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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Face Your Fears

Hi, Everybody!

I am pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to the RMFW Blogs. I am really excited and proud to be here. There are so many wonderful members of our organization. So many writers, authors, and publishers that I look up to. In fact, in many ways, I feel like I’m walking with giants – and it’s a little scary.

Fear.

It’s the worst four letter F word I know. At times it can be your friend. At times it can be the shackles that hold you back. Today I want to write about fear.

I am 46 years old. I’ve accomplished some things in my life. I’ve accomplished many of the goals I’ve set out for myself in my life. I’ve also failed a lot, too. But as I look back on the road markers of my life, I realize that every major event where I came out triumphant occurred because I stepped out of fear. Applying to my dream college, asking my wife to marry me, my work as an actor (ok, a set extra – but I acted!), and everything else was directly related my decision to act in spite of my fear.

I’ve got a little secret to tell you. See, evolutionary biologists tell us our brains have a negative bias. That means we are inherently conservative in our actions because it’s what kept our species safe over tens of thousands of years.

Our ancestors told crazy caveman Larry, “No, we are NOT attacking the pride of lions with clubs and sharpened sticks.”

Our ancestors chose to continue planting the grains they were used to instead of that new-fangled grain the foreigners brought.

Our ancestors chose to play it safe because that consistently paid off.

But guess what, we don’t have to do that anymore. Now, I’m not talking about paying in traffic people, but that skip of the heartbeat, that breathlessness we get that lets us know something isn’t right, we can choose to ignore that.

See, our primate brains still act react to social situations as if there’s a wolf pack around the corner. It doesn’t know how to react any other way. And that can be really helpful – when there’s an actual wolf pack in the area! But there isn’t. So why do we give into our fears?

The last three days of May I freaked out – hardcore. For the first time, I decided to enter The Colorado Gold Contest. The story had been written a year ago. I had taken it to critique group, even had a former judge peruse it. But I waited until the afternoon of the very last day to turn it in. I was scared. I started procrastinating by calling old friends, watching YouTube videos and re-reading books. I did everything I could not to submit my four thousand words.

At times like these, you have to remember that the thing that scares you is the thing you are supposed to do. That fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of losing status or prestige – are all illusions. The things that matter in your life are still going to be there whether you step on stage and sing or run away. More importantly, if do choose to stand in that state and make a fool out of yourself your friends are still going to be there.

Will it hurt? Probably. Will it be embarrassing? Possibly. But all suffering is redemptive and you’ll be a better person for the scars. You’ll learn and do it better next time.

You know what’s awesome about writing? If it doesn’t work out, you can always hit delete. You can always re-write that WIP, start a new story, query another agent, or submit to another contest. There are endless opportunities to write well.

Will it be hard? Yes. But hard is relative. Will it be “Shoveling horse manure in Missouri,” hard? Probably not. Will it grate at your ego? Well, only you can answer that.

The point is you have a unique opportunity to tell a story only you can tell. Don’t let a little fear get in the way of that. It takes courage to write – especially today. It took courage to look up RMFW. It took courage to start reading this blog. So we already know you’re a courageous person just for being here! Now let’s continue to be courageous.

Christ Batty, the founder of NaNoWrimo, is fond of saying “The World Needs Your Story.” I couldn’t agree more. All you have to do is make a habit of it. Write a little a day, even if it’s just a page. Then, join a critique group. Meet new friends who will support your writing. Go to conference in September.

You’re probably wondering if I submitted my first 4K to the contest. I did. I clicked submit at 3:19 PM on May 31st. I got in under the deadline – in spite of my fear.

 

 

Writing Black Characters Dealing with the Culture of Poverty

Last year at the Colorado Gold Conference I taught a class entitled Writing Authentic African-American Characters. A lot of that discussion had to deal with the culture of poverty within the Black community. Today, I want to talk to you about specific things your African-American characters can struggle with because of the culture of poverty.

What about Black characters who aren’t poor?

Poverty is a part of the lives of many African-Americans. Even if your Black character is not poor, the chances are they are affected by neighbors, friends, or relatives who are. This is a conflict that awesome writers, like yourselves, can exploit for great story telling.

