The Black Bourgeoisie and Acting White

For those who don’t remember learning about Marxism, the Bourgeoisie were those who stood at the top of the economic ladder because they controlled the means of production. They were the land owners and factory owners. When discussing African-Americans, the “Black Bourgeoisie” are the very top of the socio-economic period. They are the doctors and business owners. The ones who attended traditional black colleges and joined traditional black fraternities and sororities.

For many people, the idea of acting white seems odd. How do white people act? Is there a secret handshake or something? Do all white people act the same way? The answer is, of course not. But one way African-Americans have traditionally defined themselves is in opposition to the dominant, white culture. When a black man or woman becomes economically successful, they usually take on the cultural norms of the peer group they associate with. In my opinion, this is only natural; if you want to be a successful lawyer, you hang around successful lawyers. However, once a black person begins to acculturate with their new peer group, a group which is probably sparsely populated with other black people, tensions can arise within the black community and family they live with. More on this later.

There has always been a black bourgeoisie. Going back to before the Civil War, there were community leaders in the free black community that owned business, owned farms, even owned slaves. (Yes, it was legal for free blacks to own slaves in the American Antebellum South.)

When the Civil War ended, abolitionists went south to start colleges for former slaves who showed the drive and the ability to better themselves. Colleges like Morehouse and Spellman, private schools that opened in 1867, were followed later by dozens of segregated schools of higher learning, both public and private, throughout the American South. It was here that the elite of the African-American community learned, socialized, and prepared themselves for leadership in the black community. They even formed their own fraternities and sororities.

Alpha Phi Alpha was the first black fraternity, formed at Cornell in 1906. It quickly spread to traditional black colleges across the south. Its members include W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Justice Thurgood Marshall, to name a few.

Middle class African-American women attending a women's club, circa 1950s

Through traditional black colleges and the exclusive black fraternities and sororities, leaders were molded throughout Reconstruction and most of the 20th century. These leaders, while clearly middle-class by American standards, and affluent by the standards of the black community, were always aware that their position was precarious. That their wealth or political clout within the black community did not shield them from systemic racism. I believe this began to change in the early 1980s.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took a turn toward the radical with the rise of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement. While previous generations of African-Americans tried to work within the system with legal proceedings and civil discourse, some in the Black Power Movement argued for separation of the races and a consolidation of black people in their own communities, with their own schools, with the power to physically defend themselves. (In light of 100+ years of lynching in the south, as well as police violence nationwide against peaceful leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., self-defense was seen by many as the only option.)

They began to separate and distance themselves from traditional organizations, like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Paralleling to Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party, as well as Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, began to mirror, roughly, the same message of self-reliance, self-restraint, self-discipline and segregation from the greater American community.

These people began to openly criticize the traditional Civil Rights Movement. They also criticized the traditional leaders of the black community, the black bourgeoisie. They mocked them for “acting white,” for selling out and for playing Uncle Tom. They might even be called Bourgie.

At the same time, a social movement called Black is Beautiful sprang up in the late 1960s. The people involved were black artists who tried to embrace black skin and kinky hair. If this makes no sense to you, please understand that many of the original members of the black bourgeoisie were the descendants of slave owners; they were mixed.

The racism of the time was mimicked by the black community; lighter skinned African-Americans felt superior to their darker skinned brothers and sisters. African-Americans tried to emulate white people by dumping chemicals in their hair to make it straight and wavy. They put harsh chemicals on their skin to bleach and lighten it up.

I am a mixed race child. My hair is dark and curly. When I was growing up, all my relatives said I had good hair. Why? Because it wasn’t kinky. This is institutional racism. Hair isn’t good or bad, it’s just hair!

The Black Power Movement fought against that. It openly mocked black people who tried too hard to emulate the dominant culture. Many of the Black Power leaders (though not all) came from severe poverty and single-parent homes. Consequently, if embracing “Black Power” meant rejecting those who emulated the dominant culture, it also meant embracing, in many ways, the culture of poverty.

This tension is strongly related to the tension felt by middle-class black people with relatives still in poverty. When it comes to wealth, the tension is: How and when do I stop helping those in the community I feel some responsibility for? When dealing with the issue of acting white, the question becomes one of identity and authenticity.

What is authentic for me? Am I more authentic when I’m around my professional peers and my fellow hobbyists? Or when I am around my own people?

Are these speech patterns I use around my professional peers authentic to me? Is this how I sound when I think to myself? Or am I mimicking speech that will make me fit in?

Do I feel like I don’t fit in when around other African-Americans? Or when I’m around white people?

OK, why is this important to your character?

If you’re writing fiction set in today’s world, and your black character has a white collar job, chances are they struggle with the transition from the culture they’ve grown up in, and the culture they now inhabit. Conversely, if they grew up middle-class, how do they interact with other African-Americans who are poor? Do they mimic the language of Black Power? Do they reject cultural differences? Do they look down on other black people and adopt the dominant culture? Are they ashamed of their success? Defensive?

If they are artists, musicians, love something quirky like ballroom dancing or they read steampunk; if they worked at the Renaissance faire, or voted Republican; if they loved comic books or ballet; they had struggles within their community or their family about being a sell-out. They might be accused of being fake. They might be accused of being a sell-out, even by those they help. They might get called an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside).

Fortunately, my own experience with these issues has led me to believe that things are changing. As more African-Americans claw into the middle class and stay there, a new hybrid identity develops that takes the best of both worlds. A new black bourgeoisie that is aware of black history and black struggles, while unashamed to participate in the broader culture on their own terms.

 

Here are some writing exercises.

#1.) Write a scene where your black character is surrounded by his professional peer group at a restaurant, a sporting event or wherever. Have your character run into a friend they grew up with, or know from a long time ago. How will your character react? Will their speech patterns change? Will this person’s presence make them feel uncomfortable? If so, is your black character embarrassed because her peers see her black friend? Or, is she embarrassed because her black friend sees her peers? How will your character get out of the situation?

#2.) Write a scene where your black character is explaining to his white friend a confrontation they’ve had with family or friends. They’ve been accused of selling out because of something they love to do. (Ballet, opera, comic book conventions, acting, etc.) Make a point of having the white friend not understand the issue. Will the black character be able to explain it? Or just give up?

 

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The Trap of the Magical Negro and why it needs to be Avoided

The Magical Negro is a trope as old as American literature. Originally, the Magical Negro was there to show white readers that African-Americans could be wise, intelligent, and loyal, just like all Americans. It served its purpose for many years and now it needs to be retired. In this article, I will try to explain why.

You’re writing a YA story about a teenaged pregnancy scare. Your protagonist is the white, male star of the football team. We’ll call the probable father Kevin. The fictional school is in a suburban, moderately affluent neighborhood. As a writer, you know diversity is a buzz word and having diverse characters might help you sell your book, so you want Kevin’s best friend to be black. His friend’s name is Richard.

So far, so good.

Richard has been the moral voice for Kevin throughout your book. He reminds Kevin that the female protagonist, we’ll call her Vivian, is having a harder time of this than he is; that Kevin had sex with the girl and he should be a stand-up guy, support her, emotionally, while protecting her from all of the vicious rumors. At a pivotal moment of the story, Kevin finally does the right thing by Vivian and supports her through the potential pregnancy and whatever final decision she decides to make. Kevin even thanks Richard profusely for his help in making him see the light.

You finish the book, go through edits, and come out the other side proud of your YA story. You are particularly proud of the Richard character. He was a moral young man who pushed Kevin into doing the right thing. His race was inconsequential to you. You feel proud.

You’ve also stepped into the trap of the “Magical Negro.”

Were there any other black characters in the story?

Have you thought out your black character's backstory?

If your protagonist is white, why is your black character so loyal? What do they get out of this?

Does your black character end up teaching your white protagonist a moral/virtuous lesson?

Does your black character act selflessly to help your white protagonist? Does he/she die?

These are the tropes of the magical Negro.

TVtropes.com defines the magical Negro;

In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a "normal" person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character's life.

With such deep spiritual wisdom (and sometimes — though not always — actual supernatural powers), you might wonder why the Magical Negro doesn't step up and save the day himself. This will never happen. So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance... which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people. In fact, the Magical Negro really seems to have no goal in life other than helping white people achieve their fullest potential; he may even be ditched or killed outright once he's served that purpose. If he does express any selfish desires, it will only be in the context of helping the white protagonists realize their own racism and thereby become better people.

The magical negro trope is as old as American literature and cinema. While the trope usually comes up in American cinema, I bring it up here so you can avoid it when you write the next great American novel. Here are some examples:

Oda Mae Brown, (Whoopi Goldberg,) in the movie Ghost.

Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mother Abagail in Stephen King’s 1978 novel, The Stand.

John Coffey in the 1984 novel, The Green Mile and the 1999 film.

The superhero Falcon, from the Marvel comic book Captain America, throughout the 1970s.

This trope can also exist for Asian characters, Native American, and Queer character too.

All of these characters fit the trope because they do not have agency. Their own motivation is never brought up. Their reasons for being loyal are never examined, and they are usually super skilled or have access to some sort of abilities our white protagonist doesn’t have. In many cases, they literally have magical powers!

OK, you’re probably asking the question, why is this bad?  

First of all, the character is shallow. What are his motivations? What does he want? Where did he come from?

Second, the character isn’t authentic to the African-American experience. While some black readers may love Richard, most won’t because he has no (say it with me . . . ) agency.  Do you know anybody who would give you moral lessons on multiple occasions? Neither do I.

Jason, I am NOT a RACIST. I made this character because I wanted to show the diversity in my story’s world. I wanted to have my main character grow and learn by listening and trusting a person of color!

I understand all of that. For the record, you had the best of intentions and NOBODY is saying you are a racist. But can we examine this a little closer? Let’s go back to Richard.

In the example I gave above, Richard plays football with Kevin and is his moral voice. That’s good. But, here are some questions, like . . .

  • Why does Richard care, so much?

Do Richard and Kevin have a rich backstory together going back to grade school?

Does Richard have a relative who’s a single mother, so he knows how hard it’s going to be for Vivian?

  • Why is Richard the moral voice?

Is he the son of a minister, rabbi or Imam?

Are there no other boys in the high school who think Kevin is a jerk? Why aren’t they talking?

High school boys are notoriously self-centered, so what does Richard get out of this?

  • Does Richard have a life of his own?

Doesn’t Richard have class or something, too?

If these guys are such good friends, do they do anything other than preach to each other?

What about Richard’s love life? Has he experimented with sex, too?

  • Where are the other black people?

Is Richard the only black student in the school? If he is, why? THAT would be an interesting story!

  • Do we get to see any other black characters?

The way you avoid this trope is to give your black characters agency. That means your black characters must have their own motivations and their own character arc. They have to grow alongside your protagonist. When you do this, you create tension and conflict in your story.

Let’s revisit Richard, again.

Richard and Kevin have known each other since Peewee football. They have been best friends for years. Richard’s father and mother lived together until they got a divorce. Richard’s dad left to take a job out of state. While Richard still sees his father, it’s only in the summer or at Christmas. As Richard has grown older, he wants his father’s presences more and more.

Richard has two younger sisters, 10 and 11. He has such a strong moral center because he’s the man of the house and has to take care of them. This includes dropping his sisters off at school and picking them up, after football practice.

Other than football, Richard has time to study and take care of his sisters.

See, Richard wasn’t a racist character; he was a shallow one. A little bit of character building and he’s much more believable.

Now, I want to give you an example of a character who is not a magical negro.  Michonne, from the Walking Dead Comic Book.

Michonne appears in the year 2005 of the comic book, The Walking Dead. The first time we see her she has two zombies chained to her. They are missing their jaws and their arms. She uses them as camouflage.

We also learn she is a bad-ass with a Katana, lopping off zombie heads left and right. She earns her place in Rick Grimes group of survivors and becomes a trusted advisor to Rick.

So far, so good, right?

  1. Rick’s group makes it to a walled town called Alexandria, Virginia. They try to integrate but are too violent for the survivors there, who have hidden there since the outbreak. Rick is particularly crazy about trying to get the other residents to know how bad it truly is.

Michonne constantly reminds Rick that they are guests. That it’s not their place to “Toughen” the other residents up. They have arguments over this stuff. Eventually, in a fit of rage, Rick screams in the street waving a gun at everyone. Michonne knocks him out and ties Rick – our white protagonist – up until he calms down and agrees to let it go.

We have tension, story conflict, and a moment of growth in both character arcs because the African-American side kick steps up and tells the protagonist he’s full of it. Great Story telling.

You’re Exercise

Flesh out your African-American by giving them a back story. Who were their parents? Are they college educated? Does this person have a family of their own?

What is the dynamic between your protagonist and your black character? Why are they friends? What brings them together? Is there a history between the two? Does one owe the other a favor?

Tension and conflict are central to all stories. What tension or conflict drives your white protagonist and your black supporting character apart?

Are they romantic rivals? Professional rivals? Is there respect, but no affection? Or affection, but little respect?

Write your black characters back story.

 

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