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  • Dickens Disappeared:Black Los Angeles and the Borderlands of Racial Memory
  • Emily Lutenski (bio)

"So what exactly is our thing?" asks the narrator of Paul Beatty's satirical The Sellout (2015) in its closing pages.1 The novel offers—and rejects—two prevalent renditions of race. On the one hand, it interrogates and discards a cohesive, essentialist, and apparitional notion of black community that may have political and affective utility, but it fails to accommodate the full scope and variety of black lives and experiences. On the other hand, it lambasts the fantasy of a postracial society wherein blackness is a feature of identity to be appreciated as part of multiculturalist appeals to respect diversity, which rhetorically sweep racism into the dustbin of history rather than acknowledge its persistence. The novel offers an alternative to both of these ideas about race via its focus on location. It construes blackness as a site of memory.

The Sellout is set in Southern California, and one of its major plot points is the reinscription of the borders that have shaped the racial order in metropolitan Los Angeles through processes such as black migration, urban renewal, redlining, and enforcement of restrictive covenants. Beatty's depiction of place enables his dual-pronged critique of identity politics and postracialism and proposes simultaneously anti-identitarian and antiracist thinking. The particularities of Los Angeles with which Beatty engages—its borderland histories, constructed by U.S. imperialism, and its more contemporary reshaping by immigration—mean that the novel speaks not only to African American histories and literary genealogies but also to those more commonly associated with Chicanx cultures. To approach race, place, and memory in the novel is necessarily a comparative, [End Page 15] historicized, and interdisciplinary endeavor, one that charts new directions in black western studies.

Time, Space, Memory, and Place

While place has certainly been an important concept in African American studies, recent scholarship has addressed the notion of time. Work like Daylanne English's Each Hour Redeem: Time and Justice in African American Literature (2013) and Anthony Reed's Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing (2014) serve as key examples. English concludes that "African American writers belong fully to their period even as they repeatedly represent African American people as inhabiting a distinct temporality."2 For Reed, African American literature requires "reimagining the connections between race and history and stressing the importance of nonsynchronism in the present."3 These racialized temporalities are evidence of stymied justice (think of Langston Hughes imploring "What happens to a dream deferred?" in "Harlem [2]" or Martin Luther King Jr.'s use of the maxim "justice too long delayed is justice denied" in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail") or the construction of "freedom time" through aesthetic practice that exists alongside continued racial oppression.4

Temporality has provided one answer to the question of black racialization epitomized by The Sellout's query, "what exactly is our thing?" This question is similar to the one raised by Kenneth Warren's 2011 provocation What Was African American Literature? There, Warren argues that African American literature can be recognized as a cohesive body only when produced in response to Jim Crow and thus can be historicized from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision to the legal challenges that dismantled Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Brown v. Board (1954). After that, he argues, "African American literature" no longer serves as a functional analytic. When he makes that claim, Warren emphatically insists that race-based inequality is not over. "Rather," he writes, "'color blindness' turns out to be a kind of blindness to the presentness of the past, a refusal to see that people can still be victimized by the past, and that the past can still be victimized by the present." It is "history or memory" that "bind our people together."5

Stuart Hall has theorized that blackness is constructed not by history as much as by memory—it is not created by the facticity of the past as much as by the way the past is rehearsed, represented, and retold. "Far from being grounded in a mere 'recovery' of the past, which is waiting to be found...


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