The Sell-Out

Back on May 7th I asked readers to submit what was their definition of “cooning” or a “sell-out.” I received a lot of responses that took me some time to examine. The following is my ode to the sometimes real, sometimes mythical so-called coons, buffoons, toms, turncoats and sell-outs.

She packed a gun for one reason and one reason alone.

Once you got on the railroad you didn’t get off. She couldn’t risk them being found out. She couldn’t allow one scared fool to ruin a chance at freedom. She went down into the rebellious south over and over again, a black Moses, working to set her people free. But she didn’t trust all of her people.

That’s why she carried the gun.

We’re all in this together. That’s the mantra of black America. Light, dark. Brown to almost white. Bound by shared sacrifice and suffering in victory and defeat. Bound by racism and the solidarity that comes with being in “the shit” together. And we’re still holding Harriet Tubman’s gun to the heads of every nigger who dares to step out of line.

The sell-out. The turncoat. The Tom. The fool who dares to threaten the majority who holds that gun. And they can fire at any given time. Sometimes it’s a misfire. Sometimes the aim is lethal. It can lead to banishment. Some might not think much of it, but the black community is small and banishment is painful for those who still feel they should belong. Who feel they are misunderstood. Who believe there was a misfire.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is routinely held up as the quintessential, so-called “Uncle Tom.” An individual accused of kissing white ass all the way to the top. But Thomas still laments being an outcast. He believes his works were done out of love for black Americans. But he was fatally wounded by that gun. He’s dead to most blacks. He’s finished. He has been judged, the jury has rendered its verdict and he has been executed right out of the diaspora.

What crime must a black commit to get shot? Doc L called it “mercenary behavior that misrepresents your culture.”

I say mercernary because that implies a deliberate, volitional act. Many so-called “coons,” “Toms,” “sellouts” are simply ignorant of themselves, their history and the impact of what they do. I believe when they are educated, then they change. They “do better, when they know better.” However, when you deliberately do things that cast yourself, or your people in terrible light–especially before the majority who definitely has no true understanding of your background and culture–and do so in the name of the almighty dollar,, trying to justify it through ratings, “harmlessness,” “it’s what the public wants,” etc., I think you’re “cooning,” you’re “selling out”.

Doc is describing the individual who seeks profit in the exploitation of “low class” black culture. He is describing individuals like Robert Johnson who created BET and Debra Lee who currently is at the helm of the network. Cartoonist Aaron McGruder dedicated a banned double-episode of “The Boondocks” based solely on Lee and BET head Reginald Hudlin.

This label encompasses enterprises like Radio One profiting from what many view as trashy rap music.

Many people described these acts and these actors as the ultimate definition of a “coon,” naming individuals like Flavor Flav and Armstrong Williams. Individuals who appeared to be knowing pawns in a rigged game.

But others charged that the real villains in the world of media based “sell-outs” are the corporations who promote these individuals. Commenter Monie made this pertinent point:

I used to think rappers were coons as well. I have a larger view of the situation now. I think that although they certainly aren’t blameless in being participants in the minstrelsy that is hip hop, they are really just pawns used by corporate America.

It’s really easy to attack them, rappers as Oprah has done. It’s much harder to attack Viacom and David Geffen and all of the real power brokers who control hip hop.

Vcat shared the same view.

(W)e blame actors/comedians/etc for white people who believe negative stereotypes of black folks–and I think that lets those white people off the hook. It easy to get mad “our own” because it’s easier to show disapproval for individuals than to deal with the larger problem of racism. It perpetuates the myth that if we (or characters on the screen) just acted “right” racism would magically go away. Not that people shouldn’t be offended or upset by stereotypical characters–but those characters where/are symptoms of a much larger problem.

The vast majority of commenters stuck with the view that a sell-out is someone who behaves in a manner that harms the black community out of financial gain. A racial profiteer. Anti-Affirmative Action activist Ward Connerly has been labeled as falling into this category, targeted with accusations that his pockets are being lined by wealthy white male contractors who want the playing field to return to the field of old.

The gun of banishment was fired on Connerly a long time ago. But this is typical. His actions are perceived as dangerous, his motives suspect and his views not in line with the black mainstream.

While racial “clowns” like Flavor Flav are tolerated in hopes they can be reformed, black conservatives tend to catch the worst, being routinely shunned. The Congressional Black Caucus famously sparred with former Rep. JC Watts on a regular basis. Justice Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelbey Steele and Alan Keyes are eyed with suspicion, treated as anathema by the majority. They committed the primary sin of deferring from the masses.

Many who commented felt most black conservatives did not deserve the demonization they often receive by the black populace. Many felt the bulk of them are operating in what they believe are the best interests of the black community, even if there may be some disagreement over their views and methods.

