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Aristocrats

Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood

by Gerald Early
Addison-Wesley, 234 pp., $17.00

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society

by John Edgar Wideman
Pantheon, 197 pp., $21.00

Colored People: A Memoir

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Vintage, 216 pp., $11.00 (paper)

The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

by W. E. B. Du Bois
Kraus, 531 pp., $31.00

No Day of Triumph

by J. Saunders Redding
Harper and Brothers

The Big Sea

by Langston Hughes
Hill & Wang, 335 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Dust Tracks on a Road in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writing

by Zora Neale Hurston
Library of America, 1,001 pp., $35.00

Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States

by E. Franklin Frazier
Macmillan, 222 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Coming Up Down Home: A Memoir of a Southern Childhood

by Cecil Brown
Ecco Press, 222 pp., $22.95

Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home

by Gloria Wade-Gayles
Beacon, 256 pp., $20.00

1.

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).1 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).2 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 blacks from building solid economic foundations, that this equality was of urgency only to an elite, and that “Negro leadership should have begun at the plow and not in the Senate.” Du Bois pointed out that even Booker T. Washington’s program of industrial training depended on a faculty educated in the humanities, that Washington’s staff included the sons of a congressman and a senator, and they weren’t “buying pianos for dirty cabins.” Du Bois meant that the cruel fantasy about what was possible for blacks was not in encouraging them to learn Latin, but in Washington’s wanting to make them artisans in an industrial economy of closed unions, immigrant labor, and racist assumptions about the abilities of blacks. However, under Jim Crow better-off blacks became removed from other blacks and developed their own institutions,3 which were then sneered at as sad imitations of the white originals. Often whites refused to tolerate black professionals as competitors; where they could establish themselves, they complained that other blacks would not support them and took their business to whites.4

Du Bois was to regret the youthful optimism of his “panacea.” He had imagined the Talented Tenth as a transitional leadership, and that its power would lie in its knowledge and ethical character, not in its quest for wealth. He saw the ideal of the Talented Tenth declining into an ideology in which the significance of achievements by blacks was not that they were contributions to their chosen fields, but that these contributions were made by blacks. Also, because the existence of educated blacks was felt to indict a system that granted freedoms to whites who were their social inferiors, not only could a black not be like everybody else, but a Talented Tenther, whose destiny was invested with the mysticism of Gospel and dignified by the authority of social science, was no longer like every other black.5

Blacks, like any other group, exert enormous social control upon one another. After World War I, when US society as a whole became a mass culture, blacks began to shed some of the deference that had made middle-class blacks acceptable to the black masses as emissaries to whites and as missionaries to poorer blacks, a deference that had led educated blacks to feel themselves stepchildren in the house of bourgeois culture. The Talented Tenth reached its apotheosis as a cultural force in black life during the Harlem Renaissance, after which its reputation went downhill. The distance of race leaders from poor blacks, the insisted-upon obviousness of the educated black’s identity crisis, and the impotence of the black middle class as a segment of the middle class in US society made the Talented Tenth conspicuous objects of criticism.

In 1940 the novelist and essayist J. Saunders Redding, a contemporary of Richard Wright’s, traveled by car from the coal fields of West Virginia to the sand hills of Mississippi. Redding appreciated the stories old people told him as the sun fell in their laps, but he was not looking for tall tales. Though he did not share Wright’s impatience with folklore, he regarded “legends” as poor compensation for the living conditions he observed along the clay roads. Redding went past the familiar images of blacks in shanties, brutal white sharecroppers, and the old darky guarding the gates of the plantation mansion where black tourists were not allowed, to write one of the truly haunting books about black communities in the South, No Day of Triumph (1942). Part autobiography, part oral history, part travelogue, No Day of Triumph is such an unusual portrait of the South because it is about black professionals and the descendants of black landowners as Redding found them in Roosevelt’s second term, what is nowadays called the old black middle class. In every hamlet, railroad junction, and river town Redding managed to meet the lone black doctor, the black factory owner, the lawyer, the schoolteachers, the ministers, the college president.

Redding’s “planless seeking” in the South uncovered family histories of black businessmen cheating black farmers, daughters stealing from mothers, in-laws paying the white sheriff to do away with the beneficiary of a will. One prosperous all-black community was divided by the color line that was introduced with the arrival of the town’s first “high-yellow bride.” Redding found black people who did not want to be leaders, though their education made the black community look to them as such, and black people who were giving up and moving across the Ohio River to pass for white. An AB degree in this culture of “spiritual poison” meant to the rest and sometimes even to themselves “also black” or “arse backwards.” The exceptions to this neurosis about class and race were unpretentious folk who had successfully resisted attempts by white people to displace them from large landholdings and professionals with no concern for their own physical safety or material comfort.

