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Aristocrats

There was a remnant of 1930s radicalism in Redding’s exposé of the venality of the black middle class and in Wright’s dismissiveness of Talented Tenth leadership. The Depression was devastating for middle-class blacks, not just for poor blacks. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik (1978), Harry Haywood recalls paying a visit to an Atlanta lawyer, educated at Amherst and Harvard, the son of a self-made businessman with a five-car garage, who, after his father had lost his newspaper and office buildings, rebelled against the narrow practice to which segregation confined him by taking on the defense of the activist Angelo Herndon. The Communist Party and the NAACP clashed bitterly during the Scottsboro trials of the 1930s, and Talented Tenth leadership never fully recovered from the Party’s charge that it was unable to respond to, let alone know, the will of the black majority.

Zora Neale Hurston, who seldom missed a chance to poke fun at “Negrotarians,” relates in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), an incident that made her realize “how theories go by the board.” When she was a student at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1918, she worked as a manicurist in a black-owned barbershop that catered to white congressmen and cabinet members. One day “a Negro” demanded a haircut and shave, citing his constitutional rights. The black barbers and the white customers rushed to throw him out, which Hurston approved of, because, although in doing so she was supporting Jim Crow, the Negro was threatening her livelihood. She does not say who represented the black middle class in her mind that day, the well-spoken Negro testing perhaps on impulse his constitutional rights or the barber, the owner of a small business. She goes on to say that people made careers of being race men or race women, but these race leaders were crying over a race solidarity that did not exist because it did not extend across class lines.

When Hurston came up North to attend Barnard College she noticed that well-mannered, well-dressed blacks were embarrassed by other blacks “talking loud” in public. Conscious of “white standards of living,” the educated Negroes feared that the loud blacks were tearing down the image of blacks. The “humble Negro,” antagonistic to the “Big Nigger,” “does not resent a white man looking down on him. But he resents any lines between himself and the wealthy and educated of his own race.” The mucky-mucks in Hurston’s analysis complained that the common element didn’t know how to behave and that whites thought all blacks were the same. The folk countered that the better element were just trying to act white and that all blacks were indeed the same when it came to racism.

As it turns out, the group that most irritated Hurston were the people in “neither the top nor the bottom of Negrodom” who nevertheless considered themselves “the better-thinking Negro.” Lacking, as Hurston saw it, the “happy carelessness of the group beneath them and the understanding of the top-flight Negro above them,” they wanted “nothing to do with anything frankly Negroid” and fled from “Negrodom.” They paced in a cage that wasn’t there and took comfort in a “fur coat peerage.” One can infer from her friendships with James Weldon Johnson and Walter White whom she had in mind as “top flight,” men pale enough to pass for white who chose not to, a category, perhaps, that would not offend her old friends in the black intelligentsia. But Hurston’s sympathies were with the folk, who, she said, were willing to die for one another. If Redding and Wright criticized middle-class blacks on political grounds, then Hurston attacked the same people for turning their backs on what she considered their cultural heritage.

Hurston could overlook the meaning of the class distinctions she herself drew. In an article written in 1943, “The ‘Pet Negro’ System,” reprinted in the excellent Library of America edition of her work, she argues that the North had no interest in the particular Negro but talked of justice for the whole, whereas the South had no interest in the black masses but was very concerned about the individual black. A white person down South would permit his or her Pet Negro privileges forbidden to the black masses. The Pet Negro went to “Mr. Big” to negotiate for the community, and Hurston concedes that such an informal system of social redress strained the integrity of the Pet Negro and aroused jealousy in the black community, but it could free the black professional from competition with whites and also gratified his personal vanity. “The South makes a sharp distinction between the upper-class and the lower-class Negro.” The existence of well-off blacks in the South was a secret up North because race crusaders wanted to keep the “worst aspects” of black life always before the public. “Why drag in the many Negroes of opulence and education?”

This is a variation on the Good Negro/Bad Negro theme, which has never depended on class. In the literature from which D. W. Griffith took his film images—Thomas Dixon’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), for instance—the educated Negro is the villain, the black who forgets his place. One can’t tell from Hurston’s tone how serious she is. Richard Wright was critical of what he called Hurston’s minstrel images of cooperation and hat holding, while Hurston saw it as her mission to dissent from the black-life-aspathology message of intellectuals like Wright. Eventually, her belief in the healing powers of the all-black environment became sentimental. She opposed school desegregation in 1954, and this and other idiosyncratic pronouncements helped to bury her reputation before her death in 1960, but she has been resurrected as the queen of folk attitude, which includes eye-rolling behind the backs of mucky-mucks who appear to be giving themselves airs.