Yet they remain shot with Harriet’s gun all the same. Dead to many blacks, quick on the trigger towards dissenters. One false move and you’re out of the race. A Negro without a home. While some prefer life outside in the snow, for others it’s like “Paradise Lost,” them being the archangel cast out of heaven.

But who is this sell-out? Who is this race traitor? Harriet has her hand on the trigger and she’s taken aim. Who’s goin
g down?

Scene from “The Boondocks” featuring the ultimate caricature of a self-loathing black man, Uncle Ruckus.

Is it a self-loathing, lonely Justice Thomas?

Is it the black misery profiteer? The altruistic business man like Damon Wayans character in “Bamboozled?”

The aldermen and women, the city council members who promise every year is the year they’re going to fix our schools and divert funds to their crumbing wards and districts?

Is it the man or woman who prefers the company of anyone but another black person? Is it the individual who marries outside of their race, the act perceived as a rebuke of blackness?

Is it that thick-lipped, grotesque picaninny of our nightmares? Cheshire cat grin on a coal black face, acting out scenes from Darius James’ “Negrophobia,” dancing for the crowd becoming everything we don’t want to acknowledge, everything we don’t want to see? The thing we try so hard to hide but resurfaces over again. We try to kill it but the mother fucker won’t die. He just changes shapes and takes on new forms. He is a phantom embedded on the American conscious. His barbarous stories of jungle bunnies and fat mammies, jiggling and jigging for blond glamazons and wealthy power brokers. Embarrassingly confirming for the low and high class the worst in us. Entertaining them all with our stories of violent gun play, bad, biggest nigger tales, Iceberg Slim and Snoop Dogg.

They can’t get enough and Harriet’s gun isn’t strong enough to take it out.

After thinking and study and reading the responses to my query on what a sell-out is, I can say that I agree with reader Bkylnbam the most: I don’t know.

Refining my opinion on what constitutes coon’ing and embarrassing portrayals of black folk in general has been a long, long journey of reflection, research, re-evaluation and introspection and it ain’t over yet. It is in fact this very issue that’s brought it back into the forefront of my consciousness … Now that I think about it, I’d say the jury is still out on this one.

Reader Andrea believes most blacks are sell-outs because they choose to not live up to their potential. She singles out black people who choose to “opt-out” of the shared burden of blackness, people who turn their backs on the struggle. She sets the bar high, but when I ponder her words I can see why she came to this conclusion. To blur or disassociate one’s blackness. To divest from the community. To stand idly by while suffering surrounds. To think blackness is a choice, not realizing that although you can check out any time you like, you can never leave.

Individuals like OJ Simpson, running back to blackness when in need. Individuals who declare they are undefined and above the racial construct until American knocks them off that perch, leaving them to cling to blackness, hoping for salvation.

The sell-out lives in all of us. We are in constant warfare with ourselves, with our definitions of blackness. We all have our guns and we’re all pointing at each other waiting for that one false move. That one sign of a defector contemplating a run back to the plantation. Sometimes our aim is straight. Sometimes we misfire. But no one is safe from being blasted if they dare to get out of line. We’re all in this together.

Until death we part.

11 thoughts on “The Sell-Out

  1. You are absolutely right. We are all in this together. Every last one of us are sell-outs. From the business man to the drug dealer. What do we know that can caterogize “blackness.” Our identity as a people is so shaken, we can’t really nail down the term. We seek approval from everyone to legitimize our place in the world, but we should not have too. We deserve to be viable contributors to the world and one day when we can get out of this mental rut we’ve placed ourselves in, maybe we won’t have to ask that question anymore. Its a nice dream to have.

  2. [quote]” “Toms,” “sellouts” are simply ignorant of themselves, their history and the impact of what they do[/quote]Wow.Let me understand this.1) Ignorant of themselves2) Ignorant of their historySo Black Snob – would someone who refers to his ENSLAVEMENT more than he notes that his people spent TENS OF THOUSANDS of years on this Earth as free people qualify as such a “Sellout”? He appears to operate on the notion “Don’t you know I wuz a slave?” each time society or those who are POPULARLY thought of as a “Conservative Sellout” dares to tell him that HE IS AN EQUAL HUMAN BEING?They don’t appear to know “themselves” nor their capabilities. They are all too willing to assume the position as the poster child for the Altruistic White Liberal that Malcolm X warned us about.As I work to put all of this in to PROPORTION and CONTEXT – one would have to agree that the people who are POPULARLY thought of as “Sellouts” by Black people simply don’t have the POWER to stop forward progress for Black people as such.I suspect that more inspection needs to be made into those who are more EFFECTIVE in their SELLOUT behavior but are not tagged as such because their SELLOUT is more POPULAR among Black people. Indeed if a “sellout” is defined as those who put the interests of some other entity ahead of their own interests – in this case their racial group interests – I am of the opinion that this is far more visible by those who have fused their hopes to obtain internal racial progress by selling out to the American political system. Despite overwhelming evidence that they do indeed know how to get people elected – far too many Black folks have not received the benefits of all of this political advocacy where it counts the most – BACK AT HOME where we are ALL BY OURSELVES.I suspect that the “sellout” is that they failed to BUILD UP WITHIN the community but instead hoped that someone else would HAVE THEM TO STAND UP.

