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Injuries and Usurpations: The Sellout & The Underground Railroad

In Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is set for the most part in the antebellum South, there is a scene in which the novel’s villain, a fearsome slave catcher named Ridgeway, observes a ‘dirty white flood’ of European immigrants disembarking at New York. ‘Helpless as niggers, by any measure,’ he thinks. ‘But they’d be called to their proper places, as he had.’ He regards these poor tired people taking their first bewildered steps into the new world as little more than human refuse – and yet, he muses, ‘possibilities lay before these pilgrims like a banquet’. They will shape the nation’s future in accordance with its ‘unstoppable racial logic’, which decrees that you get what you deserve:

If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.

Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.

There is no subject that exposes the tensions, hypocrisies and flat-out contradictions of the United States’ defining myths – manifest destiny, individual liberty, self-reliance, exceptionalism – as starkly as that of race. It is hardly surprising that some of the most trenchant critiques of the nation’s problematic relationship with its own ideals should be found in the work of African-American writers. Whitehead’s historical novel and Paul Beatty’s satire The Sellout are unalike in almost every respect, but on this point they share a consciousness, if not exactly an attitude. They have a common set of underlying preoccupations, which follow from the obvious historical fact that the institution of slavery made a mockery of the nation’s declared allegiance to the ideals of freedom and equality. What both novelists address, in their very different ways, is the problem of a nation divided against itself, not simply in a material and tribal sense, but on the fundamental level of its founding ideology. Both recognise that its history of conquest, exploitation and systemic inequality generates a profound cognitive dissonance.

It is this cognitive dissonance that Whitehead encapsulates in the embittered ‘logic’ of Ridgeway’s racism, which simultaneously endorses freedom and fatalism, describing a world of possibility in which everyone is subject to the iron law of a providential scheme. The contradiction is a direct result of the need to rationalise rapacity and exploitation, excuse blatant cruelty and oppression. In fusing its project of colonial expansion to the democratic rhetoric of the revolutionary eighteenth century, the United States created for itself a distinct moral and ideological quandary, since a frank acknowledgement of its violent history risks exposing the fraudulence of the justifications that underpinned the whole exercise. Thus Ridgeway’s condemnation is directed most vehemently against history’s victims. His sour affirmation of the nation’s manifest destiny becomes a catch-22, its form reminiscent of the old joke about Calvinism – defined as the doctrine that your life of misery and hardship is predestined, and it’s your own stupid fault.

The Underground Railroad is a rewriting of nineteenth-century slave narratives. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is the most famous example, though scores were published during that time (including a few fakes), their revelations about the unconscionable horrors of slavery giving impetus to the abolitionist movement. These narratives assumed a common form. They testified to the brutality of the system and told tales of perilous escape from the South to the promise of freedom in the North. In the process, these personal testimonies restored to the fugitive slaves that which the system denied them – namely, their claims to individuality, intelligence and basic human dignity.

The protagonist of The Underground Railroad is a young third-generation slave named Cora. Her flight from a cotton plantation in Georgia takes her through several southern and midwestern states – South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana – each of which represents ‘a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things’. Whitehead’s embellishment of the basic slave narrative is to imagine that the clandestine network of abolitionists, who defied the law to harbour and assist runaways, often at considerable personal risk, operated a railroad that is literally underground. Cora speeds from one state to the next via secret tunnels, which provide the novel with a convenient plot device and a unifying metaphor for a sense of solidarity and hope sustained in defiance of a barbaric legal and social order.

This premise notwithstanding, Whitehead plays his historical subject straight. The Underground Railroad is a litany of atrocities. The insistent regularity of the violence serves to reinforce its pervasive and systemic nature. The novel is blunt when it comes to dramatising the consequences of reducing human beings to the status of chattels, their value assessed only in economic terms. In one scene, Ridgeway realises that the reward for a captured slave will not cover the cost of returning him, so he shoots him dead. But Whitehead also emphasises the corrosive psychological implications of the racist system – a system maintained by naked violence, the purpose of which was not simply to punish but to intimidate, to force slaves to internalise their submissiveness, to make it absolutely clear that their situation was hopeless, that escape was impossible. ‘It was customary for a slave to witness the abuse of their brethren as moral instruction,’ he observes. ‘That was you up there even when it was not.’

