When African American narratives take up the matter of black class privilege, they frequently make recourse to the trope of a “black” body infiltrated by whiteness.1 Consider Lawrence Otis Graham’s revelatory book about the African American elite, Our Kind of People (1999), in which Graham describes his experience of a college party by outlining the hierarchy of skin color and hair texture that structured the campus’s black social scene:
With long, streaked, straight—or straightened—hair flying behind them, the Sisters of Ethos were running in and around the tall French doors, inspecting college IDs as they approved or turned away male partygoers who either passed or failed the ubiquitous “brown paper bag and ruler test.” . . . As I circled the room, I saw reminders of my childhood. The “dark outer circle” was very much apparent. . . . [It was] where one found the geri-curled [sic] guys and the dark-skinned women with “bad hair” and bad weaves.2
Graham differentiates baldly between the bodies of the light-skinned, straight-haired women at the “creamy center”3 of this culture of privilege, also literally the gatekeepers at its doors, and those of the group on the periphery. This corporeal distinction is one of aesthetics, but also of social class. Those bodies that most visibly display marks of Caucasian ancestry seem, by this logic, to have a special claim upon intraracial class privilege. Or, in Graham’s words, “[I]t was a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together.”4 [End Page 621]
Graham attends to a particular history of black American affluence—one tied to intraracial distinctions rooted in slavery and to the rule of hypodescent that has governed definitions of blackness in the United States since the seventeenth century.5 Significantly, most of Graham’s examples have to do with the female body, highlighting that what Harryette Mullen calls the “color capital” of the miscegenated body has particular consequences for women and, indeed, that gender structures the way that such capital is evaluated.6 In the elite black world that Graham describes, the materiality of the body has always been central; its shades and textures matter, in specific and historically predictable ways. Indeed, the corporeality of class status, for Graham, has to do with not simply aesthetic manipulations of the body, such as hair styling and straightening, but the raw text, so to speak, of the body itself: skin and eye color, the hair’s “natural” kink or wave.7 Of course, these two concepts are related; the perceived success of aesthetic manipulation depends on how accurately it mimics the “natural” appearance of miscegenation. Graham emphasizes this even in his description of the Sisters of Ethos, with use of the word straightened—this term implies heat processing or chemical processing of curly hair to achieve a flat texture that some possess by birth. Even the mention of “bad weaves” implicates the Sisters. Presumably, some of them sport good weaves, undetectable precisely because they approximate the “long, streaked, straight” hair of the most privileged.
But while the figure of the privileged black subject as a corporeally whitened one draws upon historical realities with contemporary consequences, it also reflects a problematic assumption about which bodies are classed and, indeed, about what material privilege signifies for African Americans. It should perhaps go without saying that bodily marks of miscegenation are not reliable indicators of black class privilege, even as they have taken on figurative meaning as classed signs. While a “mulatto elite” with roots in the U.S. domestic slave system may be the basic foundation for the black elite that Graham describes, Karyn Lacy reminds us that this elite saw their standing, which was based on “family name and ancestry,” diminish significantly in the early twentieth century, as they were supplanted by “black professionals and small business owners, the parvenu.”8 Lacy goes on to note that “[e]ducational attainment” set this “emerging black middle class apart from the mulatto elite,” an effect that became even more pronounced in the years between World War I and World War II, when far greater numbers...