Beyond FACTS: SELLOUT, by Randall Kennedy; NO PLACE SAFE by Kim Reid; and BROTHER, I’M DYING by Edwidge Danticat
So many books! Before I shift gears back to fiction with Carleen’s new release this weekend, I’m anxious to write about a few non-fiction titles that have been on my mind lately: Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, which was featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week; No Place Safe by Kim Reid, which I read last year; and Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat, which I just finished.
Sellout has been added to my TBR list, but I was most intrigued by the discussion that took place on the TOTN show. While Kennedy emphasized how divisive accusations of “selling out” can be in the black community, almost all the callers into the show discussed much more varied victims of this form of prejudice. Native Americans and others who leave behind family to pursue degrees in higher education and high-profile careers are impacted by this issue, as are first-generation “hyphenated” Americans from many countries, those who marry across racial or cultural lines, etc. etc. Kennedy himself has been accused of “selling out” by “telling white people what they want to hear” through books such Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The cause and impact of such accusations of betrayal within the black community form the central discussion points in Kennedy’s current book; I believe by reading Sellout I’ll also learn why so many other groups chastise and often ostracize their own who seek a different way of life than their families’, who risk the pain inherent in being labeled a “sellout.”
In her fantastic memoir, No Place Safe, Boulder author Kim Reid writes of the many challenges she faced throughout her childhood, including those she encountered when she chose to attend an all-white private school far outside her Atlanta neighborhood. A scholarship offer to the new school prompted Kim to leave her friends and take multiple city busses to go where she quickly found she was not entirely welcome. The examples she provides of the various forms of prejudice she faced from both sides of the racial divide add considerable impact to her story of growing up as primary caretaker of her young sister while her mother worked as a police officer for the Atlanta Police Department. The main story of No Place Safe details the consuming, high-pressure investigations of the 1979-1981 disappearances and murders of black boys and young men in Atlanta—investigations in which Kim’s mother worked as a lead investigator. While this story alone propels this book to read like a compelling novel, Kim’s personal experiences and insights into her family and community make this a powerful document of life in a major Southern city during an especially tumultuous time.
I did not gather from Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, that her parents were labeled “sellouts” when they moved to New York from Haiti in the early 1970s. Everyone in Haiti had suffered immensely through decades of failed regimes, and the lines of those applying for immigration documents at the American consulate were always long. Family members were eager to help raise four-year-old Edwidge and her two-year-old brother when their mother joined their father in the U.S. Their Aunt Denise and Uncle Joseph raised them as they had their own children and as they raised many other children who were left with them for various reasons. By the time Edwidge left for America at age 12, she had two sets of parents—the parents she loved, knew well, and had to leave to join the parents she loved but barely knew.
The story of her father and his much older brother, Edwidge’s kind Uncle Joseph, comprises the bulk of Brother, I’m Dying. But again, the insights provided about growing up in limbo (while Kim Reid had practically no parental guidance and was forced to grow up very quickly, Edwidge had two sets of parents and struggled to reconcile her complex feelings about them and where she belonged throughout her childhood) as well as the racially charged forms of prejudice witnessed during extremely troubled times add incredible weight to this narrative. Though I initially found Brother, I’m Dying a little flat due to its emphasis on dialogue, by the middle of the story events kicked into high gear. Edwidge Danticat’s shocking revelations regarding elderly Uncle Joseph and the ultimately fatal manner in which he was mistreated at home and in the U.S. compelled me to read the second half of her book in one day.
All these titles offer insights not only into race but into various forms of prejudice—from the subtle to the brutal, from one’s own people or from complete strangers—and how discrimination in any form dramatically impacts individuals, families, communities, and lives.