The Black Upper Class

Certain People: America’s Black Elite

by Stephen Birmingham
Little, Brown, 301 pp., $8.95

The history of blacks is complicated, fragmented, disturbing to contemplate, not a neat trail of challenges met or of felled trees blocking the path to the mountain top. When writing on black life, whites have often been unwelcome, usually called upon to give witness or hauled in as the accused. Feverish protection of cultural territory has bred a timidity among whites, whose hesitation is not quite owing to liberal guilt, but rather to the exhaustion white Americans have been feeling for some time. They suffer the ache of feeling overwhelmed, faced as they are with the difficulties of having a tradition, in regard to blacks, that discourages close scrutiny. Blacks clamored to be heard and then they spewed accusations. Some whites and blacks probably had the same thoughts: They will never understand. Do we?

Black leaders with faces as familiar as movie stars now stand before a dwindling number of microphones in postures of defiance and righteous resolve that seem archaic. The gestures and rhetoric of the self-absorbed bureaucracy, of the will-less government, show how serious interest in the black situation has waned. Statistics suffice to reaffirm the faith in costly and well-meant progress. Popular television culture has promoted the silky assurances of sentimentality about black history. Advertisements and situation comedies have announced the great reconciliation: we survived the nightmare of hot city summers.

This cultural climate has much to do with the appearance of Certain People, Stephen Birmingham’s poorly conceived and clumsily presented attempt to describe America’s black elite. The book has already received much unfavorable notice. Perhaps we should have seen it coming: The Right People, The Right Places, “Our Crowd“—Birmingham’s previous titles suggest a lamentable hobby. Recently, Vogue carried a Birmingham article on black fashion queens, and its giddy approval of highly refined brown sugar governs most of Certain People. Militancy as a style among visible blacks has subsided, creating for writers like Birmingham a new kind of accessibility and coverage. The niceness of the race is redeemed. Andy goes on the red clay Georgia trail; Andy goes to Washington; Andy goes for the heads of Her Majesty’s diplomats. This is the year of the Bionic Black, and porkchop nationalists have lost prestige.

Many of the nervous themes in Stephen Birmingham’s study could be real subjects. But, with him, they are little more than the same old tap dance. The redundant quality of the book betrays a mind utterly lacking in sophistication and imagination. No doubt Certain People will feed the vanity of those characters listed in the index. It is a work destined for display in some homes, on the mahogany coffee table between the Illustrated London News yearbook and a large piece of Steuben glass. Yet, although it is easy to ridicule and dismiss many of Birmingham’s galling pages, he has, somehow, hit a nerve. The subject of black success is curiously embarrassing. There has always been, in black communities, a desire to measure advancement, to claim one …

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