The Underground Railroad depicts the depravity of slavery as absolute. Its institutional status is described in fatalistic terms; its moral perversions are seen to affect the whole society of the slave-owning states, empowering its most regressive elements. The patrollers seconded to hunt down runaway slaves, notes Whitehead, ‘were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type’. The novel makes clear that the sanctioned violence of slavery was not containable, because the atmosphere of intimidation must also extend to any whites who might take pity on a runaway slave. Since a manifestly cruel and unjust system can only sustain itself by the use of disproportionate force, it must constantly redouble its efforts, reinforce its apparent unassailability. ‘As the years pass, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression,’ observes one character. ‘It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.’ And since the violence must take the form of a spectacle in order to have its intended effect, the oppressors must deprave themselves even further. In an early scene in Georgia, the wealthy plantation owner and his guests take their meal on the lawn, so they can watch impassively as an errant slave is hideously tortured to death. In North Carolina, Cora is harboured in a town where the citizens gather on a Friday to watch white actors capering in blackface, the evening’s entertainment culminating in a real lynching. ‘Believing she had escaped the logic of our system’ is how a local dignitary characterises their victim’s crime.

Threaded through The Underground Railroad is a debate about the meaning and validity of the American idea, set against this indefensible stain on the nation’s history. One of the texts that shadows the narrative is the Declaration of Independence, which is ironised and affirmed at different moments. ‘The Declaration of Independence was their masterpiece,’ Whitehead writes of the founding fathers – adding a sly decontextualised quotation: ‘“A history of repeated injuries and usurpations.”’ In the early plantation scenes, there is a quick-witted slave whose former master made him memorise the complete text, and who is occasionally called upon to recite it for the amusement of his new owner – a demand that trivialises its ‘half understood’ principles by treating them as a diverting novelty. Yet fragments of the Declaration lodge in Cora’s mind like a faint but persistent hope: ‘She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men.’ Near the end of the novel, she encounters a teacher, who tells her that the Declaration is ‘like a map. You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.’

Whitehead is interested in the slave-narrative form as a testing of the promises of freedom and equality. He is particularly good at exploiting the dramatic potential of the genre, the many opportunities it affords for narrow escapes and sudden reversals of fortune. But he sees its wider significance in its archetypal trajectory (from enslavement to freedom) and its reorientation of the triumphalist ideology of manifest destiny (pilgrims head west, runaway slaves head north). Cora’s story gives her stake in the nation’s defining myths, even as it calls them into question. Late in the novel, Ridgeway reiterates his belief in the glorious mission

to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription.

For Ridgeway, runaway slaves are an affront because they are ‘a flaw in the American system’. And it is in this sense that his pursuit of Cora acquires its figurative dimension. ‘I’m a notion of order,’ he tells her. ‘The slave that disappears – it’s a notion, too. Of hope.’

Cora’s physical journey parallels her struggle to liberate her consciousness from the totalitarian logic of slavery. Her sensibility is not religious. She is distrustful of narratives of salvation; she does not believe in the efficacy of prayer. Part of her wonders if ‘everything the slave catcher said was true’. When she passes through Tennessee, which has recently been ravaged by fire and disease, she feels a surge of anger and bitterness that mirrors Ridgeway’s vindictive sense of cosmic justice: ‘The whites got what they deserved. For enslaving her people, for massacring another race, for stealing the very land itself’. Yet when she attempts a deeper moral reckoning, she cannot accept that any such principle of justice operates in a world where ‘the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree’.

