The cover of the novel depicts Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher who allegedly carried around a lit lantern in broad daylight, saying he was “looking for an honest man”. But the Diogenes shown here is black, jauntily clad in pink shirt and white trousers.
The reading was poorly attended and a couple of readers had not managed to read the novel. Nevertheless with a bit of urging they too read from passages others had selected.
Paul Beatty - ‘I wanted to be a psychologist. It taught me how to look underneath the rock’
There's a lot of drollery and sheer extravagance in the use of language, sprinkled plentifully with mother-fuckers, bitches and psychology jargon. The characters are often denizens of the absurd: Hominy Jenkins who volunteers as slave to the narrator (‘Me’) and calls him Massa in the manner of a pre-Reconstruction era slave; a punk pretender called Foy Cheshire who lives by publishing the ideas of Me's father and heads the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. And Marpessa the attractive bus-driver Me yearns for, who seems unattainable.
Me goes about his life work of
a) Re-creating the erased town of agrarian Dickens in LA County, the largest and most diverse county in USA whose population of 10m is larger than that of 42 states; and
b) Re-segregating its society so people may regain a sense of community, identity and self-worth.
Miraculously he succeeds in both ventures, and the rejuvenated Dickens scores higher on measures of social and educational progress than it ever had before. However, he runs foul of the Civil Rights Act and ends up facing judgement in the Supreme Court of the United Staes, refighting the ‘separate-but-equal’ battles of the 1960s.
KumKum & Joe
Though Me wins Marpessa by novel's end, since the case is unresolved, there's scope for a even crazier sequel.
Here we are at the end of the reading after consuming the sweet almond nougat Hemjit brought along:
Joe, Thommo, Sunil, Preeti (back row) KumKum, Hemjit (sitting)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Reading on May 24, 2017
Present: Thommo, Preeti, Hemjit, Sunil, Joe, KumKum
Absent: Zakia (away to Bengaluru), Pamela (away to Norway), Priya and Saras (away to USA), Ankush (hospitalised with a dislocated shoulder), Shoba (moved to far-away Kakkanad), Kavita
Subscriptions of Rs 300 for the year were taken up and given to Thommo for deposit. He will tell us the bank balance next time. Dates for the next three readings are fixed as follows:
June 15: Poetry of the English Romantics
July 7: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Aug 3: Poetry
As the selector of the novel Sunil gave an introduction to the writer, who was born on June 9, 1962 in Los Angeles. The psychology in the novel comes from the MA he did in the subject at Boston University; later he completed an MFA from Brooklyn College which sharpened his writing hunger. New York has a tradition of performing poetry in cafés and PB became the Grand Poetry Slam champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1990. He published two poetry collections, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991) and Joker, Joker Deuce (1994). Later he heard the phrase ‘spoken word poetry’ and thought: ‘I’m not doing that! Whatever the fuck that is!’
PB was the first American to win the Man Booker Prize after the entry was thrown open. Prior to 2014 only Commonwealth, Irish, and South African (later Zimbabwean) citizens were eligible to receive the prize; as Thommo said America always qualified on that score as the first thirteen colonies had rebelled against George III.
PB was the editor of a second book called Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. Writing an article for the NY Times about the anthology he said:
I wish I'd been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would've been comforting to know that I wasn't the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.
PB wrote three novels prior to The Sellout: The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Tuff (1998), and Slumberland (2008). Sunil cited the comedian Sarah Silverman who said “Paul [Beatty] uses humor like a surgeon uses anesthesia, a magician uses sleight of hand, or a pickpocket charms you.”
In the Acknowledgement the author pays tribute to a paper by the psychologist William Cross which he read as a graduate student and never forgot; The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience is about how black people undergo a gradual change of identity in America in five stages.
Sunil as a sidelight mentioned Paul Haggis, a filmmaker who, in 2006, became the first screenwriter to write two Best Film Oscar winners back-to-back – Million Dollar Baby (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood, and Crash (2004) which he himself directed. This excursus was to make the point from the film Crash [of which mention is made in passing in the novel] that racist remarks stem more from ignorance rather than malice. Separating characters into victims and offenders is demonstrated to be misleading, as victims of racism are themselves prejudiced in a different context.
