there was a period of time in my life when I was called a sellout.
Actually, those were not the words used, at least to my face. I
was told more or less, as President of a local chapter of a national
women’s business owners group, that I was helping white women do
came to the conclusion that I was a sellout after reading Randall
Kennedy’s book, “Sellout – The Politics of Racial Betrayal”. But
I am in good company. According to his book, most prominent persons
in Black American history have, at one time or another had the label
affixed to them.
of the most surprising was WEB Du Bois, who, during World War I,
when he wrote an essay to the effect that African descendants should
support the war effort, despite the fact that there was not only
a segregated army; but that the officers would be whites; that the
soldiers would be ill-treated. He wanted Blacks to support the war
effort because he was angling for a commission for himself (for
reasons that are not explained).
latter day sellout, called a Black
Trojan Horse by Professor Martin Kilson, would be Cory Booker,
the Mayor of Newark, accusing him of being in the service of white
conservatives. But Kennedy makes the point that Booker is called
so based on a couple of activities: speaking at the Manhattan Institute,
a conservative think-tank and having the Republican conservative
columnist, George Will, write favorably about him. His point seems
to be that his activities are not the man. Hmmm!
owned, for ten years, a commercial and residential cleaning company.
Just before I started my business, I attended a women business owners
conference in New York. I joined the association that put on the
conference, rightly assuming that I would learn a lot of what I
needed to know and understand about being a first time business
few years after joining and being active, I was asked to run for
president, which I turned down. At some point I became Secretary
of the board, third in line, when the then President and Vice-President,
in mid-term, at a regular monthly meeting, resigned. If it had occurred
to them to give me a heads up, they didn’t. To the expressed surprise
of some, I accepted the position. I went on to be elected for two
additional terms (the limit of service).
was also a member of a black business owners group as well, which
was chiefly centered in Queens. It was some of these members who
accused me of selling out.
corporate and municipal entities had women/minority business departments.
One corporation in particular, had two black women who headed and
staffed their department, one in charge of women businesses and
one for minority businesses. Departments within the corporation
were given credits for using/buying services out of the women/minority
pool. Although I am female, as a minority, I had to use the minority
side of the department, despite the fact of my involvement in a
women’s business owner group. That left women to mean white women
almost exclusively. Within the corporation, the various departments,
in order to get their credits, showed a very clear preference to
use women businesses for their purchased services. For all those
who thought that Blacks in business were getting a leg up and a
pass, you’re wrong. In a study it was found that white women were
the main beneficiaries of corporate and municipal affirmative action
business contracts, garnering 51 percent. In the construction trades,
with which the City did a lot of business, it became a scandal that
all of those businesses were suddenly headed by women – at least
there was a sellout opportunity I didn’t take. I was approached
by the African American representative of a major supermarket/pharmacy
that wanted to do business with my company.
and movie theaters would hire cleaning services to start at the
close of business for the day. At movie theaters that could be around
midnight more or less in some places. The cleaners would be locked
in overnight, unable to leave until a manager arrived in the morning.
order to take on what looked like a lucrative opportunity for my
company, I would have to pay my employees less than they
were making. (The nature of the contract left no room at the rate
of my pay scale to pay taxes and overhead as well as make a profit).
I could have hired new crews at lower wages, but someone would have
told someone about the differential, and I would have more problems
keeping staff. Nor could I staff the jobs with the amount of employees
I thought needed to do a good job. The terms of the company’s contract
dictated how many employees and how much they would be paid, and
the conditions under which they would work.
was suspicious of this “opportunity” from the beginning. This kind
of business would usually be up for bid; you would, after inspection,
write a proposal, and then wait to see if you wrote the best one.
They usually don’t come a-courting.
representative, questioned about the staffing, admitted that in
their Long Island stores (read white neighborhoods), they had larger
crews. My company was to be used for stores in Harlem and Brooklyn
where, he also admitted they didn’t expect the stores to be as clean.
Most of my employees were African or Hispanic descendants who lived
in Harlem and the Bronx and Brooklyn. How could I permit them (or
myself) to participate in the degradation of their own neighbors
Kennedy writes about those enslaved who betrayed rebellions, the
sellouts of their day. His guess is that maybe, if a rebellion went
forward, everyone on that particular plantation or any nearby who
were suspected, including wives and children, would be killed, in
retaliation. Or, maybe, the informer thought the rebellion was so
poorly planned that not only would there be no gain, but that losses
were guaranteed. Some enslaved hired themselves out, earning some
of their own money. This practice might be stopped if there were
a rebellion, win or lose. In the biography of Harriet Tubman, by
Ann Petry, that is actually what happened after rebellions like
Denmark Vesey and others. And some betrayals were so personal and
ordinary as to be mind-boggling. A betrayal of Ms Tubman’s father
was because the man he helped, who shortly after escaping turned
himself in, was leaving behind his wife. It was the wife who told.
problem with Randall Kennedy is that he seems to want to be even-handed;
wanting to denounce those that make the charges of sellout, and
at the same time trying to find a reason for the accused behavior.
example, Frederick Douglass, after the death of his wife, married
a white woman and lost a lot of the credibility he had accrued.
