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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

What's After #MeToo? Send in the Clowns! Read Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!

Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.

But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.

I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.

In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens.

A brief and necessary digression: My own writing (The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg and Plan Z by Leslie Kove) is sometimes rabidly politically incorrect and has been known to poke people who take offense at that. But I’m a neophyte compared to Paul Beatty. And although I love his kind of daring, freefalling, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-size sacred holy cow-balloon-popping, and wildfire prose, I am not insane enough to pull anything out of context in order to detail his book's plot. And even if I were willing to ponder until I were clever enough to do so—which would require substantial time that nobody is paying me for—to do so might make me a target of some people’s ire, and I only accept that role when it comes to my own work.

Now back to the essay. Sorry, I'm not going to detail the plot. I am not going to say why The Sellout is hysterically funny, or why its truth will be a relief to some readers and offensive secret-telling to others.

What I will say is that I laughed till I cried (although this does wane quite a bit at the end of the book) and the music of the writing transcends the need for educated understanding of the esoteric references. The prologue comes at you like a breathless prose poem, and the rest follows suit with jokes, jokes, jokes! They fall out of the stratosphere and land square.

I lied. Without revealing much about the story, I am going to say what I think this book is really about and what it has to do with our future: Although it’s mostly about the Black experience in White America, on a bigger level I think it’s about how we all participate in our own enslavement and limitation; how we collude with the outside culture to abuse us or define us (negatively or positively); and this collusion requires that we pretend we don’t know that we’re colluding. But anybody who names the limitations, admits that they are familiar, comfortable, and even possibly helpful in some backhanded way (causing some people to feel special and others enraged, denied, and self-righteous)—anyone who plays the collusion play without pretending not to is crazy and/or just not with it—a sellout with an attachment disorder. Hell hath no fury like people who feel their secrets exposed.

I, however, love my secrets exposed. It makes me feel normal. So when I read about an outsider who deals with the unfair rules of culture by embracing them, by saying, "Rather than trying to force you to see who I really am, I'll simply be me, playing by your rules, and then let's see what you see." When I read that—a person who knows who he really is enough to just be it and watch how people deal with it, I feel joy. I feel liberated.

In a 2006 NY Times essay on Black Humor, Beatty writes:
My introduction to black—excuse me, Black—literature happened during the summer between eighth and ninth grades when the Los Angeles Unified School District, out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart, sent me a copy of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It was the first book I'd ever opened written by an African-American author. Notice I said "opened" and not "read." I made it through a few pages before I began to get suspicious. Why would a school district that didn't bother to supply me with a working pair of left-handed scissors, a decipherable pre-algebra text or a slice of pepperoni pizza with more than two pepperonis on it send me a new book? Why care about my welfare now?

I read another paragraph, growing more oppressed with each maudlin passage. My lips thickened. My burr-headed Afro took on the texture of a dried-out firethorn bush. My love for the sciences, the Los Angeles Kings and scuba diving disappeared. My dog, Butch, growled at me. I suppressed my craving for a Taco Bell Bellbeefer (remember those?) because I feared the restaurant wouldn't serve me. My eyes started to water and the words to "Roll, Jordan, Roll," a Negro spiritual I'd never heard before, rumbled out of my mouth in a sonorous baritone. I didn't know I could sing. I tossed the book into the kitchen trash. I already knew why the caged bird sang—my family was impoverished every other week while waiting for my mother's paydays—but after three pages of that book, I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet's cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.

Once in a blue moon, I read something that decimates limiting walls I didn’t even know I had about what is possible. I thought my walls were down after reading another outsider book, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. But, as a person who writes truth through humor, I felt a whole other layer disintegrate into dust when I read this flight of black fantasy. Paul Beatty is simply one of the smartest and fearlessly funny honest writers I’ve ever read. After discussing the canon of irreverent Black Humor he discovered after pitching Maya Angelou, he concludes the above essay (adapted from his book Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor) by saying, "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."

To that, I reply: Me too. And I can't wait for the day that we can all look back at this time and laugh at all of ourselves for allowing things to get so bad.

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