Here are a few video interviews which will add some information about the novel from the author:
Jeffrey Brown of the PBS News Hour programme, Bookshelf, speaks with Paul Beatty about not being afraid to say taboo things and the ways in which the U.S. is still segregated.
BBC Hardtalk's Stephen Sackur interviews Paul Beatty
Paul Beatty Interviewed by Sandip Roy at Kolkata Lit Meet on Jan 25, 2017
Thommo noted that if you find a South Asian looking guy driving a cab in America, he is more likely to be a Pakistani. But in New York you can find Sikh taxi drivers, and they will point you to the dhabas where they eat cheap but tasty food, if you ask. Sunil spoke of a chap he knew in college who worked part-time in a Patel-motel in America. Thommo spoke of his son-in-law who moved from Borneo to Kuala Lumpur and works in logistics at Shell Oil. His hands-on experience with earthmoving equipment has become quite valuable.
This led to a discussion of the absurd attamari system, which though technically abolished has come back with a vengeance under the Left government, so that on P.T Usha Road in order to bring down the floodlight towers on Maharaja's College sports ground, the nokkukuli [charge for looking on and doing nothing] was levied at 50 paise per brick, earned by these idlers.
The passage concerns Me's experience when his father takes him on a 3-day drive to Mississippi to experience ‘direct discrimination.’ The dad finds his own solace with a white woman, but Me is left behind to quench his thirst, and experiences two kinds of discrimination: a Coke that cost 7 cents in the white man's store costs a dollar fifty in the black man's store. He can buy black or piss off, literally. The second discrimination is to discover the loo to piss for black men was filthy and buzzed with flies. His father made out okay facing no discrimination, direct or otherwise, but Me was forced to piss on an anthill.
The passage on castration of male calves has a particular incongruity in an urban setting for it is a typically agrarian occupation the students are having demonstrated to them on Career Day at school. But Dickens is just such an anomaly – a huge swath of farmland within the largest urban megalapolis in America. The students have a field day, and enjoy the bloodletting of castration and being told the secrets of sex in the animal world:
grade-schoolers intrigued enough to wade into the spreading pool of blood to get a better look at the wound, while I wrestled with the still squirming calf.
Of course, there's a fund of jokes, “Don’t they got cow rubbers?” The reader joins with the students and stands amazed to see all this happen and learn the three methods of castration: surgical, elastic, and bloodless. Such is the energy in the book and the abundance of unusual experiences that once the reader has entered into the zaniness, he's in for an enthralling ride. And Me enjoys his brief stint as a lecturer on castration.
Finding a sister city for Dickens, even with the help of a City Match Consultant, turns out to be a difficult task. Finally three candidates are identified: Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa. But Dickens is rejected by all three, and the reasons? – too violent says Juárez, too polluted says Chernobyl, too black says Kinshasa. Me has to face a recalcitrant Hominy who tells him: “I refuse to toil fo’ no massa who can’t manage a simple task such as finding a sister city.”
Preeti had come unprepared but Joe persuaded her to read the passage where Me's father takes him on a drive of three days all the way from LA to Mississippi so that he may learn about direct discrimination, so far unknown to him. As with many adventures in the novel this one is replete with black expressions for unusual acts, for example “reckless eyeballing” which is “the act of a black male deigning to look at a southern white female.” The reader is treated to unusual similes for the size of female breasts (“like the Hindenburg and the Goodyear blimp”), and the stupidity of a nigger boy who doesn’t know how to wolf-whistle; he whistles the slow sensuous tune of Ravel's Boléro instead, standing in the middle of the dusty street, starting slow and soft and rising to a fever pitch! Dad sidesteps his son's failure with his own “wolf whistle so lecherous and libidinous it curled both the white woman’s pretty painted toes.” Rebecca responds, and sonny boy is left in the lurch as dad makes off with her in the car ...
Has the son learned about direct discrimination or flagrant indiscretion?
Thommo too was unprepared to read, not having received the book from the store. KumKum provided him with an alternate passage of hers, which details yet another of several experiments in which Me had been the victim of his father's psychological research, acting he says “as both the control and the experimental group.” The ostensible purpose of this particular attempt was to teach him about the ‘bystander effect’ in which violence perpetrated on a person in public is ignored by those watching it, so that “the more people around to provide help, the less likely one is to receive help.”
