selloutcover_200.jpg(Please welcome Randall L. Kennedy to the comments here at the FDL Salon. The author of the controversial best-seller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word has dared to step on the third rail of race once again with publication of Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal.)

In preparation for the salon, I dutifully pulled out the highlighter to mark off passages of interest in Randall Kennedy’s Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal. What I was not prepared for was the compulsion to highlight most of the book because so much of his thesis resonated with me, even at points of disagreement.

The importance of Sellout is that it is a fearless tome, because its goal is to not only spur discussion about race and identity politics within the black community, but to help frame a very difficult and uncomfortable subject for those who find themselves shut out or silenced because of discomfort, guilt or political correctness when it comes to race. Not talking about it doesn’t make any of the complex issues go away, or even go underground, it can and does surfaces in social and cultural pathologies.

And one is the charge of selling out. It is the ultimate betrayal, one that goes by many names — sucking up to The Man, "acting white," Uncle Tom, being an "Oreo," leaving your community behind are just a few. Kennedy gives a simple definition as a launching point.

A sellout is a person who betrays something to which s/he is said to owe allegiance.

But we all know that it is more complex term when hurled as an epithet from blacks to one of "their own."

The anxiety in the black community about selling out is little-discussed but always present in casual and pointed judgments of others in the community. Any measure of success by a member of the community can be viewed with suspicion without affirmation from the person in question that they are authentic, that they will not betray "the movement" to improve the condition of all members of the community.

Kennedy points out that racial authenticity and selling out have been issues that have played themselves out in public in fascinating ways with the presence of Barack Obama in the presidential race. He has had to deal with suspicions regarding racial betrayal from blacks during the beginning of his campaign (largely forgotten now, as doubts that he could be elected have melted away for many blacks, a phenomenon Kennedy addresses in his book). The questions Obama faces about loyalty are ones other high-profile successful blacks inevitably confront.

Obama himself addressed the issue squarely in a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists. Many blacks, he observed, remain ensnared by the notion that "if you appeal to white folks, you must be doing something wrong."

Questions regarding racial loyalty also dog Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Vernon Jordan, Colin Powell, and the list goes on. Indeed, with the possible exception of athletes, blacks who attain success in a multiracial setting will always sooner or later encounter whispered insinuations or shouted allegations that their achievement is attributable, at least in part, to "selling out."

However, in order to sell out your people, you actually have to be black.

As someone who identifies (and is usually identified by others) as black and who has been subject to both racism by the dominant culture and colorism within the black community, the chapter "Who Is Black?" is a great launching point. Kennedy asks the reader to consider why someone who has three white grandparents and one black grandparent is labeled black rather than white. Race is merely a social construct, and it’s an insane construct at that. From census officials in 1890:

"[b]e particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."

At no point were enumerators provided with a methodology for extracting this information or discerning these differences.

Our society isn’t much better off today, sorry to say. In Obama’s case, he’s biracial (he discussed how he identifies as black in a 60 Minutes interview), but time and again, the question of his racial authenticity by blacks or his "colorlessness" if you take the description some whites seem to apply to him has brought discussions about race into the public sphere, which is a healthy development for our society, something promoted as essential in Kennedy’s thesis.

I’ve blogged about race matters for years, and without fail, my posts on the topic usually receive the fewest comments – people are reluctant to put themselves out there with an opinion; they are so fearful about being perceived as racist — and rightfully so, given the defensive reaction of many blacks even if a comment or question comes from a true desire to learn.

Let’s declare this a safe space today – speak up, engage, learn and teach. Randall Kennedy put himself out there by challenging us to think and work through these matters in Sellout, breaking the silence in order to move forward.

Some topics Randall Kennedy covers in Sellout that we can discuss today:

* Who is black and who is not and how do you judge that?

* What is the "black community"? Does it exist? Who has the right to represent it?

* Why do some question whether Barack Obama can rightly be described as black?

* On the flip side, is Tiger Woods black if he considers himself to be "cablinasian"?

* What constitutes a sellout in your mind? And what can blacks who face the prospect of being called sellouts do?

* Justice Clarence Thomas is often viewed as the prime example of a sellout. Do you think this is a valid charge and why?

* Do successful blacks have a particular responsibility to the black community?

You can view Randall Kennedy’s lecture on Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal at Cooper Union in NYC here.

Welcome Randall Kennedy to the comments.

–Pam Spaulding
Pam’s House Blend

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding