Feb/Mar 2008

No Doubting Thomas

Randall Kennedy examines the African-American "sellout"

Gerald Early


Randall Kennedy's Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betryal seems clearly a companion to his controversial Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published in 2002. Not only are the format and length the same for both books, but they complement each other in theme. In the earlier work, Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and a leading African-American public intellectual, examines the rhetorical and cultural power of a word (nigger) and the concept it emblemizes of racial degradation, a word created by whites to stigmatize and marginalize blacks. In the new book, Kennedy examines the rhetorical and cultural power of a word (sellout) and the concept it emblemizes of racial betrayal and treason, a word used by blacks to stigmatize and marginalize other blacks who are deemed disloyal to the race. Together, the books can be seen as an exploration of the complex and sometimes harsh system of external and internal stigmatization that governs African-American behavior and self-consciousness. In the end, they replace the standard question about race relations in the United States—How much tolerance and acceptance is displayed toward blacks?—by posing, conversely, How much tolerance and acceptance do blacks practice with whites (Who can use the word nigger?) and with themselves (How much can one criticize or deviate from groupthink before being banished from and savagely ridiculed by the group?)? Kennedy is sensitive to the considerable inequality that exists between whites and blacks in the United States ("race relations," implying a kind of equality, has always been a misleading way to describe what passes as social, economic, and political traffic between blacks and whites), so in Sellout, he frames the question more probingly: How much tolerance and acceptance can a persecuted, relatively powerless minority afford to practice in its attempt to maintain its political integrity and its racial identity? (Which, I suppose, finally, amount to the same thing: Integrity is identity.)

In the epilogue to Sellout, Kennedy explains that the vituperative attacks in some African-American quarters against Nigger (even the title was offensive to a number of readers) and his Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003), in which he defended interracial dating and marriage and cross-racial adoption, resulted in his being branded a sellout. He reminds his readers that "at no point have I felt that I was putting myself into serious jeopardy because of something I have had in mind to write." But he also notes that the stigmatizing tendencies, the methods of conformity enforcement among the weak, are "important to attend to critically," because "victims in one setting are often victimizers in another." With this in mind, some readers might consider this book a defense of the position of the cosmopolitan black intellectual, ensconced in and supported by a prestigious white institution, recognized and rewarded by an array of other white-dominated institutions that lend validation and privilege; in short, Kennedy's voice is that of the liberal "Talented Tenth" black who has not only achieved considerable success in the white world but whose success depends on his ability to interpret his group's experience both to the group itself and to whites in high-culture places.

So, of course, for what else could he argue but that his black audience become more tolerant of racial heterodoxy and quit acting like a bunch of ethnic rubes? Kennedy understands that his black audience is ambivalent, adoring his success while at the same time being jealous and suspicious of it. He also knows that some of those who put the most "be true to your roots" pressure on the Talented Tenth are its own race-righteous members, "their misplaced angst" guilt-tripping the young into committing themselves to saving the race, putting the race first, never forgetting where they came from, etc.—all of which amounts to the black version of the American provincial piety of remembering home and mother. This is not the worst psychic burden that can be placed on a person, but it has certainly produced its fair share of hypocrites and neurotics and has been responsible for a decent amount of anti-intellectualism. Kennedy's position is hardly unique. Many, including myself, find themselves in a similar situation, one that is, in equal measure, curious, bothersome, and favored. Naturally, I sympathize with Kennedy. But if I were a member of the black grassroots, I probably wouldn't trust black cosmopolitan intellectuals, either. Why can't my ethnicity be a cosmos?, I used to think as a teenager. White ethnicity is.

In a brief introduction, Kennedy explains the difference between sellout and other disparaging terms like Uncle Tom, Oreo, handkerchief head, and Stepin Fetchit: "While the latter insults refer to blacks who are deemed to be servile or otherwise lacking in an appropriate sense of racial pride or racial duty, 'sellout' refers to someone who is dangerously antagonistic to blacks' well-being." He briefly discusses how many prominent blacks, including Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell, have been labeled sellouts at one time or another, just as important blacks of earlier periods, including W. E. B. DuBois (when he supported Woodrow Wilson and World War I), Martin R. Delany (when he became a Democrat during Reconstruction), and Frederick Douglass (when he married a white woman late in his life), were.

