading The New York Times at breakfast. Prepping for the day's experiment by looking for racial fodder over a bowl of Rice Krispies. Flipping from page to page with a speed and rage that caused the paper's sharp corners to snap, crackle, and pop in the morning air.
What would Batman do if he rushed into the kitchen right then and saw a father electrocuting his son for the good of science? Why, he'd open up his utility belt and bust out some of those tear-gas pellets, and while my dad was choking on the fumes, he'd finish asphyxiating him, assuming there was enough bat rope to tie around his fat-ass hot-dog neck; then he'd burn out his eyeballs with the laser torch, use the miniature camera to take some pictures for bat-posterity, then steal Pop's classic, only-driven-on-trips-to-white-neighborhoods sky-blue Karmann Ghia convertible with the skeleton keys, and we'd bone the fuck out. That's what Batman would've done. But me, cowardly batfag that I was and still am, I could only think to question the question's shoddy methodology. For instance, how many black students had taken the admissions test? What was the average class size at this Stuyvesant High?
But this time, before the tenth drop of blood had landed on the table, and before my father could blurt out the answer (seven), I pressed the red button, self-administering a nerve-shattering, growth-stunting electric shock of a voltage that would've frightened Thor and lobotomized an already sedated educated class, because now I, too, was curious. I wanted to see what happens when you bequeath a ten-year-old black boy to science.
What I discovered was that the phrase "evacuate one's bowels" is a misnomer, because the opposite was true, my bowels evacuated me. It was a feces retreat comparable to the great evacuations of history. Dunkirk. Saigon. New Orleans. But unlike the Brits, the Vietnamese capitalists, and flooded-out residents of the Ninth Ward, the occupants of my intestinal tract had nowhere to go. What runny parts of that fetid tidal wave of shit and urine that didn't encamp itself about my buttocks and balls ran down my legs and pooled in and around my sneakers. Not wanting to hinder the integrity of his experiment, my father simply pinched his nose shut and motioned for me to proceed. Thank goodness, I knew the answer to the third question, "How many Chambers are in the Wu-Tang?" because if I hadn't, my brain would be the ash-gray color and consistency of a barbecue briquette on the Fifth of July.
My crash course in childhood development ended two years later, when Dad tried to replicate Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark's study of color consciousness in black children using white and black dolls. My father's version, of course, was a little more revolutionary. A tad more modern. While the Clarks sat two cherubic, life-sized, saddle-shoe-shod dolls, one white and one colored, in front of schoolchildren and asked them to choose the one they preferred, my father placed two elaborate dollscapes in front of me and asked me, "With whom, with what social-cultural subtext are you down with, son?"
Dollscape I featured Ken and Malibu Barbie dressed in matching bathing suits, appropriately snorkeled and goggled, cooling by the Dream House pool. In Dollscape II, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and a brown-skinned, egg-shaped Weeble toy were running (and wobbling) through a swampy thicket from a pack of plastic German shepherds leading an armed lynch party comprised of my G.I. Joes hooded in Ku Klux Klan sheets. "What's that?" I asked, pointing to a small white Christmas ornament that spun slowly over the bog, glittering and sparkling like a disco ball in the afternoon sun.
"That's the North Star. They're running toward the North Star. Toward freedom."
I picked up Martin, Malcolm, and Harriet, teasing my dad by asking, "What are these, inaction figures?" Martin Luther King, Jr., looked okay. Stylishly dressed in a glossy black tight-fitting suit, a copy of Gandhi's autobiography glued to one hand and a microphone in the other. Malcolm was similarly outfitted, but was bespectacled and holding a burning Molotov cocktail that was slowly melting his hand. The smiling, racially ambiguous Weeble, which looked suspiciously like a boyhood version of my father, stayed true to its advertising slogan by wobbling and never falling down, whether balanced precariously in the palm of my hand or chased by the knights of white supremacy. There was something wrong with Ms. Tubman, though. She was outfitted in a form-fitting burlap sack, and I don't remember any of my history primers describing the woman known as Moses as being statuesque with a 36-24-36 hourglass figure, long silky hair, plucked eyebrows, blue eyes, dick-sucking lips, and pointy titties.
