Why Not Selling Out is a Bad Idea

By | September 1, 2011

When I was 14, my new set of parents no longer allowed us to eat spaghetti.

The battle lines had been drawn and we were threatened with death. My sister and I were seduced into referring to our favorite evening meal as pasta. We were now allowed to eat scones with cream on Sundays and croissants with dinner. Oh yes, it was the 80’s and all the social climbing had finally paid off.

We had arrived.

We were now firmly entrenched in the Black Middle Class. The only problem was that nobody told me.

At no point did anyone bother to say “aaah, we’ve made it”. There was no declaration of freedom. No papers were signed and no bells rang. I wanted pageantry and grandiosity. There was none. Many people (those of us who proclaim lofty politics and thinking beyond the masses) love to point out the dangers and hypocrisy of “selling out”. I want to celebrate it and look at the ways that it is beneficial and misunderstood.

Although folks will say my parents and I sold out and refused to “keep it real”, I have serious problems with “realness” meaning limited opportunities, staying stuck and relentlessly disgruntled.

Why shouldn’t our young people have a slew of opportunities? Is there any reason that I should feel guilty or slighted because I ventured overseas to live and work at 27 and my baby sister did it at 16? This is cause for celebration not mockery. If I am worked up because I did not receive certain “goodies” should the person who did receive them be attacked and offered a large helping of guilt ?

So much of our young culture and politicos on the left love to dissect the concept of privilege and access.

We have made being successful the big bad and as a result limited what any of us should reach for and try to attain at any and all levels. When we limit our imaginations and decide what is ok for anybody to have or do we are doling out the same reward and punishment system that has hurt and crippled an entire culture. A far better use of our time would be a creation of a third and or fourth option.This would consist of taking the best of all worlds and creating the space for an entire society to live well.

When I was growing up, nobody wanted to be “seen” as poor.

This doesn’t mean that poverty and working class folks didn’t exist, it was that nobody talked about it. And nobody wanted to be singled out as being a “them”. In my family and the ones in the neighborhood where I grew up, there was the belief that prayer and hoping for the best would solve all financial problems.

Financial problems consisted of not having enough whatever ” enough” was at any given moment. In a more full picture of what this means, the media and our collective social conscience stated that enough always meant more and more always meant better regardless of the quality or effectiveness of the resource.

In my neighborhood, many people dreamed of getting out and getting a home in the suburbs (credit cards began to come into fashion).

No one would admit to wanting to leave Detroit and head out to the burbs (people would think you wanted to be white). But as I ‘ve gotten older I’ve learned that just because something is not being talked about in public doesn’t meant it’s not going on. Everyone wanted a better life – the definition of which changed almost daily- yet no one addressed the opposing thinking and views that this desire created.

In basic terms, there was a dream of wanting something else and no definitive term for the something else and what mindset would be required to engender this change and reset our thinking to ensure we didn’t lose our minds in the process.

There were whispers and gossip about some folk who went into the scary white world and lost their minds because they lacked a set of coping skills and sense of self that could have ensured them success no matter where they ended up (Check out Toni Cade Bambara’s Salt Eaters). This is where we often get stuck . The desire for more or better leaves us feeling guilty and confused about what will need to change or be given up to obtain the “latest and possibly greatest”.

This duality keeps us wavering between “keeping it real” and “selling out”.

The third and most productive and life enhancing and guilt free way of doing things is not choosing to leave “the hood” and celebrate because someone white is taking our money and allowing equal access. The third wave and most emotionally and psychologically healthy approach is the big “stew pot ” approach. This approach rewards us by allowing the best of both worlds and the creation of a third and possibly fourth way of being.

We don’t turn our backs on our wonderful elders (my grandmother raised and college educated five children during the sixties, seventies and eighties; she also is a terific cook who spends a great deal of time going to church and has never been in debt to anyone)

We look at their ways of existing when moving to the suburbs wasn’t an option. We figure out ways via our elders to make the neighborhoods we live in work and still read and dream of traveling in far off places. My great great grandfather built a school for black children in Texas near the turn of the century .

The white folks burned it to the ground the next day.

I moved to Japan and lived at the foot of Mt. Fuji. I plan to study documentary filmmaking in South Africa and was admitted to a Shakespeare Conservatory in England. Am I a sell out ? Do I have the right to remember my legacy of taking education and learning seriously, dreaming of a life I want then creating it guilt free ?

Is it my duty to take all the good things I have collected from a world that called pasta spaghetti before 1983 and combine them with the things I have been exposed to: living abroad, performing all over the country and cooking and enjoying world cuisine and create a life where in the term sell out could in fact simply mean “successful” and self determining ?

One thought on “Why Not Selling Out is a Bad Idea

  1. dk

    In so many ways we as black people have been our own worst enemies. What other ethnicity taunts their young men for having a sincere interest in education? Why can’t a young black person have big dreams without being accused of “trying to be white” or a sellout? And why are these same accusers satisfied when young black people don’t aspire to anything beyond their front stoop or the corner store? All very sad questions that I wish I had the answers to.


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