The way in which Whitehead seeks to resolve this problem is perhaps the most interesting feature of The Underground Railroad. One of the symbolic aspects of Cora’s flight toward the sanctuary of the northern states is that it also veers to the west. The turn toward the frontier asks implicitly whether a runaway slave might not simply gain her individual freedom, but participate in the collective endeavour of building a new kind of society. When she reaches Indiana, Cora finds sanctuary on a communal farm run by former slaves. ‘In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this,’ she thinks. ‘Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.’ She hears ‘frequent talk now of lighting out west, where colored towns sprouted up on the other side of the Arkansas river’ (the verb ‘lighting out’ evokes the closing lines of Huckleberry Finn, underscoring the desire to incorporate Cora’s archetypal narrative into the national story). Having painstakingly learned to read over the course of her journey, she is granted access to the wonder of a well-stocked library, a moment of good fortune that allows her to understand the collective implications of her experiences:

Cora read the accounts of slaves who had been born in chains and learned their letters. Of Africans who had been stolen, torn from their homes and families, and described the miseries of their bondage and then their hair-raising escapes. She recognized their stories as her own. They were the stories of all the colored people she had ever known, the stories of black people yet to be born, the foundations of their triumphs.

The movement of this passage is representative of the novel more broadly, in that it attempts to salvage a battered but distinctly American sense of optimism and indomitability from the ghastly history of slavery – ‘the great sin and shame of America,’ as Frederick Douglass called it. Near the very end of The Underground Railroad, Cora attends some lectures by a charismatic activist from Boston named Elijah Lander, the son of a white father and a black mother, who speaks of ‘the dilemma of finding your purpose once you’ve slipped the yoke of slavery’. He declares that America is a ‘delusion’ – only to turn around and embrace the delusion. He rejects the idea the African Americans constitute a single race, but then claims a common cause and identity:

This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are …

The word we. In some ways, the only thing we have in common is the color of our skin … We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children?

For we are Africans in America. Something new in the history of the world, without models for what we will become.

Color must suffice. It has brought us to this night, this discussion, and it will take us into the future.

The prophetic rhetoric is tempered by the fact that Lander’s rousing lecture precedes the novel’s violent apotheosis. The Underground Railroad affirms the notions of hope and freedom, but does so in a cautious and qualified sense. It is a narrative of attrition. Almost all the people who assist Cora along the way meet violent ends. She has travelled along the ‘Freedom Trail’ where ‘corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments’. Lander’s reasoning, like Cora’s moment of recognition in the library of slave narratives, is as contradictory in its way as Ridgeway’s vindictive fatalism, but it turns the slave catcher’s logic on its head, discovering a pragmatic sense of hope and purpose in an imagined collective identity, a coerced identification, as unasked for as it is now inevitable, forged and sanctified by the inescapable legacy of a shared trauma.

The paradoxes of Lander’s rhetoric are certainly not lost on Paul Beatty. The Sellout is a foul-mouthed and often outrageous satirical depiction of the double-binds of racial identity. Like the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), who is ‘invisible’ in the sense that no one can see him other than through the distorting lens of racist stereotypes, Beatty’s narrator resists the idea that he should be defined by his race, but ends up being defined by it anyway. We don’t learn his name either, though he does tell us his nickname – ‘Bonbon’ – which he earned because he is a supposedly lucky guy (it is the word he is asked to spell to clinch victory in a spelling bee). He is also the ‘sellout’ of the title, so labelled because he is reluctant to embrace the agenda of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals – a local discussion group dedicated to the cause of African American advancement. Named after the shop where they hold their meetings, the Dum Dum Intellectuals are divided over the precise meaning of ‘bimonthly’, leading to some confusion as to whether they should be gathering every two months or once a fortnight, but when they do manage to get together they enjoy statistical presentations delivered with the aid of a custom-designed software called ‘EmpowerPoint’.

This lampooning of an earnest but ineffectual African American intelligentsia is merely one aspect of a more or less comprehensive travestying of racial stereotypes. Beatty has acknowledged his literary debt to Joseph Heller, but the ambition of The Sellout might also be compared to Philip Roth’s mockery of his own Jewishness in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Both novels confront stereotypes head-on, exaggerating them to ludicrous extremes. Where Roth satirises the idea of the sexually neurotic Jew with out-of-control mother-issues, Beatty grounds his narrator’s personal conflicts in the municipality of Dickens, ‘a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles’, which the novel styles as a microcosm of African American disadvantage and social dysfunction. ‘Freudian hermeneutics doesn’t apply to Dickens,’ Bonbon observes. ‘A place where, often as not, it’s the child that raises the parents, where the Oedipus and Electra complexes are simple, sons, daughters, stepparents, or play-cousins, it doesn’t matter, since everybody’s fucking each other over and penis envy doesn’t exist because sometimes niggers just got too much dick.’

