- “The best people”:The Making of the Black Bourgeoisie in Writings of the Negro Renaissance
It need hardly be argued that the Negro people need social leadership more than most groups; that they have no traditions to fall back upon, no long established customs, no strong family ties, no well defined social classes. All these things must be slowly and painfully evolved.W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth” (1903)
What are representations of class representations of? In this article I want to analyze the work of class making as performed by literary authors and critics by revisiting the debate over representations of the black bourgeoisie in writings amalgamated under the rubric of the Harlem Renaissance. My title, “The Making of the Black Bourgeoisie,” deliberately invokes two other well-known works on class making: The Making of Americans (1925), Gertrude Stein’s massive experimental narrative of middle-class assimilation among German immigrants that was published during the Harlem Renaissance era and The Making of the English Working Class (1966), E. P. Thompson’s highly influential interrogation of class as a cultural and not just a socioeconomic formation—that is, something made, not represented—that appeared in the heyday of class analysis in the academy.1 But it has been Pierre Bourdieu’s work that has most rigorously interrogated the notion of the making of social class in a complex argument distilled in his succinct formulation that a class is made through the very terms used to name it. “Groups are not found ready-made in reality,” writes Bourdieu in “What [End Page 519] Makes a Social Class?,” but “are always the product of a complex historical work of construction.”2 The work of creating a black bourgeoisie has often been discussed in terms of black schools, black social organizations, and black journals. For Bourdieu, however, the ontological status of such a class presents a problem precisely because “the group represented is nothing other than what represents it.” One must, he argues, explain the move from a theoretical class, what he calls a “class on paper,” to a “probable real class,” and that explanation, “the performative power of naming,” is the political work of class making.3 Thus, the question “What are representations of class representations of?” might be rephrased as “What’s in a name?”
For the period in question here, the name “Harlem Renaissance” has become an abiding temporal signifier of African American modernism. Even if in this period formulation “Harlem” denotes less a specific location than a symbolic field, it was also, as the cultural center of the New Negro aesthetic movement, decidedly not bourgeois. Artists of the Harlem Renaissance may well have aspired to the same educational and socioeconomic status as the black bourgeoisie, yet the more they differentiated, in their writings, a black bourgeoisie from a distinctly black cultural elite—namely themselves—the more refined became the class distinctions within that shared social space. To call the writings of this period the “Harlem Renaissance,” then, is already to take a position on the black bourgeoisie, thereby eliding the implication of a modernist black aesthetic at a critical moment in the making of that social class.
For this reason, I prefer the now dated designation used by African American writers from Alain Locke to E. Franklin Frazier, the Negro Renaissance, a movement perhaps more concerned with creating distinctions of social class than with forging a distinctive black aesthetic. Although one of the two novels I examine here is set in Harlem, the other takes place in Washington, D.C., and the cultural differences and spatial distance between those two geographic sites in part accounts for the novels’ different attitudes toward what has been commonly referred to, at least since Frazier’s definitive 1955 work, as the black bourgeoisie.4 That term, rarely used in American writings before Frazier’s work, competes with others more commonly used in the 1920s to designate educated middle-class African Americans: “the best people,” “the Talented Tenth,” “the thinking Negro,” “the thinking few,” “colored society,” “the colored aristocracy.” These various terms mark different kinds of class formation based on different principles of distinction; they are not different...