SELLOUT: THE POLITICS OF RACIAL BETRAYAL by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon), 194 pages, $25 cloth. Rating: NNN
Should black America support or trash Justice Clarence Thomas? Can Barack Obama become president without selling out? What’s a decent definition of “sellout” anyway?
Randall Kennedy likes to plumb case law and black history to deal with hot topics like these. His 2003 book, Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word, caused a firestorm just because of its raw title, and when he appeared as an expert witness in support of a man who used the N-word abusively, it didn’t take long for the word “sellout” to be applied to him.
Here he seizes on his own personal experience to write about what obligations black leaders and blacks in general have to their communities.
He starts, in the driest section of the book, by tracing the historical definitions of blackness. Sellout really takes off when he probes the legal legacy of Clarence Thomas.
The Supreme Court justice has become a pariah in the politicized black community, not because of sexual abuse allegations – his approval rating among blacks went up during his confirmation hearing – but because of his conservative rulings, specifically his opposition to affirmative action.
The chapter on passing – light-skinned black people living as whites – really resonates. It surveys the American literature, some of it obscure, on the subject, and when Kennedy covers the issue of“outing,” he compares the phenomenon with how the queer community deals with closeted gays.
Kennedy writes very lucidly, staying away from law-speak. He’s also consistently even-handed in an area that lends itself to incendiary rhetoric.
He does, however, have an irritating liberal tinge that’s rooted in American free speech fanaticism. I’d say he went too far when he testified in defence of a racist, even if all he said was that the word “nigger” can have a positive meaning in some contexts.
But sometimes even a sellout can have a lot to say about selling out.