U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bourgeois Vacuity?

Marita Bonner

Marita Bonner wrote an essay in 1925 entitled “On Being Young–A Woman–And Colored.”  Cheryl Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance, explains that in the essay, “Bonner writes acidly of the endless rounds of parties and cards and poignantly of the metaphorical bars that prevent escape. The price of escape is the loss of respectability, which for the black woman Bonner apostrophizes carries a racial as well as an individual cost.” Wall suggests that “Bonner’s attack on bourgeois vacuity might be considered in the context of another well-known essay,” Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which criticizes African Americans artists for writing from the context of the “Empty and imitative culture of the black middle class” instead of the vibrant lives of the black lower classes (or “folk”). Novelist Nella Larsen, as biographer George Hutchinson explains, remained isolated for the most part, rather than join the organizations her friend Lillian “Sadie” Alexander frequented and led. Larsen critiqued Harlem women’s society for the false nature of their friendships, yet was buoyed by Alexander’s friendship and Alexander was one of the most prominent figures in the Harlem women’s community.

(According to David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, Zora Neale Hurston derided this group of middle-class men and women as the “Niggerati”, for their pretension. But Wallace Thurman, a friend of Hurston’s and part of the younger, more daring crowd, denoted his house the “Niggerati Manor”–I need to figure out which group it actually refers to–the “pretentious” bourgeois or the authors of Fire!!!). Carl Van Vechten dismissed the black middle-class as an uninteresting topic to write about because they were too much like the white middle-class.

In the opening chapter of my book, I recreate and analyze the organizational culture that sustained black women in Harlem. In her history of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Paula Giddings writes that “Black women may be among their freest, their happiest, and, in some ways, their most fulfilled when they are together in their organizations.” How does one reconcile Bonner’s acidic critique with Giddings’ description of freedom?  My argument right now is that most women indeed found great solace and meaning in the organizations they participated in, founded, and led (the YWCA, the National Association of College Women, the NAACP Ladies’ Auxiliary, sororities, National Association of Colored Women), as well as being prominent figures in organizations led by men. 

Jessie Fauset by Laura Waring

But it is troubling that several literate women criticized this community as “vacuous” and that Cheryl Wall would accept that moniker, even while discussing Jessie Fauset, another leader of the bourgeois black community. She describes Fauset as unwilling to remain in new territory, personally as well as artistically, because “the potential risk was too great, as much to the image she reflected as a proper Negro woman as to herself.” Though it might be “too easy to see those instances where Jessie Fauset’s courage failed her,” Wall suggests, “it is important to acknowledge the ways it did not.” Wall reconciles these two contradictory impulses by recognizing that even though “Fauset’s spirit of adventure was circumscribed by the demands of propriety, [and] her freedom of expression was checked by restraint, she was eager to encourage exploration and innovation in others.” I remain unconvinced, however, that Fauset herself was not exceedingly courageous in her roles as traveler, teacher, editor, and author. (Langston Hughes dismissed the literary salons of both Fauset and Alexander as too bourgeois–do we let him define these women for us, rather than seek their definitions of themselves?).

Why is it that so much of the literature on the “politics of respectability” sounds denigrating to my ear? Is it so wrong to attend balls, run fundraisers, and make persistent small attacks on racism? African American authors are certainly not the only Americans to criticize the “vacuity” of bourgeois culture, particularly in the 1920s, but the women I know from my research were nothing close to vacuous.

Karen Jane Ferguson explains why the “politics of respectability” were problematic: 

black proponents of respectability asserted their citizenship in opposition to and at the expense of the black ‘masses,’ thus marginalizing the ‘un-respectable’ even further. Identifying themselves as bourgeois missionaries of respectability, black elites claimed moral superiority and sought recognition of their citizenship by placing themselves above and as the natural leaders of what they considered the uncivilized and undeveloped majority of African Americans. Further, their efforts to uplift and liberate other black people would depend on their followers’ adopting respectable behavior as a prerequisite for full citizenship.

I think that this jump to condemnation misses some of the vibrancy that that bourgeois culture had to offer, particularly for the women within it. For some women, it was exciting and affirming to be young and colored and in Harlem, even while they attended to particular modes of dress and expectations of action.

In her original formulation of the idea of the “Politics of respectability,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham recognized this nuance.  She outlined the promises and perils of the idea:

“On the one hand the politics of respectability rallied poor working-class blacks to the cause of racial self-help, by inspiring them to save, sacrifice, and pool their scant resources for the support of black-owned institutions. Whether through white-imposed segregation or black-preferred separatism, the black community’s support of its middle class surely accounted for the development and growth of black-owned institutions, including those of the Baptist church. On the other hand, the effort to forge a community that would command whites’ respect revealed class tensions among blacks themselves. The zealous efforts of black women’s religious organizations to transform certain behavioral patterns of their people disavowed and opposed the culture of the ‘folk’–the expressive culture of many poor, uneducated, and ‘unassimilated’ black men and women dispersed throughout the rural South or newly huddled in urban centers.

“The Baptist women’s preoccupation with respectability reflected a bourgeois vision that vacillated between an attack on the failure of America to live up to its liberal ideas of equality and justice and an attack on the values and lifestyle of those blacks who transgressed white middle-class propriety. Thus the women’s pronouncements appeared to swing from radical to conservative.”