But Kennedy’s spin is that Douglass was married to his African descendant
wife for forty-two years, so, I guess, it is all right that he married
a white woman because he married a black one first. Huh?
deals with intermarriage as if it is a politically free notion involving
only the two people so engaged. In fact, he wrote a book about it
(that I have not read – but from which he quotes himself in this
topic he chooses to defend is cross racial adoption. He does not
question or even think about what it means. First of all, it is
generally whites adopting black children, and not the other way
around. I suspect that he would use the industry propaganda if he
had to think about it and then investigate, that there are not enough
black adoptive couples to go around.
is a colonial history on three continents in which indigenous children
are purposefully removed from their families and given to white
families, as a way of destroying the native population. The Aborigines
of Australia have asked for and are still awaiting an apology for
what was done to them. It was done with Yemenite women; Greek women,
and most famous of all, in Germany during Hitler’s reign. Mothers
would be told, after giving birth, that their baby died. The children
would be spirited out of sight.
one time I worked with an engaged Jewish couple who planned to adopt
a black child after their marriage. Their plan was to have their
own children the old-fashioned way, but to adopt a black child as
well. When I questioned them about this, I realized that the child
was going to be used on many levels; that the child was going to
be a political/social tool. They were going to teach their own
children tolerance through the use of this child in their lives.
And of course they would get social credit for being “good people”
merely because they adopted a black child, a credit they might not
have, or might not even seek, possibly preferring to present a Jewish
child as biologically their own.
was with some white friends once when we passed a house that had
adopted black children. The next comment, without their knowing
anything about the children or the couple, was that “they are good
people”. And there it is. No matter what the relationship, no matter
what the motive, white adoption of black children is given automatic
white credit or “brownie points”.
issue here is that Kennedy sees only the surface and assumes some
purity of what he finds there. In the case of adoption, if he ever
went online to adoption forums, he would have quickly found out
that there are serious issues that adoptees and adopters have to
deal with; that adoption is not always a “happily ever after” state
on all sides. And these are the adoptions that don’t have a cross
racial component to them. Add race, add another element.
the case of interracial marriage, for which he has written another
book, he does not examine the obvious, which is the same obvious
in cross racial adoptions, that what is overwhelmingly the case
is black men marrying white women. Before writing this he should
have read, Raj Paten’s “Why Black Men Marry White Women”. He would
have read about some of the implications that go into those choices,
some of the self-hatred for ones Africanness; or a desire to make
“pretty” (read lighter) babies. But also some of the historical/social
reasons why. (There is another equivalent – Asian women, of whom
you could say, are not white – but the point, I think, is
that they are not black).
last chapter is on “passing” and why some would. Again, maybe he
is for it or maybe he is not; you don’t know. He quotes some of
those who think of passing as trickster behavior. But the trickster
has a long and affectionate life in African American culture. He
says that “passing” is a kind of self-hatred. It is the desire escape
one’s Africanness which accepts a notion of inferiority. But of
course he equivocates a bit, going on about how racial definitions
are defined and by whom and for what reason.
largest chapter in this small book (196 pages 2/3 size), is devoted
to Clarence Thomas, one whose very name has become a synonym for
sellout. You could think from this chapter alone, that Thomas really
should hire Kennedy to do his pr. Kennedy in his “even-handedness”,
examines the reasons for Thomas’ censure by the community: his marrying
white, his denigration of affirmative action; his public castigation
of his sister for being on welfare (my favorite one); his support
for prison officials doing segregation by race. In each case he
finds the Thomas rationale, and asks that we accept his explanations
on its face. And if Thomas said he decided thus and so for this
or that reason, who are we to question his assertions. For example,
he says that Thomas later apologized to his sister and she accepted
it and accepted his explanation for publicly humiliating her. Kennedy
does not seem to notice that the apology was a private affair, known
to him only through hearsay.
the end of the book “Sellout”, he mentions that he was motivated
by having received this designation himself. One of the occasions
was his testifying for the defense in a trial in which a black man
was brutally beaten by a white man who started the altercation with,
“What up Nigga”. Kennedy had previously
written a book,
“Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word”. The defense
hired him to show that the N word was in common usage and was not
meant as an insult.
have to wonder, as Kennedy does not here, why he chose to be an
expert witness. He says that he received no remuneration at all.
