Daniel Hack: The Sellout and a tradition of black anglophilia

Daniel Hack is the author of Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, an examination of the intricate ways in which Victorian literature was put to use in African American literature and print culture throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This year’s recipient of the Man Booker Prize, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, honors that tradition in subtle but undeniable ways. 

For the first 34 years of its existence, only novelists from Great Britain and certain Commonwealth counties were eligible for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world. In 2014, eligibility was extended to all novelists writing in English, a controversial change that dismayed many worried about the reach of American culture, or simply loathe to dilute this highly successful means of celebrating and publicizing anglophone fiction produced in places other than the U.S. Sure enough, this week the prize went to an American, with Paul Beatty winning for The Sellout, a gleefully satirical novel in which an African American narrator recounts his attempt to reinstitute segregation and even slavery in a “ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Yet instead of simply confirming American cultural hegemony or, alternatively, the meaninglessness of national boundaries in this age of global literature, the choice of The Sellout calls attention to the distinctive and important historical relationship between African American literature and British literature, and between African American writers and Great Britain. The Sellout references and revives this history, in ways both pointed and hilarious.

Great Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, and British abolitionists were active supporters of antislavery efforts in the U.S. Frederick Douglass is the most famous but not the only escaped slave who traveled to Britain to avoid recapture, and British philanthropists even paid Douglass’s former owner for his manumission. Like Douglass, then, many nineteenth-century African Americans associated Britain with freedom and embraced its cultural as well as political heritage against that of the U.S.; scholar Elisa Tamarkin has dubbed this nineteenth- and early-twentieth century phenomenon “black Anglophilia.” As a result, African American writers often had a less antagonistic relationship to British literature than did their white American counterparts, who were often intent on breaking from the then-dominant British tradition.

Two of the earliest novels by African Americans, William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or The President’s Daughter (1853) and Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1858), were in fact written and first published in Britain: Brown, like Douglass, was an escaped slave who made his way across the Atlantic to live as a free man, while Webb, a free black from Philadelphia, was accompanying his wife Mary, who toured Britain performing dramatic readings. Brown’s novel, the title character of which is a fictional daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, uses as its bitterly ironic epigraph the “We hold these truths to be self evident” passage from the Declaration of Independence; however, that document is referred to as the “Declaration of American Independence.” Jarring to American ears, this specification strikingly reflects the British publication and expected readership of what is believed to be the very first published novel by an African American.

British literature, including contemporary Victorian literature by leading British writers such as Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson, also featured prominently in nineteenth-century African American periodicals. Perhaps inspired by the hugely successful serial publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a white-owned abolitionist newspaper, Douglass chose to publish Dickens’s massive Bleak House in its entirety in the newspaper he owned and edited. That novel had almost nothing to say about slavery, and even memorably lampooned a female philanthropist for caring more about Africans than her own family. Yet for Douglass, Dickens’s fame as a reformer and champion of the downtrodden, as well as the criticism he had made of slavery in his earlier book about his travels in the U.S., American Notes, justified his publication alongside poetry and prose by an early generation of African American writers. Douglass’s re-contextualization of Bleak House was confirmed and extended in spectacular fashion in The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by the pseudonymous Hannah Crafts: probably written in the 1850s but only discovered and published in the twenty-first century, this fictionalized slave narrative rewrote and even borrowed verbatim large chunks of Dickens’s novel, for example transforming his searing description of London slums into one of slave quarters in North Carolina.

Concerned with the lives of contemporary African Americans and the state of race relations in the present day United States, and praised by the Man Booker judges as “a novel for our times,” The Sellout may seem to have little in common with this nineteenth-century literary history. However, Beatty invites us to consider this history with the name he assigns the Compton-like neighborhood of Los Angeles in which he sets the novel: “Dickens.” A further hint that Beatty is riffing on this tradition comes when the narrator reports that he has named one of the strains of marijuana he grows “Anglophobia.”

In the most striking demonstration that The Sellout itself is neither anglophobic nor anglophilic, but rather treats the tradition of African American engagement with or even participation in English literature as worthy of extending and satirizing–extending by satirizing—Beatty’s narrator describes witnessing the birth of gangster rap as a child. The first such rap, he reports, is called “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”: a pastiche of Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem about a disastrous British offensive in the Crimean War, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Tennyson’s “Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward,/ All in the valley of Death” becomes “Half a liter, half a liter,/ Half a liter onward/ All in the alley of Death,” before the lyrics descend into obscenities unprintable here, but which continue to closely track Tennyson’s poem.

What makes Beatty’s choice of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” especially appropriate is that this poem too was reprinted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and even attacked there as plagiarizing an African war chant. Tennyson’s poem also became the basis for poems celebrating the sacrifices of African American troops in the Civil War. It is unlikely that the Man Booker committee is aware of this history, and Beatty himself has not spoken of it. Yet this history makes The Sellout the perfect choice as the novel to mark the expansion of the Man Booker Prize to include American fiction. In seeming to go far afield, this year’s prize in fact celebrates the revival and revision of an important tradition of transatlantic, interracial literary dialogue and creativity.

HackDaniel Hack is associate professor of English at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel and Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature.