Paul Beatty’s The Sellout as Allegory of the U.S. Carceral System

  • Maria-José Canelo Universidade de Coimbra


This study looks into Paul Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout (2015) as a powerful literary elaboration on the politics of racial identity. In naturalizing slavery and segregation in current U.S. society—the idea at the core of The Sellout—Beatty deploys racism along a continuum from the past to the present, rather than something in the past or a memory in the contemporary so-called post-racial world. The present analysis examines how the literary devices of parody and allegory assist in the creation of a satire, particularly of the U.S. carceral system. The fictional events at Dickens, as well as Bonbon Me’s story, it is argued, are only the first layer of signification in a plot that allegorizes what is perhaps the most racialized criminal system in the world, one that several critics see as the most efficient apparatus of social control after Jim Crow. Through a second layer of meaning, the most controversial representations in the novel, namely slavery and segregation, are explored. The signs of parody in his use of hyperbole and stereotype, are also marks of a black postblackness critique that registers Beatty’s literary voice in the current debate on ‘blackness’ as identity.

Author Biography

Maria-José Canelo, Universidade de Coimbra
Maria José Canelo, PhD in American Studies (New York University), is assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts - University of Coimbra, where she teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in literary and cultural studies. She is full researcher at the Center for Social Studies (UC). Her research interests include literature and politics (citizenship, nationalism, racism); representation and difference; visual studies; and interamerican studies.


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