Paul Beatty: Exploring race without limits

During a conversational interview with Man Booker prize-winning author Paul Beatty in late August, he relates a story about going to hear author and playwright Amiri Baraka speak.

“I went to hear him [Baraka] read once and he was talking about this guy who was like the quintessential coon, Stepin Fetchit,” says Beatty. “Stepin Fetchit was supposed to be the embodiment of what black slovenliness looked like. He was just supposed to be an utter buffoon. He moved really slow, talked really slow, supposedly thought very slow — the whole thing. Stepin would be in a movie and his boss would say: ‘Hey, why don’t you go and pick up that bucket 40 feet away’. But it would take Stepin Fetchit 20 minutes to move 40 feet. And Baraka said: ‘Really, only the most servile person runs to go get the bucket. What’s that slowness representing? What does it mean?’ I really loved that he said that. Even if it is a misreading, it is a nice interpretation of what’s happening.”

Beatty’s tale is a response to a question about the character Hominy in his book, The Sellout. The proposition is that Hominy is a stand-in for the average black American performer, thereby revealing the potential of stereotypes to be infinitely illuminating, if only we are willing to remove ourselves from entrenched vantage points. Hominy, a voluntary slave to the book’s main protagonist and narrator, is a former child star who performed in minstrel-like shows and is deployed in the story as a metaphor for quantifying progress.

It is difficult to read Beatty’s work without feeling a little roughed around. He complicates language, taking the kind of liberties with style and syntax that would give English purists heart palpitations.

The author, who in The Sellout uses tropes such as slavery and segregation as a way of looking at existing divisions and how the powerless explore usurping power, argues that as people “we often just see these surface things”. In The Sellout, it often seems as though different layers of consciousness are at play simultaneously, a credit to the author’s keen sense of human psychology (he studied it for a few years). The humour, although relentless and sometimes satirical, seems erudite and yet organic.

“It’s just the way I write,” he says. He is sitting on a high stool at Bridge Books in downtown Johannesburg. “It’s just my style. I think part of the reason I use humour is not to make it any more true or more authentic. It’s just part of the tone, the discourse that is missing when people talk about these issues.”

The book unfolds in a black, urban yet agrarian community called Dickens in Los Angeles County, which one day disappears off the map. To restore it to its rightful place, the narrator, who isn’t named, carves out a boundary of the town, thereby “segregating” it, and soon takes his endeavour a step forwards, segregating the bus system Jim Crow-style as well as a school. Beatty is playing with scale, “dimensionality”, as he says, and perspective. For instance, it is not the entire bus system that is segregated, but a single bus on a single route.

Also, Dickens, although it presents as a black community, is actually majority Hispanic, bringing to bear all types of interesting questions, such as: how does one go about “segregating” something that is already segregated? Los Angeles, regarded as one of the United States’ most diverse cities, is also one of its most compartmentalised, something the author periodically alludes to in the book.

Here — against social trends towards what he cites as WEB du Bois’s Talented Tenth-effect on the development of black and Latino communities — watermelons, grapes and satsumas prove to be some of the community’s real weapons of change. This is against the best efforts of the aptly named Dum Dum Donut’s Intellectuals, a clandestine group whose methods of social change include a “blackening” of dominant English literature. The Sellout metaphorically throws fruit in the face of a particular kind of black-elite intellectualism.

But recognising that does not prompt the criticism of “the black intellectual establishment” from Beatty as one might expect. Instead, like his protagonist’s quietly calculated decision to reconstruct his city and raise its embedded negritude to the surface — calling a watermelon a watermelon — Beatty acknowledges the complexity of the whole enterprise and steers the conversation towards the labour of writing good fiction. He does not waste time entertaining grandiosity or the burden often placed on black authors to be spokespeople of their race.

Addressing the agrarian streak, he says: “Growing up in Los Angeles, produce is such a big part of my upbringing and I’m not a big fruit eater necessarily,” he says. “I was thinking about being young and there would be these migrant worker strikes and boycotts and you wouldn’t eat grapes. So it made you examine, like, where do the grapes come from? Where does all this stuff come from? And then I have memories of sitting in my front porch and cracking pomegranates open and being very happy. There were fruit trees in the backyard. You were talking about space and territoriality, part of those markings for me are trees, plants, these things.”

In constantly looking for the most complex ways of rendering stereotypes, Beatty frees them from the bite of history, in a way, enabling his readers to experience similar sensations. He often balks at the suggestion that his work is satire, seeing the term as just another pigeonhole. But it is a suggestion he may be hard-pressed to escape.

At a Stateside reading attended by mostly black people, several members of the audience, with little discernible irony, posit to Beatty that the book rings true and not fictional. But in general, Beatty regards readers’ responses to his work as a little too earnest and laden with personal projections.

He relates an anecdote about how a reader responded to a passage in the book. “I remember when the book had just come out and I was talking to one guy (I’m gonna stereotype him and put him in the Black Lives Matter box). One of the things that spoke to this guy was the father getting killed by the cops in the beginning of the book. And I remember thinking: ‘That’s not that important to me.’ I mean, it is such an old issue and, for me, it is just a literary device and I mean it to mean something, but it’s not like this real contemporary thing for me. To me, it’s just like this stuff is so old, so ancient. For me, it’s just interesting when people become aware of these certain things.”

Beatty, now in his mid-50s and four novels deep, does not tweet, have a web page or a Facebook profile. In his books, too, his characters live without cellphones. The false sheen of contemporariness is removed and substituted with a more mindful way of experiencing the world.

By forcing us to meditate on race while freeing us from its prison, Beatty points us to an inhabitable future, one where our only borders, our abiding prisons, are primarily the ones buried deep in our psyches.

His work, and his manner of discussing it, appears as a welcome rebuttal of the implicit idea that black literature must constantly be involved in an exercise of saving. It is a comment that simply says: “No, thank you.”

In its own layered way, Beatty’s work echoes Toni Morrison’s sentiment of removing the distractions of race and injustice faced by black people.

The result is a story so specific, so frank and so entertaining that it is impossible to not feel caught out in some way — to which Beatty might say: “That’s on you, son.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
Dinika Govender
Dinika Govender
Writer and Entrepreneur.

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