There is a lot of tension within the African-American community about what is the proper role of African-Americans who have made it. Do they owe anybody anything? Are they obligated to support their extended families? And how do we define Support? (Incidentally, Showtime has a funny show based on this premise called “Survivors guilt.” Its executive producer is NBA player LeBron James.)

If your black character is middle class or wealthy—and they do not come from this socio-economic group—having them financially support or guide their poorer relatives and friends would be a great way to bring in a dose of authenticity into your characters. Your character could do everything from taking in a cousin or nephew to host the family picnic to co-sign on a car loan. Or, they could absolutely refuse to participate in any of these activities, gaining the respect or condemnation of their family. Or, maybe they only support others in grand, showy events, like at a birthday party, or a graduation. As if they are flaunting their disposable income.

Writing Black characters who are poor

How do you write about poor Black characters? Here’s the trick I’ve learned as I struggled with the culture of poverty myself.

Rich people want money for its own sake, while many poor people want money to buy things.

I have been fortunate enough to get to know five millionaires. But none of them are what you call the silver spoon type. They do all have two things in common: They horde cash and assets and they are extremely cheap.

My experience with most poor people (and remember, that includes me) is that they principally want money to buy things. It took me years to figure this out. But even as a child, I can remember wanting things desperately and knowing I would probably never get them. That feeling that you’re not going to get something you want permeates you as you grow up. That hunger to be just as good as everyone else, by buying those expensive jeans, or that expensive phone.

I can remember when I got into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. I did all of the paperwork myself. I double checked my financial aid package, what dorm I was going to stay in, everything. When I left, I had everything I needed - except a personal computer to type papers on. (This was pre-internet)

One day my mom comes home to tell me that she got a $2000 signature loan. She was going to buy me a top of the line computer. Now, this confused me because I had resigned myself to using the computer labs on campus, like everyone else. My mother had other ideas. She was not going to let her son be perceived as disenfranchised, or somehow not good enough because I didn’t have a computer.

I hope you see what’s going on here. Having possession of that computer meant I was just as good as those rich, white boys I was going to school with in the fall. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t afford it; it didn’t matter that the interest rate on the loan was ridiculous. It was about being just as good as everyone else.

This is why you see some poor Black people driving expensive cars, carrying Gucci purses, or wearing expensive shoes; they are keeping up with the Joneses.

The culture of poverty effects your ability to plan for emergencies.

I was well into my mid-twenties before I heard the term emergency fund/account. The people I knew and grew up with were all busy trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Extra money was seen as an opportunity to get ahead of another bill. The idea that you could just leave it in the bank, just in case, was weird. In fact, when I taught in Denver Public Schools, I would talk to high school kids about personal finances. Just like me, many of my students found the concept bizarre.

How could this affect your African-American characters? What stress could you pile on to your characters because of their upbringing?

Poverty Lends Itself to Immediate Gratification.

Many people living in poverty see no way out. They don’t believe they’ll ever get ahead or beat the system. When in a situation where you believe your situation is hopeless, why deny yourself anything?

I am one of the few homeowners in my family. I am also one of the few family members with a master’s degree. Both achievements took discipline and the ability to delay personal gratification. I was able to get both because I desperately wanted them. I wanted those things more than I wanted to hang out, go on vacation, or buy a big TV.

For many people of color in poverty, buying a house, having nice things, getting an education seems pointless and out of reach. Also, there is a desperation of circumstance that supersedes everything else. This idea that this moment will not come again, and that I should live to the fullest, now. That this opportunity might never come again, so I have to take advantage of it now.

Being Poor Sucks

Poverty spans the gambit from simply annoying to plain old horrible on any given day. There is a stress associated with poverty. A stress that can be temporarily relieved by spending money—thus perpetuating the cycle.

Writing exercise.

#1.) Is your character poor? Why or why not? Would changing their socio-economic status give you new insights into their motivations, values, and beliefs? If your Black character is in a supporting role, would changing their economic status create more tension in the story? Why or why not?

#2.) How does the poverty of the Black community effect your Black character? Are they guilty for being successful? Do they feel obligated to give back? Are they uncomfortable in the Black community?

#3.) Write a scene where your Black character—who may or may not be the Point of View character—comments on the difference between how his family does something mundane and how his new friends do something. Show/describe the different values associated with each event.