  3. constructive feedback: would someone who refers to his ENSLAVEMENT more than he notes that his people spent TENS OF THOUSANDS of years on this Earth as free people qualify as such a “Sellout”?Well, the quote you pulled was Doc L’s statement on what he thought a sell-out was. I didn’t pass judgment on his view, only analysis. But he also wrote that one would have to have “mercenary behavior” intent to harm the black community. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that.As to my opinion of whether a person who reflects constantly on slavery as being a sell-out I’d say no. Being obsessed with a period of history doesn’t make you a sell-out in my opinion. Some people are fixated on certain things.But as I admitted at the end of the piece, I wasn’t sure what a true “sell-out” was. I stand by my statement we needed to look at what lies in our own hearts and deal with our internal demons and examine our own tendencies to label people sell-outs.

  4. Hi Snob,”I stand by my statement we needed to look at what lies in our own hearts and deal with our internal demons and examine our own tendencies to label people sell-outs.”This statement reminds me of my going back and forth as to whether Oprah was a sell-out or not. I have also wondered if Oprah might be a mammy as well.The conclusion I have come to is that Oprah is indeed a sell-out and also a mammy in its truest form.In this case I think sell-out and mammy are one in the same. My feeling that Oprah is a sell-out/ mammy is due to her constantly re-assuring White people that we, Black people, are exactly who they thought we were.She has done show after show re-enforcing stereotypes about Black people. There of course was the infamous “down low” episode, that portrayed Black men as sexual deviants. Oprah has also done tonnes of “if it wasn’t for those kind hearted White people those Black people would never make it” shows. On those shows she highlights what some kind hearted White person has done to lift some poor ignorant Black person from the gutter.And of course how can we forget the (also) infamous anti-rap show. Where at the very beginning of the show she (Oprah) looked at her mostly White audience and said ” I guess you all are wondering why you are here”, as if White people have no part in the atrocity that is hip hop.So I feel that no discussion can take place about sell-outs and not include Ms. Winfrey. She is maybe the ultimate sell-out of all time.What do you think?Monie

  5. monie: Oprah has definitely compromised herself in order to maintain her largely white, female audience. That’s why it was so monumental that she came out for Obama. But I suppose Oprah figured she was big enough at that point to take the hit.I think Oprah is really complicated as she obviously identifies herself as a “race” woman even though she only does a cursory job of covering black issues. But then she routinely does things that makes you question her sensitivity to issues. Like reacting so negatively to the question as to why she was building a school in South Africa and not the United States. She got defensive, making a statement that American students didn’t need this degree of help, or were too spoiled and ungrateful.This seemed like a crazy statement from a woman who’d done a segment on Chicago city schools which were poor and falling apart with their mostly black students falling behind. It was so insensitive. It was fine for her to want to build a school in South Africa, but she didn’t need to slam millions of poor black and brown children trapped in a failed school system.Then she micromanaged the school within an inch of its life. Which may be why she did it in South Africa and not the US. I don’t think she could have gotten away with such strict rules.So I think Oprah can be considered a sell-out. But I think she’s more of an altruist. I don’t think she’s consciously trying to hurt black people. I think she’s trying to satisfy the desires of her audience and her own massive ego. I decided a long time ago that her show simply wasn’t for “us,” but that Oprah would maintain her ties to blackness through donations to black charities and HBCUs.

  6. While I hate to call people names, but I find that African-Americans are exhibiting sell-out-like behavior when they are: 1. Unaware of slavery continuing in the world not just in Darfur but other more contemporary versions of slavery like the international sex trade.2. Unaware that even though we are free here, our people are still slaves in Sudan.3. Aware of slavery existing in Sudan and other contemporary forms, but don’t care because it doesn’t affect them.I see #3 in my family and it bothers me so much especially because I am married to an African. We are still slaves in our hearts because we treat Africans like they are field negroes and we are in the big house with Miz Ann.

  7. anonymous 3:15 p.m.: There is a disconnect in the diaspora when it comes to the plight of other people of African descent. Black Americans are like most Americans and are self-involved. Acknowledging the plight of Africans (or black Brazilians or Haitians, etc.) is not on the forefront of most black Americans minds. This is especially so considering a lot of black people are ignorant about Africa and places like Sudan (or Nigeria or Liberia or Kenya or Zimbabwe or South Africa or the Congo or everywhere). So there is this prevailing attitude where things only matter if it happens to us.

