Books

Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal

Notable figures from Diana Ross to Barack Obama have been slapped with the "s-word" at some point or another for any number of real or imagined offenses.


Sellout

Publisher: Pantheon
Subtitle: The Politics of Racial Betrayal
Author: Randall Kennedy
Price: $22.00
Length: 240
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0375425438
US publication date: 2008-01
Amazon

There are all sorts of uncomplimentary terms one black person can use to brand another, but “sellout” has a peculiar quality of cutting to the quick of a psyche. “Uncle Tom”, while hardly nice, doesn’t quite elevate to the level of a stinging epithet. Many black people won’t answer to “nigger” or any of its variants, but if it’s coming from another black person, it’s more likely to spark righteous indignation than a physical beatdown.

“Sellout”, however, is personal. In any circumstance, it implies not only a mindset at variance with accepted group norms, but active engagement against those norms. To be labeled a sellout is to be outed and damned as the worst kind of enemy -- one from within the ranks, someone who presumably chose to not just deviate from the straight and narrow, but also plant land mines in the path.

Such accusations carry an extra sting in the black world, because going against the perceived grain of an already aggrieved community is seen to only make matters worse. If the accused don’t see their actions as traitorous, feelings of guilt and indecision may result. Further, the people tossing around the “sellout” charge are free to do so without having to answer to some higher authority; it’s not as though there’s a tribunal somewhere that renders official judgment on who sold out whom (although many works of fiction, satire, and agitprop have centered around similar notions). And its reach is widespread: notable figures from Diana Ross to Barack Obama have been slapped with the s-word at some point or another, for any number of real or imagined offenses.

Leave it to the erstwhile Randall Kennedy to give rigorous consideration to this passionate intra-racial dynamic. The esteemed Harvard law professor has taken on something of a brand identity for scholarly-yet-accessible-to-the-layperson explorations of issues hotly debated both, to borrow from Chuck D, by the bourgeois and on the boulevard. The current volume shares its tone, approach and even packaging with Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (2003) and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002).

As in the previous works, Kennedy meticulously picks apart the dynamic in question, avoiding the broad strokes of either-or proclamations in favor of carefully parsed distinctions. And as with those earlier books, those looking for clear, unambiguous rules to live by will come away disappointed.

Sellout is, on one level, a triumph of research. Kennedy locates several examples from 19th Century black politics and literature of the concept, from slaves who ratted out others planning escapes to the case of William Hannibal Thomas, a fervent advocate of Reconstruction who went on to write an anti-Black screed that was championed by leading white supremacists. He goes on to cite 20th Century examples of out-and-out treachery (black informants spying against Black Panthers and civil rights advocates) and back-and-forth character assassination (against Marcus Garvey and W.E.B DuBois). Kennedy uses these cases to outline the general parameters of sellout behavior, but cautions that there may have been extenuating circumstances that convinced the central character that his actions actually supported the race’s greater good.

As Kennedy brings the discussion into the present day, he looks at the dilemma faced by, among others, black policemen, black conservatives, blacks who excel in multiracial environments, and blacks who marry whites: in following where their interests and inclinations lead, are they remaining true to the race? While he continues to span the black globe to flesh out his laundry list, he gives little consideration to how this predilection to castigate alleged ideological outliers affects black people as a whole -- or, for that matter, the outliers themselves.

Instead, Kennedy picks a debate with two of his academic colleagues, Stephen L. Carter and Glenn Loury. He rejects their assertions that the notion of racial sellouts stifles individuals whose alternative views might be useful to a broader debate of the issues, and thus robs the community of its full diversity. “...Solidarity always poses a problem of balance between collective unity and individual freedom,” Kennedy writes. He clearly falls on the “collective unity” side of that equation: “If a group exists, there must be some conduct in which a member can engage that is appropriately labeled ‘betrayal’.” His distinction lies in rejecting blanket condemnations by self-styled thought police (he references John Blake’s moniker “Soul Patrol”).

If you’re going to label someone a sellout, Kennedy urges that you have your facts in order, make a reasoned, responsible accusation, and that you be accountable for your charges. He’s not campaigning to eliminate the charge of selling out, but urging in his most professorial voice that it be deployed with reason and not demagoguery.

Kennedy practices what he preaches in his discussion of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, possibly the black person most vilified by other black people in our time. He revisits Thomas’ career in the public eye, from the contentious confirmation hearings and the face-off against Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations (it’s hard to fathom, given how much black folk hate him now, that many blacks thought Hill was trying to do damage to a brotha on the verge of a major accomplishment -- thus, they saw her as the sellout), to his key decisions and opinions from the bench, all squarely within the conservative worldview.

Rather than rejecting him out of hand, Kennedy goes into full law-professor mode to analyze Thomas’ reasoning and thought processes. He finds his work to be “riddled by inconsistencies, evasions, and arbitrariness,” but sees no evidence that Thomas is deliberately trying to impede black progress. A person’s intent is the crux of the sellout matter for Kennedy, not whether they mean well but are simply on the “wrong” side of the fence. Here, he has no love for Justice Thomas’ opinions but does not ascribe any malicious intent to them.

Kennedy asserts that the widespread black condemnation of Thomas and his legal opinions has prevented us from considering his work with critical seriousness and depth. Indeed, it may be viscerally enjoyable to swipe at Thomas as a “handkerchief head” or portray him as a lawn jockey (Emerge magazine’s November 1996 cover art), but such wisecracking glosses over the fact that the Justice is no joke, and that he’ll be weighing in on all matters of American jurisprudence for many years to come. It’s better for all concerned to understand his thought processes scientifically instead of dismissing him with a sneer, and Kennedy’s treatise is solid and fair. But given the fact that dismissing Clarence Thomas with a sneer is all but de rigueur in the ‘hood and has been for years, good luck with that.

In essence, Kennedy would have us regard the notion of selling out without any of the emotional, hot-button messiness that we tend to bring to such discussions -- in short, the very red-blooded passion that prompted the book in the first place. He states his case dispassionately, like a true professor of law (“Words should matter. To denounce someone as a sellout should matter.”), but at the end of the day, he acknowledges that it really is personal. In the epilogue, he acknowledges that he has been accused of selling out on numerous occasions (even to the point of being assumed to have a white wife!), and speaks of the agony many of his black students have faced in pondering the proper balance between professional achievement and “giving back” to the community.

That’s the only time in the book where we get any sense of what it’s like to be branded a sellout, and also the only time where there’s any sense that the charge isn’t likely to be recast as primarily an intellectual exercise anytime soon. Kennedy nobly tries to elevate the playing field for this discussion, but his own example proves that, for all his erudition and analysis, such a higher-minded pursuit might well be an uphill task.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.