After discussing what blacks consider to be the basic experience of blackness—what makes one black—Kennedy delves into the nature of the sellout in African-American history: how, for instance, most black-slave revolts were thwarted by blacks who informed to whites, and the role of black informants during the heyday of the civil rights movement. He raises the case of William Hannibal Thomas, the black author of The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is and What He Will Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion (1901), a book so profoundly and shockingly racist that Thomas was completely and thoroughly ostracized by his group. Kennedy considers how black leaders have called one another sellouts. (Booker T. Washington was accused of selling out by DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, and the radicals; DuBois and Marcus Garvey exchanged such charges back in the early 1920s; Malcolm X leveled the word at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other established civil rights leaders in the '60s.)

In the following chapter, Kennedy focuses mostly on current black intellectuals like Glenn C. Loury and Stephen L. Carter who decry the idea of the sellout (both have been accused of it; Loury was a much-publicized black conservative but has since repented of his ideological waywardness) as intolerant, imprisoning the black intellectual and stifling debate in African-American circles. Kennedy agrees with them to a point. But he feels that "every group confronts the task of curtailing free riding and defection. These tasks are key to any group's existence." While Kennedy argues that "all Negroes should be voluntary Negroes, blacks by choice," he also feels that the group should, indeed, must, have the power to discipline members and demand some form of allegiance if it is to be any sort of group at all worthy of the name.

The book's centerpiece is Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. His is the strongest chapter and one of the best and fairest considerations of Thomas for a general audience, as Kennedy insists that Thomas must be challenged on the substance of his ideas, not simply with ad hominem attacks. Thomas's thought is original and substantial enough to deserve that level of engagement. (That Kennedy defends Thomas from the common view that he is nothing more than a puppet of white conservatives, particularly Justice Antonin Scalia, is noteworthy and necessary. Thomas makes a clear distinction between himself and the white-conservative movement in his recently published autobiography, pointing out how uncomfortable and out of step he feels among many white conservatives.) I think that one of the major reasons Kennedy wrote this book was to contextualize and critique Thomas by analyzing the taint of the sellout as a form of bigoted caricature and an expression of frustration and disappointment with the race's best and brightest.

Kennedy goes on to consider the literary and cultural phenomenon of passing, with some thoughtful comparison in that regard between blacks and homosexuals. (He might have made a similar comparison of blacks and Jews.) According to Kennedy, African Americans have been ambivalent about passing, thinking passers to be both race traitors and spies subverting the enemy's camp. On the whole, Sellout is an engaging meditation on an important idea and its attendant complexities and, I think, a much stronger book than Nigger. It tells a valuable story about how blacks are acutely aware, as are most persecuted minorities, of the blandishments of assimilation and the torment of self-hatred.

In Black Boy (1945), Richard Wright famously (or infamously) wrote, "After I had outlived the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me, I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair." Wright was roundly criticized for writing this (many blacks considered him a sellout), because he believed that blackness was not, alas, a cosmos. Blackness for Wright wasn't even rational, but a crazed response to white racism. Ralph Ellison thought Wright in some ways misunderstood how little a persecuted, powerless minority (especially at the time Wright was writing) could afford to pay the price of promoting individuality and the primacy of the individual's self-concern, especially as the group always paid for whatever the individual did because the individual was never truly an individual to whites, but always a representation and a representative of the race. Conformity was a matter of survival, even a matter of culture- and institution-building. As racism has loosened its grip on the nation's mind, heart, and habits, blacks face the urgency of group survival in another way: What, besides the brutality of racism, has really held the group together and made it a group at all? Are blacks and blackness really perverse creations of whites? Naturally, blacks must assert that blackness, epistemologically considered, is more than the collective, inescapable response to racism. Perhaps that is why the concern about the sellout is more vibrant than ever, even as African Americans remain unsure, despite or perhaps because of their orthodoxies and proofs of allegiances, about what being black truly means.

Gerald Early is Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, Saint Louis, and the author, most recently, of This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s (Bison Books, 2003).

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