Sadly, the experiment goes wrong when his father attacked him demonstratively on a public street; instead of watching curiously or walking by, the public joined in, setting upon Me fiercely until he had been beaten and choked senseless. The passage ends on a note of fatherly contrition:
Pops put a consoling arm around my aching shoulders and delivered an apologetic lecture about his failure to take into account the “bandwagon effect.”
Thommo was quick to label this the ‘Calcutta syndrome’, one that he has witnessed at close quarters. Once a pick-pocket was nabbed on the street in that city and set upon by the crowd. Whereupon a passing bhadralok asked Thommo (undergoing the bystander effect himself!) to kindly hold his satchel, and after going up to the unfortunate fellow, rolling up his sleeve, and giving him a whack, came back to retrieve his belongings and went on his way.
Preeti mentioned a similar scene in a movie (Munna Bhai) where a pickpocket steals a wallet and when he is caught, the people take it out on him, venting their frustrations from the office or the home upon the unfortunate guy.
Thommo mentioned a book on Shivaji someone wrote for which he wrote a comment. The Sellout has more than twenty such commendatory excerpts by various reviewers in magazines, placed there to sell the book, ahead of the title page.
Whitey Week, the wonders and contributions of the mysterious Caucasian race to the world of leisure. Ch 20, p.225
Sometimes in homage to my father, if Hominy was on his lunch break or asleep in the truck, I’d enter wearing Dad’s white lab coat and carrying a clipboard. I’d hand the owner my card and explain that I was with the Federal Department of Racial Injustice, and was conducting a monthlong study on the effects of “racial segregation on the normative behaviors of the racially segregated.” I’d offer them a flat fifty-dollar fee and three signs to choose from: BLACK, ASIAN, AND LATINO ONLY; LATINO, ASIAN, AND BLACK ONLY; and NO WHITES ALLOWED. I was surprised how many small-business people offered to pay me to display the NO WHITES ALLOWED sign. And like most social experiments, I never did the promised follow-up, but after the month was up, it wasn’t unusual to get calls from the proprietors asking Dr. Bonbon if they could keep the signs in the windows because they made their clientele feel special. “The customers love it. It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”
It didn’t take long to convince the manager of the Meralta, the only movie theater in town, that he could cut his complaints in half if he designated floor seating as WHITE AND NON-TALKERS ONLY, while reserving the balcony for BLACKS, LATINOS, AND THE HEARING IMPAIRED. We didn’t always ask permission; with paint and brush we changed the opening hours of the Wanda Coleman Public Library from “Sun–Tue: Closed, Wed–Sat: 10–5:30” to “Sun–Tue: Whites Only, Wed–Sat: Colored Only.” As word started to spread of the success Charisma was having at Chaff Middle School, every now and then an organization would seek me out for a little personalized segregation. In looking to reduce the youth crime rate in the neighborhood, the local chapter of Un Millar de Muchachos Mexicanos (o Los Emes) wanted to do something other than midnight basketball. “Something a little more conducive to the Mexican and Native American stature,” a sporting endeavor that didn’t require a lot of space where the kids could compete on equal footing. Name-dropping the hoop success of Eduardo Nájera, Tahnee Robinson, Earl Watson, Shoni Schimmel, and Orlando Méndez-Valdez did nothing to dissuade them.
The meeting was brief, consisting of two questions on my part.
First: “Do you have any money?”
“We just got a $100,000 grant from Wish Upon a Star.”
Second: “I thought they only did things for dying kids?”
During the height of the government enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, some segregated townships filled in their municipal pools rather than let nonwhite kids share in the perverse joy of peeing in the water. But in an inspired act of reverse segregation, we used the money to hire a lifeguard who posed as a homeless person and built a “Whites Only” swimming pool surrounded by a chain-link fence that the kids loved to hop, so they could play Marco Polo and hold their collective breaths underwater whenever they spotted a patrol car passing by.
