Monday, August 20, 2007

The Sellout and the Token

Recently, I received an email, based on my last group of articles calling me a sellout. The crux of the accusation is that if I don't marry an African or African American woman I am a sellout. The person further said that if I did marry an African American or African Jewish woman then they would retract their statement. The person also claimed that I moved to Israel simply so I could marry a non-African or non-African American, as if I couldn't do that when I lived in California and New York. The funny thing is that a large number of Israelis (probably over 40%) have African descent from Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Ethiopia. In fact there is a Rabbi here in Jerusalem, Rabbi Natan Gamedze, who is a Swaziland Prince. For those who don't know, the idea of being a sellout or a token amongst some African Americans is seen as some kind of evil associated with people either forgetting where they came from, or somehow turning their backs on black people. Most of the time it is used as a way of criticizing people who simply don't share certain views that are claimed to be accepted views for Black people. It normally is never applied to those born outside of the United States, except in situations when such a person is thought to be an African American. My Ethiopian Israeli friends in New York run into this all of the time. The use of the word token or sellout can go from a simple joke to outright hatred.

So this brings up the following questions of:

  • What is a sellout and who decides who is and isn't a sellout?
  • What people have the ability to determine who is a sellout?
  • Are Africans such as Malians, Senegalese, Ethiopian, etc. people sellouts (in the African American sense) when they marry non-Africans?
  • Where are the laws of blackness and sellouts written and where did they originate?
I have always found it interesting how quickly some people are to call someone they don't agree with a sellout. It seems like the popular thing to call someone when they don't go by or buy into certain elements of a society which they may or may not belong to. I was called a sellout when I was a kid in Kansas City because I spoke what was called "proper English." During that time I also spoke French, but I stopped speaking when I was about 7 years old. I was later called a sell-out because I did not act like some of the people in certain inner city areas. The fact of the matter was we had different cultures and when I decided to live by mine and not theirs I was a sellout in their eyes. I often wondered, do these people really care what I do with my life? They don't even know me and instead of engaging me about who I was they preferred to act as if they have the power to declare who I am and who I am not.

Besides what rule book dictates these fantasy rules, because I have never seen it? I have a lot of friends who were born in various parts of Africa and they don't know of any such rule book and the ones I have told about it consider such a concept flawed. My family in Ghana, London, Israel, and America has never followed such wacky rules. My adopted families in Ethiopia and southern Nigeria never went by such things. In fact my adopted family in southern Nigeria, considered themselves completely different than the other ethnic groups in northern Nigeria. So I will be up front that I don't buy into the whole method of skin color as a way of determining race or culture.

I do however believe that any group of people who join their destinies together and form communities can be called a people or an ethnic group. For example, there are a number of Haitian American communities in New York and Florida. In said communities the people live together, speak the same language, and have a similar culture. Maybe the reason I live the way that I do as a Jew is as follows.

Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) 6:16
"Thus says Hashem (the LORD), stand on the highways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk upon it and you shall find rest for your souls. "

Instead of choosing to define myself completely by new standards, I prefer to go by the ancient ways. My family didn't start off in America, they came from a number of places as I mention on the banner of this blog. Places such as Senegal, Spain, and France. I know where they came from because my family kept good records, photos, and oral traditions as well as a two year stint of research I recently did. I also have family here in Israel, in England, and I used to have family in Ghana (they moved to the US). I also have adopted family members in southern Nigeria and Ethiopia.

When I compare my situation to others, I find some things in common with some of my old friends. I had a number of friends in college who were Arabic speaking African American Muslims. They identified with their fellow Muslims before ever identifying with non-Muslim African Americans. It is funny that no-one ever called them sell-outs, but it may be because being Muslim, by some, is considered as okay for someone with brown skin. There are some who treat Islam as an original African religion, even though Islam began in Arabia. Who sets these kinds of standards of what Black or African American means, and under whose authority do they have that right?

I also had friends who were darker toned, but from Latin countries. Some of them identified with fellow Spanish speakers or long before they would with non-Spanish speaking African Americans, and some people did it the other way around. That is their choice to make, in my eyes they aren't selling out to anything. Besides if their culture is Latin how can they be considered sell outs in eyes of African Americans? I speak Hebrew, and I am learning Arabic so for me it is a similar situation. Of course I am going to be closer to people who also speak Hebrew, and duh where are the most amount of Hebrew speakers in the world?

In my youth I wondered why there was no one calling gangs like the Crips and Bloods sellouts for killing all the people they have, and causing people to live in fear. I also wondered why the various African dictators such as Charles Taylor, Idi Amin, etc. were never called sellouts. Why are rappers such as Ice Cube, Ice T, Easy E, Boss, Notorious BIG, Little Kim, etc. ever called sellouts for the music that they make that gives some pretty bad images of African Americans the world over. I always wondered why the guys who murdered my friend and former fraternity brother Amen Mills were never called sellouts. Then the answer came to me when I opened up the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) to the following passage.

