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Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal Paperback – January 6, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Accusations of selling out—of betraying or neglecting the interests of blacks to curry favor with whites—are among the most damaging that African-Americans level at each other, according to Harvard law professor Kennedy. Called a sellout himself after his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word appeared, Kennedy here explores the charge's potency. He recounts the centuries-long history of sellout rhetoric—sometimes rooted in real betrayals by blacks who echoed white supremacist ideology or informed on slave rebellions or civil rights organizations—and examines its role both in uniting the black community against racism and in stifling debate within the community. A long chapter analyzes conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Kennedy acquits of sellout charges, and a fascinating discussion of racial categories and White Negroes—blacks who pass as white—shows how murky the concept of racial loyalty is. Kennedy finds sellout rhetoric to be overblown—often aimed at blacks guilty only of success—but won't entirely repudiate it. African-Americans should be subject to having citizenship in Black America revoked if they repudiate even a minimal communal allegiance (although Kennedy is hard-pressed to think of plausible instances where this might apply). His is a lively, thoughtful, provocative commentary on a centerpiece of black identity politics. (Jan. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Sellout is brisk and enjoyable, no small feat given the density of its ideas. . . . Worth reading for the light it shines on many subtleties of black history.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Thought-provoking. . . . [Kennedy offers] illuminating evidence that, despite great marks of progress, race's stranglehold on the nation's collective conscious remains as strong as ever.” —The Washington Post“Fresh. . . . Elegant and open-minded. . . . Sellout does a great deal to complicate the politics of racial betrayal.” —Salon.com“A cool, clean case against the use of a backwards epithet that discourages something black America can hardly do without-coherent and original thought.” —The New York Sun
Top customer reviews
First, there seems to be an implication that there are self-appointed "super delegates" who set the rules for claiming African-American identity. For those who set aside or fail to accept the "blackness" label, they are ridiculed, ousted, or undermined at every opportunity. Second, obvious black role models are scrutinized to the point of unacceptability regardless of their real success. Third, is it not ironic that lawyers, journalists, and educators dominate the discussion about behavior when this is an area more suitable for psychologists and scientists? Lastly, the book cites some everyday situations during the slavery period. A critical look at some behavior patterns of today may reveal a connection to that time. Some would even argue that the replication is required to perpetuate "victimhood."
The two most meaty chapters explore the idea of the sellout in American history and in contemporary American culture. Kennedy documents the idea of the sellout having its deepest origins in the times of slavery, when slaves who were planning uprisings were snitched on by other slaves who might, afterward, be rewarded for their loyalty to the slave owner. Later, he discusses events like the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955, which involved a degree of community policing to ensure that social pressure ensured that blacks did not 'defect' from the group and ride the buses. Kennedy also goes over how fiction authors have explored the idea of the sellout (and 'passing' as a form of selling out) and how there is a kind of ambivalence to the idea of passing in the black community (on one hand, successful passing mocks the color line, but passing is still seen as a type of defection from the group).
Through all of this, what impresses me most aside from Kennedy's thorough knowledge of the subject is his unbiased handling of it. Kennedy is not advocating for a position, but exploring a topic and its history and presence in contemporary life. In several chapters, Kennedy gives very balanced treatment to some (mainly black conservative) critiques of the idea that black conservatives are selling out; instead of opining, Kennedy neutrally weighs the pros and cons of their argument. In another chapter, Kennedy examines the case of Clarence Thomas as a potential 'sellout' and, while he ultimately exonerates Thomas of this charge, he gives fair voice to those who make the charge.
All in all, this is a wonderful book. It is clearly and engagingly written, and offers a thorough and seemingly unbiased account of a troubling topic.