2.

The modern Civil Rights era that we think of as having begun in the 1950s with the Montgomery bus boycott was in many important respects already underway during World War II, with James Farmer’s first sit-ins and A. Philip Randolph’s threat to lead a civil rights march on Washington. Lena Horne, with her high cheekbones and upper-class family in Brooklyn and Atlanta, endeared herself to black troops by making visits to segregated training camps that were more like prisons. But from the Southern campaigns of the 1950s came the most damaging image of obstructionist conservatism in the black middle class: that of the minister either afraid or unwilling to support Martin Luther King, Jr. The outcome of King’s mass movement was far from certain, and resentment of the black middle class for being cut off from the masses and therefore from reality boiled over in E. Franklin Frazier’s ferocious polemic, Black Bourgeoisie (1957).

Frazier had included chapters on the social traditions of the “old families” and the urban middle class, and how they related to stability in The Negro Family in the United States, originally published in 1939 and revised in 1948 to take advantage of new statistics. Frazier’s purpose in this influential study was to demonstrate that the social disorganization of blacks was caused by the migration to northern cities, which was as traumatic to family relations as slavery and Emancipation had been. The privileged status of the old families, their moral earnestness about educational advantages, social graces, and reluctance to marry outside their class, became irrelevant with the new mobility of the black. Urbanization also meant regional differences. In the South, clergymen made up the majority of the black professional class but were a minority in the same class in Boston or New York.

The middle-class blacks interested Frazier as successful competitors in the new environment of the city. In The Negro Family Frazier was reserving judgment on them, saying that the changes in the structure of black life brought about by urbanization had been rapid, and had not had time to solidify. But in Black Bourgeoisie, Frazier delivers his verdict. Gone is the detached, almost clinical distance of the earlier work. He is furious with disappointment, disgusted by what he sees as the frivolity and shallowness of the black middle class, the preoccupation with display and exclusivity, the snobbery, pretentiousness, and philistinism.8

Black Bourgeoisie was the kind of book whose message was clearest in its damning chapter headings and the recurrence of phrases like “inferiority complex,” or “frustrated and insecure.” A closer examination shows how much Frazier’s animus was fed by his new research, which concentrated on readings of Ebony and Jet, glossy magazines notorious for their fatuity. It could be argued that the black professionals and their wives who wanted to be written about in Ebony were representative of only one segment of the black middle class in the 1950s, but the black press, in Frazier’s view, by exaggerating that segment’s economic and cultural achievements, bore the responsibility for creating the “make-believe” into which the black middle class escaped. In his review of Black Bourgeoisie, Du Bois said that he shared Frazier’s distaste for Ebony, but he had to admit that his granddaughter’s coming-out party was lovely.

No other work-had such an impact on how the black middle class was perceived. The class that in Du Bois’s youth had been capable of amazing the black masses as the eloquent voice of the struggle for equality became symbolic of self-loathing and race treachery, of political timidity and cultural sham. Because the black middle class for the most part favored integration, in the 1960s black nationalists regarded it as an enemy. Malcolm X once boasted that he made middle-class blacks uncomfortable because he confronted them with their own negative feelings about whites.

For black youth in the 1960s, disowning one’s middle-class upbringing became a test. The need to overcome middle-class status was reflected in the titles of autobiographies such as Leslie Alexander Lacy’s The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro (1970). Lacy grew up in an unnamed small Southern community, in what he calls Town Two, the black middle-class preserve between Town One, the white neighborhood, and Town Three, where most blacks lived. Lacy began to doubt his social reality when his father, a doctor, was forced to move his family to another city because whites thought him too prosperous. After attending Brown University, Lacy went to Ghana where he witnessed the 1966 coup that overthrew Nkrumah. In the sequel, Native Daughter (1974), Lacy is working as a teacher of unwed mothers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. One could say that instead of repudiating his class Lacy was following its tradition of service, but at that time a middle-class background was seen as an inheritance of false consciousness that had to be renounced before true black feeling could be embraced. In the days of militant books such as Donald Reeves’s Notes of a Processed Brother (1971), Gail Lumet Buckley’s fascinating family history, The Hornes (1986), would have been particularly suspect, because the story of the wellborn was not thought to serve the interests of black history.

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    He seems to have caught his tone of exasperation from Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), in which Woodson declares that “the large majority of the Negroes who have put on the finishing touches of our best colleges are all but worthless in the development of their people.” Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake surveyed the same social environment of black clubs, neighborhoods, and professional credentials in Chicago, yet they were milder in their conclusions.

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