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[805] The Sellout – Paul Beatty

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“I understand now that the only time that black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.” (Prologue, 18)

This book is incendiary and funny. In a time when race in America is at an absolute boil, Paul Beatty comes along with a book so bold and straight-forward, tackling all the racial taboo and faultlines. To the conservative mind it is repugnant, but to the liberal it’s brilliant.

In the nutshell The Sellout is about a young black man born in the “agrarian ghetto” of fictional Dickens, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of LA, who becomes a farmer and weed dealer. He ends up before the Supreme Court because he is reinstating slavery, at least in his own house, and segregating the local middle school, erecting around town signs that scream “COLORED ONLY.” Son of a psychologist, “Bonbon” has a weird childhood in which he was subjected to many social experiments studying blacks’ behavior.

When I was young I had a reputation for being extremely lucky. I never suffered from the typical ghetto maladies . . . Hoodlums would jump on my friends but leave me alone. The cops somehow never got around to putting my name on a scare card or my neck in a choke hold. (Ch.9, 124)

When Dickens is removed from the map of California, Bonbon aka “Me” goes on a campaign to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkin, an erstwhile chattel who is the last surviving Little Rascal, who used to perform racial skits. He volunteers to be the narrator’s slave. In addition to segregate the local middle school, he creates facade of a fake charter school populated by smiling white kids that he paints across the street from the real public school, inspiring a race to racially segregated achievement.

What really makes this book shine is Beatty’s constant barrage of asides that takes precedence over the whole plot. His wicked wit, bold racial discourse give the book it’s momentum. The rich asides, so full of racial slurs and innuendos, are very incendiary and provocative. They touch on the hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable. Within the humor, Beatty encourages the reader to re-examine the preconceptions of race and look at race relations in America in a new light. The book by no means suggests that black Americans were better off in the eras of segregation and slavery; instead, Beatty argues that the idea that racial issues are a thing of the past is a misguided and very detrimental concept. He calls for accountability and open discussion, dealing with inequality, prejudice, and discrimination in a honest way.

304 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “The Sellout”

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The opening paragraph, satirical, provocative and funny, decides the purchase of this book. The book looks like a madhouse of insight into race in America.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly…

These are some of the most snarky and electric opening lines. I’m sold immediately.

[801] Sula – Toni Morrison

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“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118)

Sula is compelling story about a black girl, mentally ahead of her time and of the social convention, who strives to achieve freedom and individualism. She is another pariah. She grows up in a household pulsing with larger-than-life people and activity, presided over by her tyrannical and probably sorcerous grandmother, Miss Eva. Left with three children after her husband left her, Miss Eva threw under a train, with one leg cut off, and collected insurance money. Sula’s gentle mother, Hannah, is devoted almost entirely to the practice and pleasure of sensuality. As the story unfolds, it is obvious that Sula, determined to flee the Bottom, is a fusion of the two. She is haughty but has a mind of her own.

Like Sula, Nel Wright is the only daughter of a distant mother, Helene, who is in perpetual query of everyone’s propriety. Sula and Nel have the immediate intimacy of friends who seem to have known each other all their lives, because “each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be.” (52) Vivacity and closeness of their friendship over the year withers and the women are split into opposites. Nel becomes the conformer, assimilating to the conventions and values of black community and in large a male-dominant society. Sula, returning from the city after ten years, is the dangerous outsider whose amorality (like art with a form) poses a threat to the community. She is a living mockery, a sinister force, a sex-hungry, man-stealing figure of darkness and betrayal. She is frowned upon on and coined the evil—who is to be survived and overcome. Having dread to smash the taboos that are her neighbors’ poor guarantees of simply surviving, she is scorned, despised, and abandoned by the people she grew out of—even after she was dead. In short, she is shunned by her people, punished for her rebellion against traditions.

Morrison does not only make you question the small town morality, but something deeper, about the meager choices available to black women outside their own society’s approval. Sula is the quintessential outsider who has gone on a real trip. She risks individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet radically uniform and socially static community. She is strange but compelling. She doesn’t feel obliged to please anyone—not even her best friend. She is an outlaw not because of her outrageous behavior, partly out of vengeance and partly rebellion, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive. The end is heartbreaking and very moving, as Nel realizes she is no different from her friend, whom she misses.