Like much effective satire, The Sellout does not simply exaggerate and caricature, but works with antitheses and inversions. The catch-22 of being born African American is established in the early chapters, in which Bonbon describes his relationship with his freethinking psychologist father. In addition to being the founder of the Dum Dum Intellectuals, Bonbon’s father is a crackpot behaviourist, who literally ties one his of infant son’s hands behind his back. He tries to educate his son into the burdens and responsibilities that go along with being black. But the more Bonbon learns, the less he likes what he hears. Despite his father’s best efforts, he becomes a ‘failed social experiment’. Asked to choose between a diorama depicting Ken and Barbie relaxing by a pool and another diorama depicting Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman being pursued through a swamp by the Ku Klux Klan, he identifies with the former: ‘the white people got better accessories … It’s really no contest.’ And yet, for some reason, choosing not to be African American does not appear to be an available option. Early in the novel, in an attempt to rise above his racial identity, Bonbon writes ‘Californian’ on his census form, which merely results in him being berated by an angry census worker: ‘You foul nigger. As a black man, what do you have to say for yourself?’

Beatty displays little respect for the pieties that have come to govern the discussion of race. ‘What does that mean, I’m offended,’ scoffs his narrator. ‘It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel?’ One of the novel’s running jokes concerns the efforts of Foy Cheshire, a semi-famous television personality who assumes leadership of the Dum Dums after Bonbon’s father is gunned down by some plain-clothed policemen, to write a ‘politically respectful’ version of Huckleberry Finn – a novel in which, Foy notes, ‘Mark Twain uses the “n-word” 219 times. That’s .68 “n-words” per page in toto.’ (I haven’t counted, but I’m reasonably sure Beatty outdoes Twain on this score.) Foy is so pleased with The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit – in which he replaces the ‘n-word’ with ‘warrior’ and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer’ – that he goes on to produce a series of rewritten classics, including The Great Blacksby, The Point Guard in the Rye and The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool.

What gives The Sellout its edge is not so much this kind of easy mockery but rather the fact that it takes the form of an scabrous comic monologue. Bonbon’s rebounding riffs have the cumulative hilarity of a stand-up routine: ‘those pompous Dum Dum niggers wanted to ban the word, disinvent the watermelon, snorting in the morning, washing your dick in the sink, and the eternal shame of having pubic hair the color and texture of unground pepper’. The novel is an extended jeremiad that draws its energy from a Lenny Bruce-like tracing of the outer edges of socially acceptable discourse, its escalations spilling over into scornful, denunciatory and even confrontational rhetoric:

Like, why blame Mark Twain because you don’t have the patience and courage to explain to your children that the ‘n-word’ exists and that during the course of their sheltered little lives they may one day be called a ‘nigger’ or, even worse, deign to call somebody else a ‘nigger’. No one will ever refer to them as ‘little black euphemisms’, so welcome to the American lexicon – Nigger!

This denunciatory aspect of the novel is both inwardly and outwardly directed. At its broadest, it encompasses the failures of the whole society. Near the beginning of The Sellout, Bonbon stands before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and wonders what Honest Abe would say if he were to come back to life and see that ‘the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending’. At his most vehement, he winds himself up and tears his hypocritical nation a new one:

And this country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs people like him. It needs somebody to throw baseballs at, to fag-bash, to nigger-stomp, to invade, to embargo. Anything that, like baseball, keeps a country that’s constantly preening in the mirror from actually looking in the mirror and remembering where the bodies are buried.

The novel as a whole is not as unequivocal or didactic as these extracts perhaps make it sound. The ‘him’ in that last quotation is Hominy, the character who becomes the focal point for the book’s irreverent paradoxes. Hominy is a former child actor, whose only claim to fame is to have appeared as one of the Little Rascals. His cinematic legacy consists of ‘a compendium of unseen outtakes where he’s doused with all things white: sunny-side-up eggs, paint, and pancake flour avalanches.’ When racist slapstick fell out of favour, his acting career was finished. But he still longs for the security of his humiliating stereotypical identity; he feels lost without it. In his desperation, he tries unsuccessfully to lynch himself, then begs Bonbon to let him become his slave: ‘true freedom is having the right to be a slave,’ he argues. ‘Freedom can kiss my postbellum black ass.’

