Aristocrats

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Black America has always felt itself divided into two classes, the mucky-mucks and the folk. That blacks considered themselves aristocrats because they were descended either from free blacks or from “quality” whites is bizarre to the post-Black Studies generation, because for blacks to have thought of themselves as “top lofty” would seem to have required ignorance of how most free blacks had really lived, as well as a certain amnesia about who the main sexual predators of slaves were. But even when occupation and education became central to determining class, the connection between high status and light skin was not broken completely. For the longest time class was spoken of as a matter of whispering Episcopalians, murmuring Presbyterians, shouting Methodists, and screaming Baptists.

W. E. B. Du Bois, proud of his Huguenot, Dutch, and free African ancestry, was the first to offer a systematic analysis of the social structure of the black community, most extensively in The Philadelphia Negro (1899). What counted as an upper-class occupation changed from generation to generation. The black caterers said to “rule” Philadelphia high society in the 1840s had disappeared by Du Bois’s day. He identified three classes, but, unfortunately, he liked that word “aristocrat.” Because of the lower status of blacks in relation to the larger society, what Du Bois called the black aristocracy of professionals, businessmen, and white-collar workers corresponded to what was middle class for whites. He was elevating the newly emerged urban black professional class to the exalted position in the black population that would cause so much resentment later on. Du Bois’s description of class also reflected the conceptual bias about human behavior then prevalent among social reformers: thus lowerclass blacks, oppressed by their environment, were debauched, while the majority of blacks, the regularly employed, honest, working poor, were sympathetic, teachable, and amenable to copying those above them.

There was no such thing as old or new money, just black folks’ money. The demise of Reconstruction had made it hard for blacks to acquire capital or to pass on property to their children. As blacks were driven from all but the most limited spheres of business and political life, the prestige of the professional rose in the black community. It was this class that constituted the Talented Tenth, that “aristocracy of talent” summoned from the mist of class differences to the altar of race leadership. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” Du Bois declared in an essay in The Negro Problem (1903). There was nothing new about his hope that an educated class would act as a vanguard. The relationship between knowledge and freedom had been established before the first black graduated from a US college in 1826. The failed connection between education and advancement was more difficult to explain, as if there were a fault in the social wiring.

Du Bois was criticized by those who believed that agitating for social and political equality had distracted …

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