"Dad, you painted Barbie black."
"I wanted to maintain the beauty threshold. Establish a baseline of cuteness so that you couldn't say one doll was prettier than the other."
Plantation Barbie had a string coming out of her back. I pulled it. "Math is hard, let's go shopping," she said in a squeaky singsong voice. I set the black heroes back down in the kitchen table swamp, moving their limbs so that they resumed their runaway poses.
"I'm down with Ken and Barbie."
My father lost his scientific objectivity and grabbed me by the shirt. "What? Why?" he yelled.
"Because the white people got better accessories. I mean, look. Harriet Tubman has a gas lantern, a walking stick, and a compass. Ken and Barbie have a dune buggy and speedboat! It's really no contest."
The next day my father burned his "findings" in the fireplace. Even at the junior college level it's publish or perish. But more than the fact he'd never get a parking space with his name on it or a reduced course load, I was a failed social experiment. A statistically insignificant son who'd shattered his hopes for both me and the black race. He made me turn in my dream book. Stopped calling my allowance "positive reinforcement" and began referring to it as "restitution." While he never stopped pushing the "book learning," it wasn't long after this that he bought my first spade, pitchfork, and sheep-shearing razor. Sending me into the fields with a pat on the tush and Booker T. Washington's famous quote pinned to my denim overalls for encouragement, "Cast down your bucket where you are."
* * *
If there is a heaven worth the effort that people make to get there, then I hope for my father's sake there's a celestial psychology journal. One that publishes the results of failed experiments, because acknowledging unsubstantiated theories and negative results is just as important as publishing studies proving red wine is the cure-all we'd always pretended it was.
My memories of my father aren't all bad. Though technically I was an only child, Daddy, like many black men, had lots of kids. The citizens of Dickens were his progeny. While he wasn't very good with horses, he was known around town as the Nigger Whisperer. Whenever some nigger who'd "done lost they motherfucking mind" needed to be talked down from a tree or freeway overpass precipice, the call would go out. My father would grab his social psychology bible, The Planning of Change, by Bennis, Benne, and Robert Chin, a woefully underappreciated Chinese-American psychologist my dad had never met but claimed as his mentor. Most kids got bedtime stories and fairy tales; I had to fall asleep to readings from chapters with titles like "The Utility of Models of the Environments of Systems for Practitioners." My father was nothing if not a practitioner. I can't remember a time when he didn't bring me along on a nigger whisper. On the drive over he'd brag that the black community was a lot like him-ABD.
"All but dissertation?"
"All but defeated."
When we arrived, he'd sit me on the roof of a nearby minivan or stand me atop an alleyway Dumpster, hand me a legal pad, and tell me to take notes. Among all the flashing sirens, the crying and broken glass crunching softly under his buckskin shoes, I'd be so scared for him. But Daddy had a way of approaching the unapproachable. His face sympathetic and sullen, palms turned up like a dashboard Jesus figurine, he'd walk toward some knife-wielding lunatic whose pupils were dilated to the size of atoms smashed by a quart of Hennessy XO and a twelve-pack light-beer chaser. Ignoring the bloodstained work uniform caked in brain and fecal matter, he'd hug the person like he was greeting an old friend. People thought it was his selflessness that allowed him to get so close, but to me it was his voice that got him over. Doo-wop bass deep, my father spoke in F-sharp. A resonant low-pitched tone that rooted you in place like a bobby-socked teenager listening to the Five Satins sing "In the Still of the Night." It's not music that soothes the savage beast but the systematic desensitization. And Father's voice had a way of relaxing the enraged and allowing them to confront their fears anxiety-free.
