With his soft-spoken manner and this-close-to dad jeans, Paul Beatty doesn’t give you racial satirist and provocateur, but that is exactly what the acclaimed author is. Beatty, who first gained attention in the 1990s as a major player in the slam poetry scene, made his debut as a novelist in ’96 with his scathing novel, The White Boy Shuffle. Since then, Beatty has dedicated his career—which also includes Tuff (2000), Slumberland (2008) and two collections of poetry—to setting off trigger points with a blazing wit that unearths humor in topics rarely seen as funny.
With The Sellout, his first novel in seven years (“I work slow,” he says), the 52-year old L.A. native and longtime NYC resident has come up with a fantastical narrative so out there that it almost makes perfect sense. Set in Dickens, an “agrarian ghetto” loosely based on a real and obscure town outside of Compton, The Sellout is a fractured coming-of-age tale of a young man who, in his attempt to put his town back on the map, literally decides to reinstitute slavery and segregate the local schools, only to find himself before the Supreme Court.
In the midst of his nationwide book tour, EBONY sat down with Beatty at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore.
EBONY: When I was reading The Sellout, I kept thinking about the reason Dave Chappelle gave for walking away from the Chappelle Show.
Paul Beatty: He heard somebody laughing and he felt like they were laughing the wrong way? Or at the wrong thing?
EBONY: Something like that. And supposedly Chappelle’s White partner Neal Brennan was pushing the humor in that direction.
PB: Really? I didn’t know that part.
EBONY: So the connection I made between you and Chappelle—other than you’re both very funny in the way you take on race—is wondering whether you’re concerned that some White people might feel they have a license to laugh the wrong way.
PB: I don’t have an answer for that. Are you White?
PB: I think everybody has a license to laugh anytime they feel like laughing. It’s just laughing. I don’t want to take it too far than what it is. But sometimes it’s what you do while you’re laughing, who you’re with. I don’t want anybody to give me permission to laugh. About anything. I haven’t really thought about it.
Somebody brought [the Chappelle comparison] up earlier. Well, one thing: I don’t have a White partner pushing me. Any stupid direction I go is my fault. I don’t have a pat answer. I wish I did. My sister said that people are really smart, and hopefully, even if they’re uncomfortable laughing, have an idea what’s behind that laughter—where that discomfort is coming from and maybe think something beyond that. I’m not trying to tell someone how to read a book. Hopefully it’s written well enough that people can read between the lines.
EBONY: The N-word is used pretty liberally throughout the book. It’s certainly not gratuitous, but even so, did using it give you any pause?
PB: I don’t use [the N-word] a lot, but I use it. But I don’t like people trying to bury the word. Not because I’m pro the word. But a big part of the book is people burying things that they don’t want to deal with. Life doesn’t work like that, and neither do their tactics. It’s not going anywhere; you can’t control that language. And when you do, you build up resentment and people feel censored in a weird way. And it’s interesting who does the controlling. There’s a lot of class things going on. That’s the stuff I’m not comfortable with.
EBONY: How so?
PB: I get tired of people constantly telling other people how to behave properly. “This is what you’re supposed to be like this is what you’re supposed to talk like…”
EBONY: À la Bill Cosby telling Black kids to pull up their pants.
PB: That kind of thing. I’m old and just tired of hearing that lecture over and over again by people who are in no position to be lecturing. No one is in that position to do that.
EBONY: I guess some people can feel more comfortable with the N-word if the “er” is left off.
PB: When I first started [using the N-word], I did the same thing. But now I’m like, all my grammar is correct [laughs], and the word is there for a reason. I’m not using it to throw in a person’s face. Sometimes it’s just rhythm. But the word has a lot of weight to it. And people are going to read it differently. Some are going to know how to read it, some aren’t. But the word is the word. The pronunciation, how it sounds in your head is a whole ’nother thing.
EBONY: I know it’s easy to find an issue with folks using words or expressions that are perceived to be “owned”—and I say that in quotes—by a specific community.
PB: There’s a section in the book where the narrator talks about how being Black used to have some privacy. But with the Internet, everything is instantly out there. Everybody thinks they know what everything means and knows the ramifications; it’s impossible. No one does. But artists appropriate. That’s what they do.
EBONY: As long as you don’t get caught.
PB: I don’t necessarily mean steal, but you’re influenced by stuff. Sometimes you don’t know why you’re doing it or the larger ramifications. You just like it and you use it. Sometimes you misuse it. [It] can be a crime, but it’s not necessarily a crime.
EBONY: I first became aware of you as a “spoken word” poet.
PB: I never considered myself that. I just read and sat down. I guess I was a part of that scene… Why did I stop? I hated hearing myself. I got really tired of hearing myself. It just started getting so “peform-acy” and I got really uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with the association and the way they took themselves. It wasn’t for me. I’m like that with anything. Dogma might be too strong of a word, but I can be uncomfortable with that, especially if I don’t subscribe.
EBONY: There’s a scene in the book where a White woman tells a Black woman, and I’m paraphrasing, that the problem isn’t race, it’s class. So, is it?
PB: Don’t know. It’s both all the time. Sometimes it’s one more than the other and people want it to be more one than the other.
EBONY: Which is easier to deal with?
PB: I don’t have these kind of answers. I don’t talk like this, sorry. It’s not the subject matter, but it’s: what’s the answer? I refuse to participate. I don’t see what that solves. I am completely uncomfortable with that. I just try to take things and conversations as they come. That’s kind of the fun of writing a book.
I’m trying not to talk in that weird way. I’m trying to have a bunch of things happening at the same time. Because maybe it’s easier to write about? When you talk, you often talk in generalities and lowest common denominators so everyone’s on the same page, so I understand why people do it. Race or class? I don’t know. I wish it was that easy. Then maybe some problem solving could be done.
Amy Linden is a pop culture writer and educator whose work has appeared in Vibe, The New York Times, XXL and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @notfornothin59.