  8. The concept of id’ing a sell-out is ridiculed as primal and people don’t want to get caught measuring but it is a very valid yet primitive act right now especially because of just what went down with chronic disavowal of Rev. Wrights’ behavior. That is just one example. And that most recent major public example is prominently lost in translation. Rev. Wright was id’d wrong. Wrong suspect. He didn’t did do the crime that day and for that act of indictment that he was implicated of.So many people called him a sell-out but excused Barack based on needs for strategy. Now…we have to pull out the rulers and recalibrate the scales. I find that so many people want to cry racism and think that is meeting a benchmark of being down but if you cry racism at someone else’s inconvenience and not apologize for being incovenient, then you are deemed the sell-out. That is what people reduced Rev. Wright to in saying he was selfish. I saw how Al Gore brought forth the INCONVENIENT TRUTH but we balked when the incovenience of Rev. Wright’s uppity candor made so many of us squeamish.That’s just one example of how it gets twisted and lost in translation of what the meaning is and why it is necessary eventhough archaic in performance to be seen doing it. We have to go there and understand what it universally means.

  9. [quote]But he also wrote that one would have to have “mercenary behavior” intent to harm the black community. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that.[/quote]HARM THE BLACK COMMUNITY. Let us investigate this one.”Harm” today is popularly interpreted to be Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas being against both Affirmative Action in Education and Race Based Public School Admissions in the name of DIVERSITY.What about the LONG TERM impact of these policies upon our community? I argue that we need to focus 9th graders and the next 10 years of their lives. The vast majority of them will not have AA benefit any element of their life. In fact in our POPULARLY SOLD OUT condition we choose to focus on the hand full of Blacks who get into elite White schools so that they can have the pedigree to compete in law firms and consulting firms that only look to pedigreed individuals for employment. All the while the vast majority of Black people receive no benefit from this litmus test that can distinguish a “Pro-Black” man from an enemy of the state. There needs to be a study of the fundamental flaws in the very set of assumptions. [quote]As to my opinion of whether a person who reflects constantly on slavery as being a sell-out I’d say no. [/quote]Black Snob – it is the CONJUNCTION that you must focus on. I just read an article in the NAACP Crisis in which a guest commentator argued that we need to talk about how we RESISTED during the period of slavery as a means of showing our strength as a people. http://withintheblackcommunity.blogspot.com/2008/05/black-community-is-infiltrated-w.htmlIn this commentators mind more STRENGTH could be identified from this juncture of our existence than if we were to make note that prior to these 400 years we spent 10,000 as free people and survived and thrived to tell about it.It is not just about talking about slavery these people also IDENTIFY OUR START AS A PEOPLE THROUGH SLAVERY. This is the problem. With this logic – to break away from your START is to lose your foundation. There is no question about it that much of the political activism in Black America today is keyed upon Slavery and Civil Rights when increasingly as we are “all alone’ in the cities this information does little to direct us in prospering now that the burden is on our backs.Instead the Slavery/Oppression narrative tells us that in having strong populations in these cities that people that we popularly favor MASSA has “Left Us Behind” and has the nerve to have us plow the fields and feed ourselves by our own direction.

  10. constructive feedback: Well, since I opened my piece with Harriet Tubman and a gun, I tend to prefer to focus on black resistance as opposed to passivity when it comes to slavery. But in school that is typically what is focused on. Even in teachings on the Underground Railroad our teachers went into length about the Quakers who helped make it possible, but only did a cursory run through of the blacks who risked their lives as “conductors,” like Harriet.Even within my own family there was a lot of “self-emancipation.” My great-great grandfather told my mother about his family’s escape from slavery in Mississippi when he was a child where the whole family sneaked out in the middle of the night in a covered wagon. I come from pretty proud people who just don’t understand what “submission” means. We just made really, really crappy slaves all around. Teaching ourselves how to read and write. Securing our own land in Arkansas. Insisting on voting, despite the poll tax. I, of course, take this as a good thing. So I agree. When slavery is taught there should be much more focus on resistance and numerous accomplishments of those groups and individuals who contributed to our freedom and education. I had an ex-boyfriend who hated to even discuss black history, let alone slavery because he’d labeled all slaves as weak and pathetic because they just lied there and took it. It enraged me because it was an oversimplification of something far more complex. But if you’re going through public school it’s easy to come away with that passive perception. I was raised learning about black history from my mother, so I received the full picture. Black people have been rebelling against slavery since we got on the boat, so anyone who thinks we all just “lied there and took it” is a liar.

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