When I was in grade school, I knew from how the taste of the pomegranates would bring you to tears, from the way the summer sun turned our Afros blood-orange red, and from how giddy my father would get whenever he talked about Dodger Stadium, white Zinfandel, and the latest green flash sunset he'd seen from the summit of Mount Wilson that California was a special place. And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board, and gangster rap. Thanks to my dad's career in nigger-whispering, I was there for the birth of the latter, when at six o'clock on a cold, dark ghetto morning two blocks down from where I live, Carl "Kilo G" Garfield, hallucinating high on his own supply and Alfred Lord Tennyson's brooding lyricism, burst out of his garage squinting into his Moleskin, a smoldering crack pipe dangling from fingertips. It was the height of the crack rock era. I was about ten when he clambered into the bed of his tricked-out, hot-rod yellow Toyota pickup truck, the TO and the TA buffed out and painted over so that the brand name on the tailgate read just YO, and began reciting his verse at the top of his lungs, the slurred iambic pentameter punctuated with gun claps from his nickel-plated .38 and pleas from his mama to take his naked ass inside.
THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT-SKINNED SPADE
Half a liter, half a liter,
Half a liter onward
All in the alley of Death
Rode the Olde English Eight Hundred.
Forward, the Light-skinned Spade!
"Charge for the Bloods!" he said:
Into the alley of Death
Rode the Olde English Eight Hundred ...
When the SWAT team finally arrived on the scene, taking cover behind patrol car doors and the sycamore trees, clutching their assault rifles to their chests, none of them could stop giggling long enough to take the kill shot.
Theirs not to reason what the fuck,
Theirs but to shoot and duck:
Niggers to the right of them
Niggers to the left of them,
Niggers in front of them
Partied and blundered
Bumrush'd at caps and hollow point shell
While hooptie and hoodlum fell
They that had banged so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the ho's of Hell,
All that was left of them
Left of the Olde English Eight Hundred.
And when my father, the Nigger Whisperer-that beatific smile splashed across his face-eased his way past the police barricade, put a tweed-jacketed arm around the broken-down drug dealer, and spoke some whispered profundity into his ear, Kilo G blinked blankly like a stage-show volunteer struck dumb by an Indian casino hypnotist, then calmly handed over his gun and the keys to his heart. The police closed in for the arrest, but my father asked them to stay back, beckoning Kilo to finish his poem, even joining in at the end of each line, pretending he knew the words.
When can their shine and buzz fade?
Oh the buckwild charge they made!
All the motherfuckin' world wondered.
Respect the charge they made
Respect the charge of the Light-skinned Spade
The noble now empty Olde English Eight Hundred.
The police vans and cruisers disappeared into the morning haze, leaving my father, godlike, alone in the middle of the street, reveling in his humanitarianism. Cockily, he turned toward me. "You know what I said to get that psychotic motherfucker to lower his gun?"
"What did you say, Daddy?"
"I said, 'Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?' That's basic person-centered therapeutics. You want the client to feel important, to feel that he or she is in control of the healing process. Remember that shit."
I wanted to ask him why he never spoke to me in the same reassuring tone that he used with his "clients," but I knew, instead of an answer, I'd get the belt, and my healing process would involve Mercurochrome and, in place of being grounded, a sentence of five to no less than three weeks of Jungian active imagination. In the distance, hurtling away from me like some distant spiral galaxy, the red and blue sirens spun silently but brilliantly, lighting up the mist of the morning marine layer like some inner-city aurora borealis. I fingered a bullet hole in the tree bark, thinking that like the slug buried ten rings deep in the trunk, I'd never leave this neighborhood. That I'd go to the local high school. Graduate in the middle of my class, another Willie Lump Lump with a six-line résumé rife with spelling errors, trekking back and forth between the Job Center, the strip club parking lot, and the civil service exam tutorials. I'd marry, fuck, and kill Marpessa Delissa Dawson, the bitch next door and my one and only love. Have kids. Threaten them with military school and promises not to bail them out if they ever got arrested. I'd be the type of nigger who played pool at the titty bar and cheated on his wife with the blond cheese girl from the Trader Joe's on National and Westwood Boulevards. I'd stop pestering my father about my missing mother, finally admitting to myself that motherhood, like the artistic trilogy, is overrated. After a lifetime of beating myself up for never having been breast-fed or finishing The Lord of the Rings, Paradise, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, eventually, like all lower-middle-class Californians, I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since the '68 quake. So introspective questions like "Who am I? And how can I be that person?" didn't pertain to me then, because I already knew the answer. Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father's child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.
Copyright © 2015 by Paul Beatty
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