Born in 1907 in Wilmington, Delaware, a graduate of Brown University, Redding was himself a product of the old black middle class. His father was in the postal service and worked at extra jobs as a member of the local waiters’ association, which, back then, placed Redding’s family on the rising slopes. “We lived in a sort of neutral ground between the last orderly outposts of the well-to-do and the teeming camp of the hard-faced poor.” His mother went into a rage when, during World War I, black migrants began to pour in from the South and whites fled the neighborhood. He recalls with shame the respect given his lightskinned, well-spoken maternal grandmother and the embarrassment they felt for his dark-skinned, countrified paternal grandmother, who hated white people.

Though Redding doesn’t treat the black middle class of cities like Atlanta in his book, he makes it clear that he is relieved to have fled that insular world.6 He despised his colleagues in the English department at Morehouse College for what he saw as their self-importance about having Ph.D.s from, say, Columbia. A white hitchhiker whom Redding picked up turned out to be a Communist, union organizer, and weary veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who told him, “I’d give anything to be an American, like you. A damn middle-class American nigger. Can you imagine it?” Richard Wright declared in his introduction to No Day of Triumph that Redding’s book would “rock the Negro middle class back on its heels,” and he applauded Redding as “the first middle-class Negro to break with the ideology of the ‘Talented Tenth.”’

Redding was not the first. In 1924 Langston Hughes, then a Columbia dropout just back from bumming around Europe, went to live in Washington, DC, with cousins who were descended from Congressman John Mercer Langston. Hughes remembers in his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), trying to get a “dignified” job as a page boy in the Library of Congress, which seemed “to require a tremendous list of qualifications and influential connections.” He washed dishes instead. Theaters would not sell a ticket to Hughes; he couldn’t buy a cup of coffee anywhere within sight of the Capitol, and new films did not play in black movie houses. Washington, DC, was a Southern city.

I asked some of the leading Washington Negroes about this, and they loftily said that they had their own society and their own culture—so I looked around to see what that was like.

To me it did not seem good, for the “better class” Washington colored people, as they called themselves, drew rigid class and color lines within the race against Negroes who worked with their hands, or who were dark in complexion and had no degrees from colleges. These upper class colored people consisted largely of government workers, professors and teachers, doctors, lawyers, and resident politicians. They were on the whole as unbearable and snobbish a group of people as I have ever come in contact with anywhere…. They had all the manners and airs of reactionary, ill-bred nouveaux riches—except that they were not really rich. Just middle class. And many of them had less fortunate brothers or cousins working as red-caps and porters—so near was their standing to that of the poorest Negro.7

  1. 1

    See also “The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia,” in W. E. B. DuBois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis (Holt, 1995).

  2. 2

    See also “Careers Open to College-Bred Negroes” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, edited by Nathan Huggins (Library of America, 1986).

  3. 3

    See also American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth, by Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

  4. 4

    Carter G. Woodson, The Negro Professional Man and the Community (Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1934).

  5. 5

    To respond to what they considered libels from whites about the Negro, black apologists before World War I preferred to concentrate on what was called the better class of the race. Robert L. Waring, in a foreword to his novel, As We See It (1910), explained that by “We,” “I mean the educated Negroes, those of cultured families of the third and fourth generations, those Negroes who see things as other men of their mental caliber see them, who feel the sting of race prejudice most keenly, and at whom the damnable laws of the South are aimed…. In this story we picture that class of Negroes who are doing something, whose lives, homes and successes are the same as those of other men, and who, starting from nothing, have in fifty years accumulated in the aggregate more than two hundred and fifty million dollars worth of property. These people compose that class of American citizens whom the calamity howlers are careful to keep in the background.”

  6. 6

    Redding wrote about his Atlanta years in a later book, On Being Negro in America (1951).

  7. 7

    It’s odd that Wright overlooked Hughes’s mockery of the Talented Tenth. When Redding’s book was published, Hughes was just beginning to face the public attacks that would persuade him to play down his earlier involvement with the Communist Party. Perhaps Wright wanted to make Redding’s book more dramatic by presenting it as being the only one of its kind to be critical of middle-class blacks. Though Hughes’s experiences in Washington made for only a short chapter of The Big Sea, his autobiography would have been fresh in Wright’s mind because Wright reviewed it. But Native Son was published at the same time as The Big Sea and completely overshadowed it. Hughes was acidly diplomatic in his public remarks about Wright’s best seller. Wright in turn praised Hughes as a “cultural ambassador,” which, as Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, has pointed out, recalls the caustic language of Wright’s 1937 essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in which he asserted that works of literature by blacks in the past had been like “prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America,” that they represented “the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white American for justice” and were rarely addressed to the Negro himself.

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