Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ and the Racism of The Little Rascals

Paul Beatty
Paul Beatty. Image via PBS NewsHour

“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

-Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction (and now the 2016 Man Booker Prize), is a brutally funny-awful-sad-funny riff on racism in America, about an African American man who attempts to re-segregate his hometown — a fictional suburb of Los Angeles called Dickens. Beatty’s protagonist paints a border around Dickens, distributes “No whites allowed” signs to the local businesses, and gets help from a local celebrity, Hominy Jenkins, who was an understudy to Buckwheat and the last surviving cast member of the 1920s and ’30s serial “The Little Rascals.”

Through Hominy we also get a primer on the racist history of Hollywood — what was removed from public view, and what is still on display today. Beatty’s book led me back through my own childhood memories watching “The Little Rascals” in reruns during the early 1980s, unaware of the racist humor that was excised from syndication. Through The Sellout we get a tour of our ugly cultural past — Our Gang and Looney Tunes as just a start — and Beatty’s humor guides us through the injustices of the present.

Further reading:

• Interview with Paul Beatty (Scott Simon, NPR)
• New York Times Book Review (2015)
• An excerpt from The Sellout