Those who called him a sellout for testifying might have thought
he did it for money, which might make its own kind of sense. But
since he did not, why?
must have thought he was doing justice; doing fairness. And if that
fairness hurt one side, well, that was only fair, wasn’t it? It
is as if we African descendants sometimes think we have to bend
over the other way to prove ourselves; to let others know; to show
them, “see, we can do the right thing”. But it is a misguided notion.
Fortunately, in this case, his testimony didn’t help the defense,
but that he thought he had to do it; that there was some moral code
at work here that he had to obey, is the issue.
a group once, in which I was the only African descendant, one person
was making racist remarks to me. No one else said anything as he
was saying them. I pointed out both the ignorance and stupidity
of his remarks. Apparently I was effective because the same people
who said nothing leaped to his defense, asking me to stop.
I pointed out that they had said nothing when he made his comments,
but they were unapologetic. They had no problem with being fair
or unfair – they were clear which side they were on.
I have been what would be called a sellout, albeit innocently enough
(or at least unconsciously enough). And as I read “Sellout”, some
other moments came to mind. I was in a situation where one black
woman was telling a white woman, about some racist emails sent
to certain people in the organization, and asked her how she could
be supportive of the person who was chiefly responsible for sending
them. The white woman said she didn’t believe her; that she never
saw them; and said “show me”. At that moment the black woman could
not find them, although insisted they existed and who they came
from. Insanely enough, I defended the white woman’s charge that
maybe they didn’t really exist if they could not be found.
should have kept my mouth shut. I should have just listened. The
black woman was correct and I saw them at a later date, but I should
not have doubted what she said in front of this woman. I should
not have doubted that they existed just because they could not be
found. I was selling out the black woman for no other reason than
I thought I was being judicious.
could say I should have known better. That is one of the issues
that Kennedy deals with in this book that makes having read it worthwhile.
In fact, the notion of writing a book on selling out, no matter
what its actual usefulness to the discussion, was its own good idea.
But the “he should have known better”, theme has always puzzled
me. “Should have known better” to one who doesn’t know at all, is
worthless. If you don’t know what you don’t know and you are shamed
for not knowing what you don’t know, you are left with defending
your ignorance rather than gaining knowledge. The person doing the
shaming is not educating you only pointing out your lack of same.
also know from experience that there are no rewards for even-handedness.
If I was a sellout because of my leadership in the business association,
there were no thanks or appreciation for it. Some of the newer white
women had no problem calling me a racist. The board I had chosen
to work with me was nearly half People of Color, where previously
there had only been minimal token representation. So while these
same women, year after year talked about getting more People of
Color into the organization, of course what they really wanted was
window dressing but not power.
there are many of us who think OJ did it, (and of course Chris Darden
was labeled a sellout for being with the prosecution), but that
does not mean we had to say it out loud. And it does not mean we
were not rooting for him, even if he was a sellout in many ways
to his own family and community. Way too many white men have gotten
away with killing black men, even when known who they were, to not
to want to see OJ get over. It was doubly gratifying that his attorney
was an African American too. For those who thought he didn’t do
it, listening to them sometimes (because it is a case still talked
about all these years later), you hear them twisting themselves
around whatever flimsy evidence they can; coming up with elaborate
reasons for which there was never any real material presented, to
make it come out right. You could say they are selling in.
sellout can be another form of “celebrity bashing”, in which sometimes
you assassinate the character of the individual; complain but don’t
explain. It is an American form of discourse that goes around in
a circle, landing no place. The person accused goes into defense
mode; the accuser is angry and disappointed. And who learns what?
“Sellout” is in many ways a defense of Randall Kennedy against those
charges. He does not examine his own behavior, only defends it and
uses examples of others as back up.
my own case I don’t think I would have ever seen some of my own
behavior in that light if not for reading this. I did not expect
to find myself within these pages. So, in that sense, this was very,
very useful. It has put me on notice to myself, and that is a good
thing. But I don’t know what it has done for him. He never says.
in the end I have to say, it is a good thing Randall Kennedy is
not a criminal attorney. Who wants a lawyer who thinks the other
side makes a good point?
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator Jessica Watson-Crosby is Chair
National Committee – Black Radical Congress and Co-Chair, Black
Radical Congress-New York. Click here
to contact Ms. Watson-Crosby.
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Bill Fletcher, Jr.
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