At least part of what is going on with the character of Hominy is a ridiculing of the American myths of self-reliance and self-invention. His desire to surrender his freedom leads to the novel’s definitive joke, which is that Bonbon’s attempt to become self-reliant on the urban farm he inherits from his father turns him into a slave owner, while his efforts to rejuvenate the decrepit municipality of Dickens lead him into a plan to reintroduce segregation. His attempt to put the history of racism behind him ends up replicating its worst elements. ‘I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people,’ he states in his defence when he is hauled before the Supreme Court. ‘I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody …’ Between the preposterous amnesia of Bonbon’s rhetorical question and Hominy’s willing subservience, there is a parody of a certain kind of ahistorical libertarian thinking. The result of the reductio ad absurdum that treats freedom and equality as absolutes that have no connection to the realities of history and power is a strange inverted logic, according to which down is up and slavery is freedom, and yet (somehow) black is still black and white is still white.

The Sellout not a plot-driven novel, but it has an arc. As it unfolds, the ideas of Bonbon’s father, initially resisted, come to seem more and more apposite as Bonbon becomes more aware of the prejudices and systemic disadvantages he faces. Among the novel’s funniest riffs are those lampooning white attitudes. Beatty imagines a car wash transformed into a ‘race wash’, where customers can choose from degrees of whiteness, with a sliding scale of privileges: ‘Benefit of the Doubt … World Revolves Around Your Concerns … Therapists That Listen’. He locates a sister city for Dickens in the ‘Lost City of White Male Privilege’ – ‘a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males)’. In one scene, a smug white actress declares that ‘it isn’t race that’s the problem but class’. Her observation is echoed late in the novel when another white character has the audacity to claim that ‘white people are the new niggers’, going on to propose an interracial alliance: ‘Disenfranchised equals ready to fight back against the motherfucking system’. To which Bonbon has a ready reply: ‘Except that you’ll get half the jail time.’

The novel is framed by Bonbon’s Supreme Court trial, during which he is denounced as an ‘evil genius’, who has somehow ‘managed to racially discriminate against every race all at the same time’. The judge remarks that the defendant has ‘pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality’. That flaw, the novel suggests, lies in the attempt define equality as something that does not recognise racial differences – an abstract formal equality that bounces people between the extremes of embracing and rejecting their inherited identities. The bind perpetuates the cycle of exclusion and division. In one of the very last scenes in The Sellout, Bonbon remembers attending a standup comedy show in which a black comedian singled out a white couple in the audience: ‘What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? Get the fuck out! … This shit ain’t for you … This is our thing!’ The question The Sellout ultimately asks is: ‘So what exactly is our thing?’ – though it is a question it weighs against the two questions posed by Bonbon’s father: ‘Who am I? And how may I become myself?’

The Sellout concludes with Bonbon thinking back to ‘the day after the black dude was inaugurated’. An exultant Foy Cheshire tells him that he feels ‘like the country, the United States of America, [has] finally paid off its debts’. But the ‘sellout’ is not convinced: ‘And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?’

This brief and bittersweet final chapter is titled ‘Closure’. The title is ironic not simply because of Bonbon’s doubts, or because (as neither Beatty nor Whitehead could have known when they began writing their novels) eight years later the United States would endure what is widely regarded as the most vicious, sleazy and dishonest presidential election campaign in its history, with the Ku Klux Klan’s preferred candidate emerging victorious. It is ironic because it alludes to an earlier passage in the novel:

Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he’d never heard a patient of color needing ‘closure’. They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.

The Underground Railroad and The Sellout both resist that erasure. If they incline in opposite directions – The Underground Railroad toward a cautious optimism; The Sellout in the direction of a skeptical pessimism – this is as much a question of form as sensibility. Though Whitehead chooses to conclude his novel on a quietly hopeful note, he would surely understand the weary sentiment expressed in Beatty’s far more irascible work when someone asks Bonbon: ‘When does shit ever end?’ His reply is blunt: ‘It doesn’t.’