In Kevin Young’s April 12th NYT review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, a comic novel on black life on the outskirts of Los Angeles:

There are more mentions of the N-word than on a Sigma Alpha Epsilon field trip. But like early Richard Pryor, Beatty seems to wish to take the word out of the shadows

The reclaiming of nigger is certainly of note, but this posting is about the allusion, to a Sigma Alpha Epsilon field trip. Either you get it or you don’t; it’s not something you can figure out.

Other cases, with allusions in cartoons. One case, in a Bizarro posted about here: a reference to the mummy’s cursor, which you can appreciate as a pun on the mummy’s curse without “getting” the allusion to the horror movie The Mummy’s Curse (although if you know about the movie, the cartoon is even funnier, or at least more clever). A contrasting case, in a New Yorker cartoon posted about here: a reference to a Mr. Schrödinger and his cat, which is completely baffling unless you know about the thought experiment in theoretical physics known as Schrödinger’s Cat.

Understanding the passage in Kevin Young’s NYT review similarly depends crucially on your “getting” the reference to a Sigma Alpha Epsilon field trip. For that, you need to have caught a news story last month about the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. From a 3/13 Slate piece, re-posted from Inside Higher Ed, “The Ugly, Racist, Deadly History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon” by Jake New (with the subhead “The fraternity’s problems aren’t limited to the University of Oklahoma or the South. And they stretch back decades.”). From that piece (which I recommend):

A video that surfaced online Sunday showed members of the University of Oklahoma chapter [of SAE] singing a song that has managed to both “embarrass” the fraternity and echo its segregationist roots.

“There will never be a nigger at SAE,” the students sang to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” while dressed in formal attire and riding a bus. “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.”

Hey, it was just college fun.

One Response to “Allusion”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    The sun never sets on S.A.E., as the saying goes. My former father-in-law (of blest memory) was one. There was even a chapter at Harvard, which otherwise had no nationally affiliated fraternities in the 1950s. I don’t know what became of it.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: