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Reviewed by:
  • From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle Class Performances ed. by Vershawn Ashanti Young, with Bridget Harris Tsemo
  • Michelle Cowin-Mensah (bio)
Young, Vershawn Ashanti, with Bridget Harris Tsemo, eds. From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle Class Performances. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2011.

In From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle Class Performances, Vershawn Ashanti Young (with additional assistance provided by Bridget Harris Tsemo) examines performativity [End Page 219] central to race and class in the works of contemporary African American writers, scholars, and performing artists. This anthology is a follow-up to E. Franklin Frazier’s 1957 sociological study on black middle class communities titled, Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States. Frazier is most noted for his critique of black middle-class communities exhibiting behaviors of economic and personal excess in order to console feelings of inferiority. Young seeks to draw connections between black middle class socioeconomic values as an instigator for certain African American racial identity performances. He believes these enactments reveal a post-civil rights view of class formation that informs performances of racialization within the black community. Racial discrimination and similar prejudices that reinforce white/black binaries are relevant only to contrast a new wave of black cultural criticism currently in circulation. This includes intra-racism and socio-economic disparities that can be vetted across multi-disciplinary fields of study.

In 366 pages, Young attempts to redress Frazier’s study by including tropes often located in black performance studies texts (deconstructing racial performativity and visibility) within the four segments of the book. In the sections titled, “Performing Responsibility,” “Performing Womanhood,” “Performing Media,” and “Performing Sexuality,” Young is interested in the “roles middle-class blacks play in everyday life and how desire and its attendant roles are represented in art” (13). This includes performative expressions of accountability and burden black middle-class folks feel regarding their role in post-civil rights American society. Within each section are three to four scholarly essays, short stories, and personal responses that clarify the premise of that section’s title. According to Young, there is a genuine concern to promote an exchange of knowledge between the public and the academy by including works in this anthology that are both personal and scholarly. He is successful in bringing issues of racial performativity into the mainstream of literary, cultural, and general studies disciplines instead of reinforcing those artificial boundaries that keep them apart (22).

In section 1, “Performing Responsibility,” Young frames the everyday roles of black middle-class citizenship as one in which leadership and accountability are negotiated and interrogated. And yet in many of the essays that comprise section 1, assumed leadership and accountability roles are rarely challenged. In the first essay, Dwight A. McBride’s view of accountability in “Momma, Obama, and Me,” the legitimacy of full citizenship in America as a person of color is seen as a generational shift. McBride is idealistically sentimental in considering the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the promise of a bright future for the next generation of black youths who can more accessibly obtain equality than previous generations. McBride’s essay assumes that a generational shift means improvement, rather than considering the socio-economic barriers that threaten education and financial equality in the black community. Those barriers have the potential to decrease the likelihood of a future black middle class in America. While McBride’s personal tribute to closing the generational political divide is touching, I would have preferred his essay to challenge President Obama’s politics and his performance of responsible, black middle-class citizenship amidst the growing economic divide between the haves and have-nots.

Similarly in the final essay of section 1, Venise Berry’s short story “Pockets of Sanity” describes the black middle class as out of touch in understanding the mentality of black impoverished people. According to Berry, socio-economic barriers between black middleclass and working-class values exist and create a decrease in empathy on both sides of the [End Page 220] divide. Her position is viscerally powerful and elegantly weaved throughout the narrative. Yet an even more nuanced approach might have been to challenge the ideologies that create and...