When Charisma felt that her students needed a counterbalance to the onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing that took place during Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months, I came up with the one-off idea for Whitey Week. Contrary to the appellation, Whitey Week was actually a thirty-minute celebration of the wonders and contributions of the mysterious Caucasian race to the world of leisure. A moment of respite for children forced “to participate in classroom reenactments of stories of migrant labor, illegal immigration, and the Middle Passage. Weary and stuffed from being force-fed the falsehood that when one of your kind makes it, it means that you’ve all made it. It took about two days to convert the long-out-of-business brushless car wash on Robertson Boulevard into a tunnel of whiteness. We altered the signs so that the children of Dickens could line up and choose from several race wash options:
Benefit of the Doubt
Higher Life Expectancy
Benefit of the Doubt
Higher Life Expectancy
Lower Insurance Premiums
Regular Whiteness Plus Warnings Instead of Arrests from the Police
Regular Whiteness Plus Warnings Instead of Arrests from the Police
Decent Seats at Concerts and Sporting Events
World Revolves Around You and Your Concerns
Super Deluxe Whiteness:
Deluxe Whiteness Plus Jobs with Annual Bonuses
Deluxe Whiteness Plus Jobs with Annual Bonuses
Military Service Is for Suckers
Legacy Admission to College of Your Choice
Therapists That Listen
Therapists That Listen
Boats That You Never Use
All Vices and Bad Habits Referred to as “Phases”
Not Responsible for Scratches, Dents, and Items
Left in the Subconscious”
Left in the Subconscious”
To the whitest music we could think of (Madonna, The Clash, and Hootie & the Blowfish), the kids, dressed in bathing suits and cutoffs, danced and laughed in the hot water and suds. Ignoring the amber siren light, they ran under the waterfall of the not-so Hot Carnauba Wax. We handed them candy and soda pop and let them stand in front of the drying blast of the hot-air blowers for as long as they wanted. Reminding them that having a warm wind blowing in your face was what it felt like to be white and rich. That life for the fortunate few was like being in the front seat of a convertible twenty-four hours a day.
Me pisses off his Coke amid the acrid stink of unflushed racism. Ch 13, p.178
That’s how good that Coke was.
“That’ll cost seven cents. Just leave it on the counter, boy. Your new mommy be back in no time.”
Ten sodas and seventy cents later, neither my new mother nor my old father had returned and I had to take a wicked piss. The fellows at the gas station were still playing chess, the attendant’s cursor hovering hesitatingly over a cornered piece as if his next decision decided the fate of the world. The attendant slammed a knight onto a square. “You ain’t fooling nobody with that Sicilian gambit chicanery. Your diagonals is vulnerable as shit.”
My bladder about to burst, I asked black Kasparov where the bathroom was located.
“Restrooms are for customers only.”
“But my dad just purchased some gas…”
“And your father can shit here until his heart’s content. You, on the other hand, are drinking the white man’s Coke like his ice is colder than ours.”
I pointed to the row of seven-ounce sodas in the cooler. “How much?”
“But they’re seven cents across the street.”
“Buy black or piss off. Literally.”
Feeling sorry for me, and winning on points, black Bobby Fischer pointed into the distance at an old bus station.
“See that abandoned bus station next to the cotton gin?”
I sprinted down the road. Although the building was no longer operational, balls of cottonseed still blew in the wind like itchy snowflakes. I made my way to the back, past the gin, the empty pallets, a rusted forklift, and the ghost of Eli Whitney. The filthy one-toilet bathroom buzzed with flies. The floors and the seat were flypaper sticky. Glazed to a dull matte yellow by four generations of good ol’ boys with bottomless bladders, pissing countless gallons of drunk-on-the-job clear urine. The acrid stink of unflushed racism and shit shriveled my face and put goosebumps on my arms. Slowly I backed out. Underneath the faded WHITES ONLY stenciled on the grimy lavatory door, I ran my finger through the grit and wrote THANK GOD, then peed on an anthill. Because apparently the rest of the planet was “Colored Only.”