And here’s the punchline–what I’m trying to explore more of for the 1920s–“From the perspective of the Baptist women and others who espoused the importance of ‘manners and morals,’ the concept of respectability signified self-esteem, racial pride, and something more.” For Higginbotham, the something more was finding common ground with other Americans. For me, it’s finding the meaning women made through their parties, their “musical teas,” and their organizations.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. reminds me a lot of the debates about women’s culture in the 1980s and the debate about what sort of history best served the left in the 1960s. Historians tend to dichotomize too much IMHO I would suggest that it doesn’t have to be either/or but rather both/also.

  2. I would say that assimilation is a matter of survival, for blacks it was a means of a better life. the point is I can be a radical black angry feminist lesbian who’s theory isn’t called theory because a white male universalism prevails. a) I’m black. b) I’m female c) I’m lesbian. unacceptable all. Unless I assimilate. go to party’s, ape the attitudes, dress, manners and morals of the dominate class, get the education, talk a certain educated way, find a way over the barriers, around through- that won’t bring bodily harm and death to me and mine. Sure I could throw a brick through the barrier and and make loud angry speeches about the wrongs being done. Or I can be called whiteified, vacuous, empty headed, by more militant blacks, who want to see change NOW. it was a rock and a hard place. they did what they did as a matter of survival in a country that did not want, nor respect them. They sought respectability and economic upward mobility because it was a means to an end, and sometimes it was a means to a means. To be this, I must give up that. To be educated I must give up some “blackness” to be monied I must give up more “blackness” to be published I must give up gender (who publishes books by women? only other women? But to have the respect of the dominant culture I must either be ultra femme or have attributes men would respect thus making me manly?). How much do I give up before I become nothing? In giving up blackness, do I forget where I come from? No I try to bring others to where I am or go back and work and educate in the communities left behind. But in giving up blackness I also give up some of those relationships with other blacks that give community, understanding, acceptance and familiarity. So we create communities with others like us, that will give us those things we give up in being “black” and those communities are looked upon as being vacuous, empty, aping white society. A rock and damned hard place. At least thats what I think.

    and another thing is, no matter how much “black” you give up, in mannerism’s identity, actions, community. Most folks never see you as anything other than black. They might condensend to say “you are not like other blacks” tokenism, but always no matter what, the first and formost thing that matters in a black persons life is race, because it can get you killed, or thrown in jail, or refused a job, a spat on, its important to us, because it is important to those in positions of power in how we are treated and looked upon.

  3. Take a look at Kate Dossett’s Bridging Race Divides–she agrees with you and argues that a false politics of authenticity prevailed in which only “folk” culture was deemed authentic. She studies black women engaged in feminist and nationalist work in this period.

  4. I wonder: have you explored the parallel portmanteau “Negrotarian,” also current in Harlem Renaissance circles?

  5. I recommend you read more and more recent scholarship in the New Negro era, New Negro Renaissance authors, and black women’s use of respectability in the interwar period. Works like Anastasia Curwood’s *Stormy Weather*, Erin D. Chapman’s *Prove It On Me*, and Victoria Wolcott’s *Remaking Respectability* build upon and move well past the works you’ve cited here, which were published 20 or so years ago.

  6. Anon 4:21–Thank you for your suggestions. Curwood’s book is wonderful and I read Wolcott awhile ago, but I will look at Chapman’s. I feel like some of what I said here applies to conference papers I’ve heard recently that use the “politics of respectability”, but I didn’t have a specific paper to cite, so I left it out. I wanted to go back to the original works that used the politics of respectability to make sure I understood the original definition. But, as you say, the conversation has developed since then.

  7. Here is something interesting about this discussion, in my view: lack of any politics of respectability in today’s world has led African Americans to a race to the bottom.

    Where is the interest in forming strong two-parent families which will build strong communities in turn? I only see that in the majority white middle class suburban community where I live.

    Most black children today are being raised in single-parent homes headed by women. Two-parent families comprise less than 1/3 of all African American families. It has long been demonstrated that children raised by single parents do not thrive as well as those raised by parents in a stable marital relationship.

    As Anon at 10:28 noted, bourgeois norms are seen as “white,” as compared to merely being the norms that many cultures aspire to, regardless of race, class and ethnicity.

    The bourgeois norms of acceptable behavior, family and community orientation is what keeps these communities going from generation to generation. It is what keeps them alive and thriving.

  8. Do women who were part of the Harlem Renaissance but located outside Harlem fit into your study? If so, I’d encourage you to look at Anne Spencer, who lived in Lynchburg, VA and whose house was a frequent stop-over for many of the leading lights of the movement. She was also a well-regarded poet in her own right. Her materials were recently moved from her house in Lynchburg to the special collections library at UVA. Looking at this from a more outsider perspective may give more insight (if you’ve got the time for more research)

  9. I am reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, Sister Citizen. She discusses (though doesn’t fully develop) politics of respectability. I am just getting into this idea now, because what she said caught me. In it she argues that there was a certain type of black femininity that was allowed in order to respond to the jezebel stereotype. She also argues that this continues today. I was wondering what you thought about that. She provides the example about how african american women in sex scandals are often blamed for their involvement because of again the highly sexualized stereotype of black women (furthered by hip hop music). And thus the perception that THOSE women are not worthy. I liken it to the Stop the I Word campaign (to get rid of the word “illegal”) or the Dream Act. Who is a “good” or “worthy” immigrant? Those in the I-word campaign are usually economically well off, good jobs, etc. The politics of respectability then is a construction of worthy to mainstream. Would you agree? I’d really appreciate feedback, even if it is to say I’m 100% wrong. I’m interested in the idea.

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