A scholarly yet accessible examination of racial loyalty and betrayal in the African-American community from a distinguished legal historian.
Kennedy (Harvard Law School; Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption, 2003, etc.) opens this energetic volume with a probing analysis of the ways in which Senator Barack Obama has been challenged to prove his blackness as he campaigns for the presidency. The son of a white mother and a Kenyan father, Obama, the author notes, has received a cool reception from black cultural gatekeepers who question his race credentials because he grew up in Hawaii and is not, in their view, a bona fide soul brother. Kennedy also cites Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Vernon Jordan as figures whose political and economic clout has rendered them suspect among the blacks and earned them the damning epithet “sellout.” The author traces concerns about race betrayal to slavery, when slaves helped thwart rebellions by alerting white plantation owners. He details the infamous case of South Carolina slave Denmark Vesey, whose planned 1822 insurrection was revealed to local whites by another slave, Peter Prioleau. In return for this information, white legislators freed Prioleau from bondage and rewarded him with a stipend that he used to purchase his own slaves. Vesey was hanged. Kennedy notes that African-Americans who’ve succeeded in the white world since the civil-rights era are increasingly compelled to pass a black litmus test. They are scrutinized by blacks, and some whites, on style of dress, speech patterns, choice of mate and allegiance (or not) to traditional black values as indicators of their racial authenticity. He devotes a riveting chapter to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In a discussion of Thomas’s jurisprudence in several controversial court decisions, Kennedy notes that the “most vilified black official in the history of the United States” has proven himself less the “quintessential sellout” than his critics have feared.
A timely and provocative read on power, politics and the racially charged landscape of the 2008 presidential election.