Lesson about Castration on Career Day at the Middle School, Ch 11, p.159
“Hello, everybody,” I said, spitting on the “ground, because that’s what farmers do. “Like you guys, I’m from Dickens…”
“Where?” a bunch of students shouted. I might as well have said I was from Atlantis. The children weren’t from “no Dickens.” And they stood, throwing up gang signs and telling me where they were from: Southside Joslyn Park Crip Gang. Varrio Trescientos y Cinco. Bedrock Stoner Avenue Bloods.
In retaliation I tossed up the closest thing the agricultural world has to a gang sign and slid my hand across my throat—the universal sign for Cut the Engine—and announced, “Well, I’m from the Farms, which like all those places you’ve named, whether you know it or not, is in Dickens, and Assistant Principal Molina asked me to demonstrate what the average day for a farmer is like, and since today is this calf’s eight-week anniversary, I thought I’d talk about castration. There are three methods of castration…”
“What’s ‘castration,’ maestro?”
“It’s a way of preventing male animals from fathering any children.”
“Don’t they got cow rubbers?”
“That’s not a bad idea, but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population. It also makes them more docile. Anyone know what ‘docile’ means?”
After passing it under her runny nose, a skinny chalk-colored girl raised a hand so disgustingly ashy, so white and dry-skinned, that it could only be black.
“It means bitchlike,” she said, volunteering to assist me by stepping to the calf and flicking his downy ears with her fingers.
“Yes, I guess you could say that it does.”
At either the mention of “bitch” or the misguided notion they were going to learn something about sex, the children closed in and tightened the circle. The ones who weren’t in the “first two rows were ducking and scooting around for better vantage points. A few kids climbed to the top of the backstop’s rafters and peered down on the procedure like med students in an operating theater. I body-slammed the calf on its side and kneeled down on his neck and rib cage, then directed my unlotioned cowhand to grab and spread his hind legs until the little dogie’s genitals were exposed to the elements. Seeing that I had their attention, I noticed Charisma checking on her still-whimpering employee, then tiptoeing back aboard Marpessa’s bus. “As I was saying, there are three methods of castration: surgical, elastic, and bloodless. In elastic you place a rubber band right here, preventing any blood flow going to the testicles. That way they’ll eventually shrivel up and fall off.” I grabbed the animal at the base of his scrotum and squeezed so hard the calf and the schoolchildren jumped in unison. “For bloodless castration, you crush the spermatic cords here and here.” Two firm pinches of his vas deferens glans sent the calf into whimpering convulsions of pain and embarrassment, and the students into spasms of sadistic laughter. I whipped out a jackknife and held it up high, twisting my hand in the air, expecting the blade to glint dramatically in the sunlight, but it was too cloudy. “For surgery…”
“I want to do it.” It was the little black girl, her clear brown eyes fixed on the calf’s scrotum and bulging with scientific curiosity.
“I think you need a permission slip from your parents.”
“What parents? I live at El Nido,” she said, referring to the group home on Wilmington, which in the neighborhood was tantamount to name-dropping Sing Sing in a James Cagney movie.
“What’s your name?”
“Sheila. Sheila Clark.”
Sheila and I changed places, clambering over and under one another without taking any weight off the hapless calf. When I got to the back end, I handed her the knife and the emasculator, which, like the garden shears they resembled, and any other good tool, does exactly what its name says it’s going to do. Two pints of blood, a surprisingly deft removal of the top half of the scrotum, an artful yank of the testes into the open air, an audible crunching severing of the spermatic cord, a schoolyard full of shrieking pupils, teachers, and one permanently sexually frustrated calf later, I was finishing up my lecture for the benefit of Sheila Clark and three other grade-schoolers intrigued enough to wade into the spreading pool of blood to get a better look at the wound, while I wrestled with the still squirming calf. “When the bull is lying here helpless on his side, we in the farming industry like to call this the ‘recumbent position,’ and now isn’t a bad time to inflict other painful procedures on the animal, like dehorning, vaccinations, branding, and marking the ears…”
Finding a sister city for Dickens, Ch 10, p. 145-148
I never understood the concept of the sister city, but I’d always been fascinated by it. The way that these twin towns, as they’re sometimes known, choose and court each other seems more incestuous than adoptive. Some unions, like that of Tel Aviv and Berlin, Paris and Algiers, Honolulu and Hiroshima, are designed to signal an end to hostilities and the beginning of peace and prosperity; arranged marriages in which the cities learn to love one another over time. Others are shotgun weddings, because one city, (e.g., Atlanta) impregnated the other (e.g., Lagos) on a first date that spun violently out of control centuries ago. Some cities marry up for money and prestige; others marry down to piss off their mother countries. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Kabul! Every now and then, two cities meet and fall in love out of mutual respect and a love for hiking, thunderstorms, and classic rock ’n’ roll. Think Amsterdam and Istanbul. Buenos Aires and Seoul. But in the modern age, where your average town is too busy trying to balance budgets and keep the infrastructure from crumbling, most cities have a hard time finding a soul mate, so they turn to Sister City Global, an international matchmaking organization that finds love partners for lonely municipalities. It was two days after Hominy’s birthday party and although I—and the rest of Dickens—was still hungover, when Ms. Susan Silverman, City Match Consultant, called about my application, I couldn’t have been more excited.