Tehillim (Psalms) 23
A song of David. Hashem (The Lord) is my shepherd; I shall not lack. He causes me to lie down in green and pleasant habitations; He lays me down on calm waters. He surrounds my soul; He circles me in righteous/justice on account of His name. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You setup a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; You pour on my head oil; my cup runs over. Thus goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of Hashem (the Lord) for the length of days.

I remember when my elders and my mother would tell me to pray every night and every morning to remember that God had my back. I remember my grandmother always quoting the Psalms to me throughout the day when I went to visit her. The problem with thinking over people's words can hurt one if they dwell on them to long. Besides my life before God supersedes any supposed racial affiliations, that other people feel I am supposed to have.

If doing the will of God makes me a sell-out, then I have sold out completely and I will sell-out every night and everyday. I will wake up with the Divrei Torah (Words of the Hebrew Bible) on my lips at night before I go to sleep, and I will wake up with them on my breath. So yes, I am a sellout for God, for the Torah, and for my family heritage. To all of these things I have sold myself at the expense of people who don't even know me and or my family. I respect the various African Americans that exist in America, I don't identify with all of them, and some of them I don't understand because I didn't grow up with them near to me. I do identify with African Americans who have similar experiences as me, but at the same time identify with all people on that level. I also identify with all people who are doing good in the world and I draw strength from all the positive contacts I have had in the past and the present.

In the end I don't really care what people say about me, because those people will call me names for one reason or another. Having a different way of looking at the world that I grew up in from America, to Japan, to Ethiopia, and to Israel, and having a diverse ancestry that I connect with makes me who I am. I also recognize that not everyone is going to agree with me, that is perfectly fine by me because turning my back on my Jewish heritage would be the thing that really makes me a sellout, especially since there were a large number of Jews in North and West Africa at one point. What matters in my life is doing the will of God. He controls the universe and His authority to decide what I am is a lot higher than some person who will be here one day and dust the next, and won't even leave their name. To quote Cpt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean 1 movie, "Sticks and stones love. Sticks and stones."


rivkayael said...

Not just intrinsic to your culture but to any culture that feels threatened. My mother said that I've become very "westernized" (in the same way she asks "how is your *SOCIAL LIFE*") despite the fact that I'm the only one in my family that keeps up with chinese lit! I *think* that the ability to stand on one (culture) and look at the other with realism, yet love, can only come when you really know who you are and what you stand for. Ultimately we also see a lot of this in the not-so-friendly inter-minhag bashing (I hesitate to say racial) within Jewry itself, and it is only when we accept that we are one, yet we all have different things to bring to the table--can we stop labelling people as sell-outs. First, self acceptance in God.

rebelwithacause said...

Let me guess. The email came from a female who was upset cause of the probability that you won't end up marrying a "sister". Frankly, it's no one's business what you are doing. Who cares what other people say? Do your thing (which is the right thing) and be happy. :-)

Reut Cohen said...

I recently came across your blog.

I am a quarter Ethiopian Jewish (through my maternal grandfather) and I have to say that I don't think it matters if we, as Jews, marry Ashkenazis or Sephardics. Sometimes people don't understand that Jews come in different shades and that there is a beautiful diversity within the Jewish race.

Ultimately, people need to do what makes them happy.

Thanks for linking my blog. I'll return the favor.

Take Care,

Reut Cohen

Miriam said...

Ehav, try wearing a big gold chain around your neck and put your fingers and all sorts of contortions. Then use LOTS of swear words. Then maybe they'll 'accept' you. lol

Too many times people seem to confuse the 'gangsta' life style as if that IS the AA community. Sad.

I am hearing so many stories about this. And it always start with the same 'you talk too proper...' 'Dag, you read??!' etc etc. Any attempt at brain power and you're a sellout.

Please, I am sure that you know there are plenty of people of color from all over the world (including some AA) who try to be their best, and not succomb to the ignorant ones who want to drag others down with them (and still not like them, because they probably don't like themselves).

Shavonne said...

I used to get called 'sellout' and 'token'. I take it as a compliment now. We are adults not teenagers in high school. When will people ever grow up?

Ehav Ever said...

I would like to thank you all for your comments. I will admit that when I first received the message calling me a sellout, it took me back a bit. Maybe, some people have a need to make someone out to be the villain for something. I know that based on some of my opinions about life I am an easy target for such. It like you have been saying, you can't please everyone and even if you could why should you. Thanks again.

diva said...

'sellout' is usually a convenient way to criticize others you don't agree with without giving a reason for your disagreement. I get called a sellout on my blog/mail. I think it just comes with the cyber-territory. There is also a heavy dose of self-hatred involved. It will be a great day when the AA community gets past the 'sell-out', 'token', 'blacker-than-thou' discussions.