173 pp. Vintage UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Sula

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Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

Reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

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One book leads to another—it’s almost true. I was looking for The Nazi and the Barber, a hilarious Edgar Hilsenrath novel people have been telling me for years to read, but found Paul Beatty’s The Sellout because an article on Edgar Hilsenrath’s book at the bookstore. It was one of those banned books—banned in Germany for a long time—that addresses the subject matter with a frankness, not to be conflated with honesty. It’s one of those books that makes reader flinch the whole way through. This “flinching” feeling is what motivates Paul Beatty to write The Sellout.

The subject matter that makes Beatty constantly flinch is racism. His first experience of it was second grade, when a kid called him the “N” word. They got into a little fight. He went back to the day care center, pulled out the dictionary, and looked up the word. “I don’t think things were ever good. Anywhere, any place, any time. It’s not so much about color or anything else. There are some things that can be gained by convincing yourself things are good, so I understand why people do it.” Political correctness is not to be confused with goodness.

Beatty says one of the biggest problems is people tend to be accusatory. Pointing fingers and calling names. They skewer any opportunity of a discussion. The one thing that could be solved is some justice could be meted out. People can at least go to trial

[762] Oreo – Fran Ross

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” The girl’s got womb . . . she’s a real ball buster. “

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—puny, hilarious and sublime. Fran Ross’ throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers. Sadly, it was the only book she wrote and that it didn’t get much attention when it was published in 1974. The heroine is Christine Clark a.k.a. Oreo. An “oreo” is, of course, a cookie, white on the inside and black on the outside; it’s also the taunt of choice for black people who appear to “act white.” Oreo doesn’t act white, in fact she embraces her multiplicity, aggressively asserting her mixed identity, code-switching between Yiddish, Ebonics, and highbrow academic jargon. Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she turned two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a backpack to search for her father, a voice-over actor in Manhattan who has left her an absurd list of clues regarding her birth. He’s a bum, according to her mother, and her mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest.

Although the novel draws no conclusions and the quest leads to no ground-breaking revelatory payoff (a slight let-down), it’s diversion from the quest by wordplay and metareferences that makes Oreo shine. Ross has no qualm about racial taboo and she just goes off the tangents with racial puns. The narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity and culture. Oreo is Oreo’s quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her (Jewish white) father. She is cheeky, intelligent, and mischievous. She develops a self-defense system that deploys against many men who beat women with impunity. Her encounter with a horde of diverse people allows her to meander through her wicked and free imagination and to push reader toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. This book is erudite and playful. That it’s tied to the Greek myth allows it to go through some very insane materials without spinning out of control. Uproarious feminist attics!

230 pp. New Directions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[756] A Raisin in the Sun – Lorriane Hansberry

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” MAMA: My children and they tempers. Lord, if this little old plant don’t get more sun than it’s been getting it ain’t never going to see spring again. (She turns from the window.) What’s the matter with you this morning, Ruth? You looks right peaked. You aiming to iron all of them things? Leave some for me. (Act I) “

The story of A Raisin in the Sun is simple but epic. Published in 1959, it’s about a family living on the south side of Chicago struggling with poverty, striving to maintain dignity, and dreaming of a better life. One of the central conflicts was loosely based on an event from Lorriane Hansberry’s own childhood. In 1938, her family, in violation of a restrictive covenant that was legal at the time, bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. The fight that ensue, against both legal system and hostile neighbors, deeply affected young Hansberry.

RUTH: Shoot—these here rich white women do it all the time. They don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and—swoosh!—they gone, child.
MAMA: Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman. (Act I)

The Youngers have been living in a “rat-trap” that has become too small and crowded for their needs. Mama’s grandson Travis has to bed down in the living room that also serves as the dining room. The family has to get up earlier in the morning so the bathroom, shared with neighbors, would be available. In receipt of insurance money of her recently-deceased husband, Mama buys a house in an all-white neighborhood to provide a home for her family. Mama is cutting edge in trying to defeat segregation, for she believes “there is no such thing as white folks neighborhood except to racists and to those submitting to racism.” (Act I) She is the meek protector of the house, tending her children, though grown-up, like plants.