“Hello. We’re happy to have processed your application for International Municipal Sisterhood, but we can’t seem to find Dickens on the map. It’s near Los Angeles, right?”
“We used to be an official city, but now it’s kind of occupied territory. Like Guam, American Samoa, or the Sea of Tranquillity.”
“So you’re near the ocean?”
“Yes, an ocean of sorrow.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter that you’re not a recognized city, Sister City Global has paired communities before. For instance, Harlem, New York’s sister city is Florence, Italy, because of their respective renaissances. Dickens hasn’t had a renaissance, has it?”
“No, we haven’t even had a single Day of Enlightenment.”
“That’s too bad, but I do wish I’d known you were a coastal community, because that makes a difference. But as it were, I ran your demographics through Urbana, our matchmaking computer, and it came back with three prospective sisters.”
I grabbed my atlas and tried to guess who would be the lucky ladies. I knew better than to expect Rome, Nairobi, Cairo, or Kyoto. But figured second-tier hotties like Naples, Leipzig, and Canberra were definitely in play.
“Let’s see your three sister cities in order of compatibility … Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa.”
While I didn’t quite understand how Chernobyl had made the cut, especially since it’s not even a city, at least Juárez and Kinshasa were two major municipalities with global profiles, if not besmirched reputations. But beggars can’t be choosy. “We’ll accept all three!” I shouted into the phone.
“That’s all well and good, but I’m afraid all three have rejected Dickens.”
“What? Why? On what grounds?”
“Juárez (aka the City That Never Stops Bleeding) feels that Dickens is too violent. Chernobyl, while tempted, felt that, in the end, Dickens’s proximity to the Los Angeles River and sewage treatment plants was a problem. And questioned the attitudes of a citizenry so laissez-faire about such rampant pollution. And Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo…”
“Don’t tell me Kinshasa, the poorest city in the poorest country in the world, a place where the average per capita income is one goat bell, two bootleg Michael Jackson cassette tapes, and three sips of potable water per year, thinks we’re too poor to associate with.”
“No, they think Dickens is too black. I believe ‘Them backward American niggers ain’t ready!’ is how they put it.”
Too embarrassed to tell Hominy that my efforts to find Dickens a sister city had failed, I stalled him with little black lies. “Gdansk is showing some interest. And we’re getting feelers from Minsk, Kirkuk, Newark, and Nyack.” Eventually I ran out of cities that ended in k or any other letter, and in a show of disappointment, Hominy turned over a plastic milk crate, placed it in the driveway, and placed himself on the auction block. Shirt off, breasts drooping, standing next to a sign hammered into the lawn: FOR SALE—PRE-OWNED NEGRO SLAVE—ONLY BEATEN ON THURSDAYS—GOOD CONVERSATION PIECE.
He stayed there for over a week. Leaning on the horn wouldn’t budge him from his perch, so whenever I needed to use the car, I’d have to yell, “Look out, man, Quakers!” or “Here comes Frederick Douglass and those damn abolitionists. Run for your lives!” which would send him ducking into the cornstalks for cover. But the day I needed to drive out to meet my apple tree connection he was being especially stubborn.
“Hominy, can you get your ass out of the way?”
