Segregating US society

The prestigious Man Booker Prize has been awarded to American novelist Paul Beatty for his tragicomical racial satire, The Sellout. Paul Beatty is the first American writer to win the prize. Literary prizes have a bidding charm in creating a buzz around a work that would have remained nearly anonymous if not for the prize. The Sellout was rejected 18 times by numerous publishers. Some of them thought its content to be too controversial to publish in a book form. It is not easy for a writer to get rejected numerous times and still persist in finding the right home. But now Beatty is having the last laugh, and perhaps with him the brave publisher too. Paul Beatty’s book highlights what would happen if segregation is reinstated in the United States, leading to what has been called as the civil rights movement. Abolition of slavery and civil rights are two important subjects that Beatty has focussed on. These are topics, perhaps, going by the number of rejections, that have still not found a comfortable literary landscape in a divided America. Literature, above everything, can also be a voice of the oppressed and the dispossessed. To understand human condition, is the chief aim of literature – the way people think and feel, the society they live in, the sense of history they have and inter-relatedness of all with the personal. Perhaps this is what makes writing and writers a special category in today’s world. Being an African-American in America is no easy task. Prejudices and discrimination continue to haunt one section of a society that is altogether disadvantageous when compared to the white Americans. To an observer of the US, race prejudice may seem like a strange phenomenon in the land of the free and plenty. The relationship between the white and the black carries the burden of the past. No other racial minority has a similar limiting experience that black Americans have to undergo, one generation after another. And, most unfortunately, black Americans are made to feel that it is their fault, not that of the social and economic mechanisms working in American society that systematically keep them out of privilege and opportunities. The white majority has little reservation in showing the successes of the Chinese, Indian and also the Mexican immigrants to their African American populace, thus in the process institutionalising the abhorrent practice of racism. Race continues to be a decisive factor in American politics as well. And, often, politics is an ugly representation of how and what society is and can be in the future.
Beatty, through his book, gives us a sense of the mindless practice of slavery prevalent in the old America. It’s a fruitful reminder to the keepers of American exceptionalism that the US is not just exceptional in the good but equally in the bad. Perhaps Paul Beatty’s book will contribute towards better race relations. But fiction is not meant to change the world – politics is.

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