The play explores significant themes in American literature: dreams, identity, power, and race. Every character has a very specific dream, and they struggle to cope with oppressive circumstances that rule their lives. Mama dreams of a house for her family. Walter dreams of success in business enterprise. Ruth dreams of a place for her family and a baby. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. These dreams both spur the characters on and frustrate them. They become consumed by their dreams and make decisions they might not ordinarily make because they are so frustrated by their lack of fulfillment.

MAMA: Then isn’t there something wrong in a home—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? (Act III)

This play revolves around the conflicts within and between characters. Each one of them is a representation of something generational, a gender or race issue, and it’s a testament to Hansberry’s writing that her characters don’t come across as mouthpieces of the story. They are living, breathing human beings who have obstacles. What finally brings their inner conflicts to a boil are the demonstration of power through what one can achieve based on one’s race. Despite the myriad manifestation of racial discrimination, the core of the play is the human condition—how human beings struggle against oppression, struggle for individual fulfillment.

152 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[741] The Color Purple – Alice Walker

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” But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive. ” (18)

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that begins in the early 1900s and ends in the mid-1940s. It’s the poignant story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. The tale is told primarily through her own letters, which, out of isolation and despair, Celie addresses to God.

Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown. (193)

As a teenager, Celie is raped by her stepfather—even worse, she believes him to be her real father. She’s made to bear two children that are taken away from her. She is married off without her own consent to Albert, whom she only addresses as Mr. _____, who only uses her to raise his children and to do housework. By sacrificing her body to Albert without love and feeling, Celie saves her sister Nettie, whom Albert wants, making it possible for her to escape. Soon Nettie goes off to Africa to work as a Christian missionary. About halfway through the book, Celie’s sub-literate dialect letters to God become woven with letters from Nettie in Africa.

Ironically, Celie finds a friend and unlikely redeemer in Shug Avery, Albert’s blues singer-lover, who in defiance of what men expect of her, brazenly asserts her individuality. She is made the subject of sermon in church. Shug forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie. She opens Celie’s eyes and encourages her to fight for herself. Shug’s pride, independence and appetite for living act as a catalyst for Celie and others and Sofia, whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives. It is also Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship. The most Shug does is free up Nettie’s letters, hidden away by Albert, thus granting poor Celie a tangible life and bringing about a shocking revelation of her family history.

I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it. The thing about color is that you do have to notice it. It is the beauty of that that is lost in muddling through an endless string of hopeless days.

Without Celie’s knowing, for almost 30 years, Nettie has been writing her letters from west Africa. Mr. _____ has intercepted the letters and hides them. The girls in a male-dominated society don’t fare any better than those in America. They are not allowed to be educated in any matter other than what will transform them into good wives. Nettie, a lonely girl who has to struggle for her own life, is often looked down on and pitied. Her letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppression by describing the customs of the tribe that parallel some found in the American South.

What makes The Color Purple so powerful, besides the dialect folk voice, is the choice of narrative style which, without authorial intrusion, forces intimate identification with the heroine. Whereas the letters in the beginning give a knothole view of her hard life, as the book progresses, Celie grows in experience. Her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority. Her once awkward fumblings slowly transform into a more fluid cadence as she finds some quiet dignity in her life.

The book is a triumphant work that explores self-realization. It’s a poignant but inspiring tale of women’s struggle for equality, independence and dignity. Despite the loss and misery, it is tempered by hope. The story is caked with layers of discrimination and prejudice that surround us, in races and in gender. Different as the subjects are, they are the realities of out world. This book is an important work in the canon of American literature.

294 pp. Harcourt. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

The Color Purple

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I have never read The Color Puprle, but has long been aware of its controversy. Written in 1982 by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the story of black life during the 1930s in the deep south of the United States from a female’s perspective. The Pulitzer Prize winning (1983) novel is told in the epistolary form over a 30-year period, following Celie Johnson as she struggles through life. What unfolds is a heart-wrenching story of neglect and abuse.