“I refuse to toil fo’ no massa who can’t manage a simple task such as finding a sister city. And today, this here field nigger refuses to move.”
“Field nigger? Not that I want you to, but you don’t do a lick of work. You spend all your time in the Jacuzzi.
A trip to deepest whitest America to taste direct discrimination, Ch 13, p.174-177
I’ve experienced direct discrimination based on race only once in my life. One day I foolishly said to my father that there was no racism in America. Only equal opportunity that black people kick aside because we don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves. Later that very same day, in the middle of the night, he snatched me up out of bed, and together we took an ill-prepared cross-country trip into deepest, whitest America. After three days of nonstop driving, we ended up in a nameless Mississippi town that was nothing more than a dusty intersection of searing heat, crows, cotton fields, and, judging by the excited look of anticipation on my fath er’s face, unadulterated racism.
“Dad, what are we doing here?”
“We’re reckless eyeballing,” he said, removing a pair of 500x General Patton binoculars from a fancy leather case, placing the black metal monstrosities to his eyes, and turning toward me, his eyes big as billiard balls through the thick lenses. “And I do mean reckless!”
Thanks to years of my father’s black vernacular pop quizzes and an Ishmael Reed book he kept on top of the toilet for years, I knew that “reckless eyeballing” was the act of a black male deigning to look at a southern white female. And there was my dad staring through his binoculars at a storefront no more than thirty feet away, the Mississippi sun glinting off the massive spectacles like two halogen beacons. A woman stepped out onto the porch, an apron tied around her gingham dress, a wicker broom in her hand. Shielding her eyes from the glare, she began to sweep. The white men sat open-legged and open-mouthed, aghast at the sheer fucking nigger audacity.
“Look at those tits!” my father shouted, loud enough for the entire cracker county to hear. Her chest wasn’t all that, but I imagine that through the portable equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope her B-cup breasts looked like the Hindenburg and the Goodyear blimp, respectively. “Now, boy, now!”
“Go out there and whistle at the white woman.”
“He shoved me out the door, and kicking up a blinding cloud of red delta dust, I crossed a two-lane highway covered with so much rock-hard clay I couldn’t tell if the road had ever been paved. Obligingly, I stood in front of the white lady and began to whistle. Or at least tried to. What my father didn’t know is that I didn’t know how to whistle. Whistling is one of the few things you learn at public school. I was homeschooled, so my lunch hours were spent standing in the backyard cotton patch reciting all the Negro Reconstruction congressmen from memory: Blanche Bruce, Hiram Rhodes, John R. Lynch, Josiah T. Walls … so although it sounds simple, I didn’t know how to just put my lips together and blow. And for that matter, I can’t split my fingers into the Vulcan high-sign, burp the alphabet on command, or flip someone the bird without folding down the non-insulting fingers with my free hand. Having a mouthful of crackers didn’t help either, and the end result was an arrhythmic spewing of pre-chewed oats all over her pretty pink apron.
“What’s this crazy fool doing?” the white men asked each other between eye rolls and tobacco expectorations. The most taciturn member of the trio stood up and straightened out his No Niggers in NASCAR T-shirt. Slowly removing the toothpick from his mouth, he said, “It’s the ‘Boléro.’ The little nigger is whistling ‘Boléro.’”
I jumped up and down and pumped his hand in excitement. He was right, of course, I was trying to re-create Ravel’s masterpiece. I may not know how to whistle, but I could always carry a tune.
“The ‘Boléro’? Why, you stupid motherfucker!”
It was Pops. Storming out of the car and moving so fast his dust cloud kicked up its own dust cloud. He wasn’t happy, because apparently not only did I not know how to whistle, I didn’t know what to whistle. “You’re supposed to wolf whistle! Like this…” Recklessly eyeballing her the whole way, he pursed his lips and let go a wolf whistle so lecherous and libidinous it curled both the white woman’s pretty painted toes and the dainty red ribbon in her blond hair. Now it was her turn. And my father stood there, lustful and black, as she just as defiantly not only recklessly eyeballed him back but recklessly rubbed his dick through his pants. Kneading his crotch like pizza dough for all she was worth.
