Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

The Quotable Black Scholar: Randall Kennedy

September 19th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

Randall Kennedy (b. 1954)

Annually the [Harvard Law] school’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) sponsors two events that I usually attend. One is a gathering at the beginning of each school year to which all of the black professors are invited to speak to the incoming class of black law students. The other is a weekend conference in the spring aimed at drawing alumni back to campus. At both, fear of selling out is thick in the air. At the gathering in the fall there is much exhortation about the racial obligation to “give back” to the black community and to avoid “forgetting where you come from.” And one can be certain that references, usually several, will be made to a statement that has now become iconic within the black bar — the claim, attributed to Charles Hamilton Houston, that “a lawyer’s either a social engineer of he’s a parasite on society.” At the sping conference, there are always panels featuring alumni who insist that, despite their ensconcement in the higher echelons of the nation’s preeminent law firms or businesses, they nonetheless make sure to “give back,” to “stay black,” to pay their racial dues. Regardless of the stated themes of the spring conferences, an implicit subtheme earnestly voiced in practically all of them is that the students nearing graduation have not sold out.

–Randall Kennedy in the Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (191-192).

Biographical Notes: Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University. His book Race, Crime, and the Law won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, he was educated at St. Albans School, Princeton University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. Prior to joining the faculty of Harvard law school, he clerked for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to numerous essays and articles in scholarly journals and mainstream periodicals, Professor Kennedy is the author of several books. Some of his more recent books include: Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008); Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (2003); Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002); and Race, Crime, and the Law (1998).  

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in Academia, African American Students, African Americans, Black Students, Harvard University, Higher Education, Law School, race, Randall Kennedy, Selling Out

2 Responses

  1. Mari-Djata

    I personally think that people should give back to their communities, especially in the case of black folk. So many black people owe their success to other black people and it is a shame when they do not even acknowledge this fact. I do not subscribe to the notion of “selling out,” but I do believe in community service and remembering where you came from.

  2. Black on Campus

    I appreciate your perspective on Kennedy’s quote. It is a much more nuanced way of thinking about these issues, in that it moves beyond the binary thinking that pits “selling out” against “staying black”/remembering “where you came from.”

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