A thoughtful friend asked me what I was reading these days and her query I helped me to understand my path to Beatty’s The Sellout. Herewith some retrospective landmarks.
I am not usually a on-trend reader by I was without a doubt affected by #BLM to look again at black, or rather African-American writers, which I had always tended to neglect given my Africanist and then creolist and Caribbeanist orientations. My prejudice has been that African-Americans writers are too … American.
As I mentioned, I started with two thrillers with a black Texas Ranger protagonist by Attica Locke, Bye-bye Blackbird and Heaven, My Home (two of the Hwy 59 series).
Remembering the existence of Alain Locke, who is far from fashionable among BLMers, I asked my old backyard buddy Michael, who teaches at the historical HBCU Texas Southern U, if the contemporary writer Attica Locke was related to Alain Locke. Turns out probably not, she is the scion of a prominent black Houstonian lawyer and activist.
As reflected in the backstories of her thrillers, especially Heaven My Home, Attica Locke’s family is deeply and historically Texan, not likely to have gotten there swimming upstream, as it were, during the Great Migration north, especially since Alain Locke’s family was Philadelphian to point of having tinges of Quakerism in their ideals.
This and other features of Alain Locke’s bourgeois, Victorian background were mentioned in Jeffrey Stewart’s Pulitzer-Prized 900 pp bio, The New Negro, of which I finished 600 or so, reaching circa 1935. Maybe I’ll get back to it. Turns out that in my opinion it should be required reading not only in Black Studies, but also Queer Studies, since Locke was a major figure in what could be called Black Queer Studies, if anyone needs to create more disciplinary boundaries.
I also browsed in the anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers Alain Locke edited, The New Negro (https://www.amazon.com/New-Negro-Alain-Locke-ebook/dp/B00N5Y0SFU/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=The+New+Negro&qid=1598823648&s=digital-text&sr=1-1).
Reading and surfing therein and thereabouts I ran across Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002UM5BK0/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1.
Hokum was edited by Paul Beatty and I discovered an extract therein by Alain Locke’s contemporary Georges Schuyler (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Schuyler). Sky-ler.
Schuyler’s politics in the last part of his life (like those of Steinbeck, soit dit en passant) are not exactly my cup of tea, but I did discover that his Hokum-extracted book Black No More had a Broadway version planned until Covid came along (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_No_More). The book itself is a free-wheeling Swiftian parody which will obviously be shorn of the full spectrum of its satire if it does ever reach the stage. No sign of it yet. I’ve inquired.
There is I an clear affinity between Black No More and The Sellout, though I can’t find any commentary on this relation, one which I doubt Beatty would like to have bruited about, given the very bad odor Schuyler is in.
Schuyler was a contrarian. He also wrote a novel about Liberia and the modern day slavery practiced by the Americo-Liberians who had colonized it (Slaves Today, 1931) — facts of which I was aware having lived there 1967-1969.
He was also an ideological opponent of W.E.B. du Bois, arguing against “Negro Art Hokum“.
Schuyler’s 1929 pamphlet Racial Inter-Marriage in the United States called for solving the country’s race problem through so-called miscegenation, then illegal in most states. A third big no-no.
As another black satirist, Ishmael Reed, observed: in the final years of Schuyler’s life, it was considered “taboo in black circles even to interview the aging writer”.
Beatty is absolutely no Schuyler, but I suspect that many folks, perhaps more white liberals than blacks, will find Beatty’s book offensive in its language and ideas. I found it bracing.
If they have to let Americans get the Man Booker, I’m glad it was him the first.