Dad quickly whispered something in her ear, handed me a five-dollar bill, said I’ll be back, and together they hurried into the car and tore out down some dirt road. Leaving me to be lynched for his crimes.
“Is there a black buck Rebecca ain’t fucked from here to Natchez?”
“Well, least she knows what she likes. Your dumb peckerwood ass still ain’t decided whether you like men or not.”
“I’m bisexual. I likes both.”
“Ain’t no such thing. You either is or you ain’t. Man crush on Dale Earnhardt, my ass.”
The bystander effect and other experiments his father conducted on Me, Ch 1, p.28-30
For the twenty years I knew him, Dad had been the interim dean of the department of psychology at West Riverside Community College. For him, having grown up as a stable manager’s son on a small horse ranch in Lexington, Kentucky, farming was nostalgic. And when he came out west with a teaching position, the opportunity to live in a black community and breed horses was too good to pass up, even if he’d never really been able to afford the mortgage and the upkeep.
Maybe if he’d been a comparative psychologist, some of the horses and cows would’ve lived past the age of three and the tomatoes would’ve had fewer worms, but in his heart he was more interested in black liberty than in pest management and the well-being of the animal kingdom. And in his quest to unlock the keys to mental freedom, I was his Anna Freud, his little case study, and when he wasn’t teaching me how to ride, he was replicating famous social science experiments with me as both the control and the experimental group. Like any “primitive” Negro child lucky enough to reach the formal operational stage, I’ve come to realize that I had a shitty upbringing that I’ll never be able to live down.
I suppose if one takes into account the lack of an ethics committee to oversee my dad’s childrearing methodologies, the experiments started innocently enough. In the early part of the twentieth century, the behaviorists Watson and Rayner, in an attempt to prove that fear was a learned behavior, exposed nine-month-old “Little Albert” to neutral stimuli like white rats, monkeys, and sheaves of burned newsprint. Initially, the baby test subject was unperturbed by the series of simians, rodents, and flames, but after Watson repeatedly paired the rats with unconscionably loud noises, over time “Little Albert” developed a fear not only of white rats but of all things furry. When I was seven months, Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, “Nigger, go back to Africa!” loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the living room. To this day I’ve never been able to sit through even the most mundane TV crime drama, I have a strange affinity for Neil Young, and whenever I have trouble sleeping, I don’t listen to recorded rainstorms or crashing waves but to the Watergate tapes.
Family lore has it that from ages one to four, he’d tied my right hand behind my back so I’d grow up to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. I was eight when my father wanted to test the “bystander effect” as it applies to the “black community.” He replicated the infamous Kitty Genovese case with a prepubescent me standing in for the ill-fated Ms. Genovese, who, in 1964, was robbed, raped, and stabbed to death in the apathetic streets of New York, her plaintive Psychology 101 textbook cries for help ignored by dozens of onlookers and neighborhood residents. Hence, the “bystander effect”: the more people around to provide help, the less likely one is to receive help. Dad hypothesized that this didn’t apply to black people, a loving race whose very survival has been dependent on helping one another in times of need. So he made me stand on the busiest intersection in the neighborhood, dollar bills bursting from my pockets, the latest and shiniest electronic gadgetry jammed into my ear canals, a hip-hop heavy gold chain hanging from my neck, and, inexplicably, a set of custom-made carpeted Honda Civic floor mats draped over my forearm like a waiter’s towel, and as tears streamed from my eyes, my own father mugged me. He beat me down in front of a throng of bystanders, who didn’t stand by for long. The mugging wasn’t two punches to the face old when the people came, not to my aid, but to my father’s. Assisting him in my ass kicking, they happily joined in with flying elbows and television wrestling throws. One woman put me in a well-executed and, in retrospect, merciful, rear-naked chokehold. When I regained consciousness to see my father surveying her and the rest of my attackers, their faces still sweaty and chests still heaving from the efforts of their altruism, I imagined that, like mine, their ears were still ringing with my high-pitched screams and their frenzied laughter.
“How satisfied were you with your act of selflessness?”
Not at all Somewhat satisfied Very satisfied
1 2 3 4 5
On the way home, Pops put a consoling arm around my aching shoulders and delivered an apologetic lecture about his failure to take into account the “bandwagon effect.”