Saturday, February 23, 2008
What is Your Blackness Quotient?
Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, knows how to come up with a book title that sells. On the heels of the provocatively dubbed, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” Kennedy brings us “Sell Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal.” Kennedy asks readers to consider a single, complex question: can the actions of a Black person be traitorous (if not ruinous) to other Black people?
This question is intensely personal for Kennedy. In 2006, Kennedy testified on behalf of Nicholas Minucci, a White man accused of a racially motivated baseball bat attack against Glenn Moore, a Black man in Howard Beach (NY). Minucci beat Moore in the head with the bat, while repeatedly calling Moore “nigger.” Minucci then robbed Moore. Kennedy testified that “nigger” does not always have to carry racial connotations. He also said that “nigger has many meanings” and “can be put to many different uses.” Kennedy explained that the n-word is often a friendly salutation, and can be heard comically throughout popular culture. (Sisterdoc is no legal expert, but I think getting beat in the head with a bat while being called a nigger could never be construed as a “friendly salutation” or comical.) When Kennedy was asked by an incredulous prosecuting attorney if the term is derogatory, he hedged by saying, “it can be.” Kennedy saw himself as protecting Minucci’s liberties. Quite a few Black folks saw Kennedy as sell out.
It isn’t the first time Kennedy was hit with the charge of selling out. When critiques about racism and the law are offered up, Kennedy is quick to offer that Blacks (men in particular) are often engaged in criminal activity. A former colleague, Derrick Bell, finds Kennedy infuriating, and has asked him to “come home.”
“Come home” implies that Blackness has a center—a home. It also implies that one can lose their way. Losing one’s way may mean turning your back to Blackness (its unique history, experiences, and cultural tropes). To be clear, there are some that lose their way. There are still others who not only lose their way, but also kick back at those who remain closely tied to Blackness. The difference is important. Those that kick back are called sell outs. Sell outs cast Blackness as deficient, adding fuel to the already raging “Othering” and stereotyping fire. Sell outs are not simply silent on Blackness issues, rather they advocate against them. Sell out identity is tied to the notion that there is a purposeful rejection of a particular kind of Blackness.
The question becomes, ‘what, exactly, is that particular kind of Blackness that is being rejected?’ Perhaps this moment is not an ‘either you are Black, or you are not’ proposition. Maybe it is scalable. That is, perhaps there is a Blackness quotient, or BQ.
I would like to think I have a high BQ. I identify as Black, as well as with Blackness. I champion Black advancement and empowerment. I have Black credentials—I hold memberships in ‘up with Blackness’ kinds of organizations. I write books celebrating Black identities. And, of course, I have Black friends. When I clap to music, I do so on the 2 and the 4, rather than the 1 and the 3 beat. Apparently, I’m blowin’ up with Blackness. But it is likely that Kennedy can say the same. We know he has books about Blackness, and in the past he has written positively about it. And, I presume he has Black memberships and Black friends. I’ve never seen him at a concert or party, but let’s give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt on the beat thing too. So, how might we conclude his BQ is on the light side?
Ok, so I don’t know how to evidence the BQ scale…perhaps it is like the community standard for obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” I think there is something productive about a community standard coming from within a community with a “compelling interest” in how they are being talked about or treated. I also think it is ok that a precise definition is elusive. The imprecision acts much like a morality litmus test. We can say, 'I don’t know what right is exactly, but I will be hyper-vigilant to stay on the right side of right so as not to slip toward wrong.' In this regard, one can be ever-monitoring that their BQ is some kind of ‘right.’
I do know that buying into Blackness has little to do with race classifications. In other words, you need not check the ‘African American’ box to be invested in Blackness. Japanese-American Yuri Yochiyama was friends with Malcolm X. She was with him when he was assassinated. She wrote in her memoirs of, "cradling [Malcolm’s] head in my hands, I was shocked." Spike Lee left that key bit of reality out of his movie. The biracial Bob Marley, a key figure in the Rastafari Movement, rarely saw his Blackness questioned. Two White civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner died at the hands of the KKK for their investments in Blackness.
Your turn to weigh in. What is a sell out? How is this term useful, or divisive? Does it presume a Blackness center or BQ?
(Image: Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law)