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Excerpt from The Sellout by Paul Beatty, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty X
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 304 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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My crash course in childhood development ended two years later, when Dad tried to replicate Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark's study of color consciousness in black children using white and black dolls. My father's version, of course, was a little more revolutionary. A tad more modern. While the Clarks sat two cherubic, life-sized, saddle-shoe-shod dolls, one white and one colored, in front of schoolchildren and asked them to choose the one they preferred, my father placed two elaborate dollscapes in front of me and asked me, "With whom, with what social-cultural subtext are you down with, son?"

Dollscape I featured Ken and Malibu Barbie dressed in matching bathing suits, appropriately snorkeled and goggled, cooling by the Dream House pool. In Dollscape II, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and a brown-skinned, egg-shaped Weeble toy were running (and wobbling) through a swampy thicket from a pack of plastic German shepherds leading an armed lynch party comprised of my G.I. Joes hooded in Ku Klux Klan sheets. "What's that?" I asked, pointing to a small white Christmas ornament that spun slowly over the bog, glittering and sparkling like a disco ball in the afternoon sun.

"That's the North Star. They're running toward the North Star. Toward freedom."

I picked up Martin, Malcolm, and Harriet, teasing my dad by asking, "What are these, inaction figures?" Martin Luther King, Jr., looked okay. Stylishly dressed in a glossy black tight-fitting suit, a copy of Gandhi's autobiography glued to one hand and a microphone in the other. Malcolm was similarly outfitted, but was bespectacled and holding a burning Molotov cocktail that was slowly melting his hand. The smiling, racially ambiguous Weeble, which looked suspiciously like a boyhood version of my father, stayed true to its advertising slogan by wobbling and never falling down, whether balanced precariously in the palm of my hand or chased by the knights of white supremacy. There was something wrong with Ms. Tubman, though. She was outfitted in a form-fitting burlap sack, and I don't remember any of my history primers describing the woman known as Moses as being statuesque with a 36-24-36 hourglass figure, long silky hair, plucked eyebrows, blue eyes, dick-sucking lips, and pointy titties.

"Dad, you painted Barbie black."

"I wanted to maintain the beauty threshold. Establish a baseline of cuteness so that you couldn't say one doll was prettier than the other."

Plantation Barbie had a string coming out of her back. I pulled it. "Math is hard, let's go shopping," she said in a squeaky singsong voice. I set the black heroes back down in the kitchen table swamp, moving their limbs so that they resumed their runaway poses.

"I'm down with Ken and Barbie."

My father lost his scientific objectivity and grabbed me by the shirt. "What? Why?" he yelled.

"Because the white people got better accessories. I mean, look. Harriet Tubman has a gas lantern, a walking stick, and a compass. Ken and Barbie have a dune buggy and speedboat! It's really no contest."

The next day my father burned his "findings" in the fireplace. Even at the junior college level it's publish or perish. But more than the fact he'd never get a parking space with his name on it or a reduced course load, I was a failed social experiment. A statistically insignificant son who'd shattered his hopes for both me and the black race. He made me turn in my dream book. Stopped calling my allowance "positive reinforcement" and began referring to it as "restitution." While he never stopped pushing the "book learning," it wasn't long after this that he bought my first spade, pitchfork, and sheep-shearing razor. Sending me into the fields with a pat on the tush and Booker T. Washington's famous quote pinned to my denim overalls for encouragement, "Cast down your bucket where you are."

* * *

If there is a heaven worth the effort that people make to get there, then I hope for my father's sake there's a celestial psychology journal. One that publishes the results of failed experiments, because acknowledging unsubstantiated theories and negative results is just as important as publishing studies proving red wine is the cure-all we'd always pretended it was.

Excerpted from The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Copyright © 2015 by Paul Beatty. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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