Like many books that have been banned over years, the list of charges against The Color Purple includes homosexuality, offensive language, and being sexually explicit. The literary merit of the book is shadowed by challenges in schools in which parents want the book removed from the curriculum. The book was removed from libraries and rejected for purchase in some school trustee—all because of its rough language,

I am not saying the book should be used for bedtime story for children. The point is to choose practically and wisely. I believe students in high school should have enough intellectual and psychological development to not only deal with the content, but to analyze it with logic and reasoning for its artistic and social relevance. Most importantly, placing themes like racism, violence, incest in the context of fictional characters could help convey a sense of healthy understanding.

The reason I’ bringing up The Color Purple is that on Independence Bookstore Day last Saturday, this book was one of the featured title at my local bookstore, which is in Oakland, California, the very battleground for an episode of censorship. It was decided that a high school honors class was not intellectually mature enough to study the work due to its “sexual and social explicitness, and troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” And back in 1984, predominant population of Oakland was African American.

[646] The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

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” Look how Hattie was holding her—as if Ruthie were just anybody, just any baby that needed holding. What if, he thought, Hattie couldn’t love any more children? Maybe we have only a finite amount of love to give. We’re born with our portion, and if we love and are not loved enough in return, it’s depleted. ” (Ruthie 1951, p.124)

Spanning six decades, from 1925 to 1980s, Mathis’s debut novel is a tense, multi-layered family saga with its titular character, Hattie Shepherd, at the very center. When she was 15, she took a train from Georgia with her mother and sisters to Philadelphia, a city that represented freedom and hope impossible in the Jim Crow South. In less than two years Hattie was married, and she and her husband, August, have twins, who later come down with pneumonia in winter 1925, and for lack of proper medication, and the failure of the house furnace, die “in the order in which they were born: first Philadelphia, then Jubilee.” (Philadelphia and Jubilee 1925, p.16) The couple eventually have four more sons and five more daughters—each of whom takes turn at the narrative to weave together a complex story of family ties over time.

Even now, poor as she was crammed in that house with all those children, by all accounts Hattie was as proud as she had been when they were girls in Georgia and their father was the only Negro business owner in town. Likely, even the dole hadn’t broken her . . . Hattie had married the wrong man and she had failed. (Ella 1954, p.173)

Hattie and August never recover from the death of their firstborns. While Hattie struggles to make ends meet and grows increasingly bitter and angry, August spends the evenings drinking and seeing other women, frittering away their savings. Mathis truly conjures the lives of the Shepherd family with psychological precision. Hattie is not an object of affection, and she knows her children did not think her a kind woman, but she fights to keep them alive because life has to go on. All the love she has given has been spent feeding, clothing, and protecting them. Her toughness is seen by her children as ferocity and coldness.

At the time Bell had not recognized this as love. Now, as her mother advanced toward the door to the room, her arm outstretched as if to turn the knob and enter, she wore the same stern expression. Bell saw the tenderness in it—Hattie’s tenderness, which was always hard. (Bell 1975, p.287)

As bleak as the emotional impoverishment and loss might seem, the novel also moves toward a sense of hope and reconciliation. Hattie has sustained loss but bite the bullet to make life more livable. A son sustained a severe burn. Another son fights in Vietnam. A gay son who becomes a famous musician. A daughter who seeks revenge on her by fornicating with Hattie’s ex-lover. A daughter who is schizophrenic. A daughter stuck in a loveless marriage with a rich husband. A daughter whom she almost gave away. Despite the disparate lives they all somehow retrace their parents’ life patterns but come to terms of Hattie’s unspoken love.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a powerful novel about motherhood and life itself. On top of all the afflictions and loss to which she is subjected, Hattie demonstrates invincible will. Mathis, in language so elegant, lyrical and rigid, gives reader a glimpse of redemption and resilience of the human spirit.

330 pp. Windmill Books/ Random House UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]