Why a Comical Book About Slavery? Ask Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty
Hannah Assouline

Paul Beatty’s writing defies categorization. The author’s two collections of poetry and three novels have alternately been called satirical, dystopian, absurdist and postmodern. While the closest classification, Beatty himself admits, is absurdist, even that is rather wide of the mark.

Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout, is, on a plot level, the story of Mr. Me, a “not-so-proud descendant of the Kentucky Mees, one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles,” who finds himself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The reason? With his decrepit hometown of Dickens suddenly disappeared from the map, Mr. Me has taken it upon himself to reinstall both segregation and slavery to rescue the town from oblivion.


One can easily see the fictitious town’s erasure as an allegory for the failure of the U.S. to acknowledge the horror of its enslavement of black Americans, and its attempt, instead, to erase this aspect of history. But the story is much deeper. Through a barrage of astute social commentary—ranging from the figure of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (oftentimes called a sellout himself, depending on your politics) and the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson court cases to racial profiling, voting rights, white people who still insist on calling President Barack Obama a monkey, and innumerable, poignant reminders that institutionalized racial violence is alive and well in this present age—Beatty crafts a powerful tale of a young black man trying to make sense of it all.

The Root caught up with Beatty while he was taking a break from New York City for a brief visit to Los Angeles to see family.  


The Root: Let’s start with the obvious. Why segregation? Why slavery?

Paul Beatty: You know how some people say, “Oh, black people were better off under segregation—we owned this, we owned that. We did this.” All that kind of stuff. This weird, reactionary way of thinking, for lack of a better word. And for me it was just interesting to try to push that: What would that look like today?


TR: You began as a poet, publishing two books of poetry. How does poetry influence your fiction writing?

PB: I like writing prose and I think writing poetry is the same thing. The process isn’t different. It’s just a matter of sitting down and getting what’s in my head out on the page.


TR: Your first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, was published in 1996 to critical acclaim. It is the story of a black boy growing up in a white L.A. suburb who then moves to a black suburb and back again, who, like you, is a widely successful poet who studies at Boston University. How autobiographical was this?

PB: Some of it is autobiographical. The character is much more social than I am. Maybe some of the situations are based on real things. The little landmark stuff in the book is autobiographical. I did live in Santa Monica and Venice before moving to L.A. It wasn’t an all-black neighborhood, but it was different. I never had a mail-order bride, though.


TR: What was it like growing up in Santa Monica and Venice?

PB: I have fine memories of Santa Monica. We lived right by the beach, and even as little kids we would walk to the beach—my two younger sisters and me.


TR: Did you ever experience racial violence by others because you were a black man?

PB: Yes, of course. Between the police and everything else, it happens. In L.A., of course.


TR: You have been called a “new black” writer, a satirist, an absurdist and postmodern. Do you agree?

PB: I don’t think of myself in terms of labels. I’m definitely not a “new black” writer. I’m “new” in a chronological sense, but I’m just trying to get myself out there and not have the same discussion over and over, which I find boring. I’m more comfortable with “absurdist” than “satirist,” but I don’t think of myself that way.


Hopefully, in my work there are a lot of things that feel real. I think people throw those words around because my writing is not easy to categorize. I’m interested in trying to create space as a thinker, as a doer in the world.

TR: What themes would you say run through your novels?

PB: A little love in there. Friendship, the value of friendship. What multiculturalism feels like on a day-to-day basis, not on a news … basis or a curriculum basis.


TR: You write about race, albeit with satire and humor. How easy or difficult is it to talk about race in America?

PB: People say all this stuff as a way to avoid saying anything. Some things are hard to talk about. It’s just a fact. I still think that people do talk about it. But I don’t like the phrase people say: “We’re going to come to the table … ” What’s at the table? It’s the way that people talk about talking about race that for me is the problem, not the way people talk about race. I don’t think it’s supposed to be an easy conversation.


TR: In The Sellout, you have the character of a black man who owns a slave and wants to bring back segregation between whites and blacks in America. How do you respond to critics who say that this character creates a false narrative relating to the very real violence against blacks in America, particularly black men, who are disproportionately victims of violence by the police and state?

PB: People do that. I’m not a person to tell people how to read something. You have to read the book.


TR: What is your favorite thing about writing?

PB: When you finish the book, there is a sense of relief and accomplishment. It wasn’t something I ever thought I would do.


Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed from its original length.

Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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