"It Made Sense to Laugh"
On Kamala Harris; the Black bourgeoisie in fiction and film; and the Real Housewives of Potomac
My mother was a debutante. Sometimes, when we are driving around doing errands, she’ll say something like “Oh, that reminds me of the time my friend chartered a plane to New York for us to go dancing at the Peppermint Lounge” or “That’s the restaurant that Harvard took all the football players and us girlfriends to after games.” My mother has lived a rich and varied life—in addition to a debutante, she has been a sign language interpreter; a teacher for autistic children; a welfare recipient and a therapist. Even before her life took her away from the Black upper class her parents aspired to, my mother looked on those aspirations with skepticism—at least, that’s how she explained it to me. She instilled that skepticism in me at an early age. She told us all the time how constrained she felt—that when she was a girl, they never allowed you to run. I recently found a photo of her time as a debutante and there she is, in sherbet colored jacquard, hair in stiff updo, standing beside her best friend’s brother, her escort, and looking absolutely miserable.
My mother told me in passing how she’d saved me from a fate like hers. “One of your grandmother’s friends invited you to join Jack and Jill. Her grandson likes playing with you and she said she’s willing to make an exception to their rule about not letting in the children of divorce. But I told her no. That’s how it starts. She’s probably trying to line you up to marry him someday.” At the time she told me this, I was nine.
“My problem is with the Black bourgeois” Christina Sharpe tweeted shortly after the Kamala Harris announcement, and because of my family history, I deeply understand this distrust. The Black bourgeoisie, it can feel like, has driven the argument that representation will lead to liberation—something that we should be clear, by now, is not true. A physically and ecologically violent empire is still all those things, even with a Black man or a woman of color at the head—and their presence does not add a moral imperative to those violent acts, as much as some would like to pretend it does.
The signifiers Harris trafficks in--she is an AKA; she went to Howard; she has “rich auntie” energy--all tie her appeal to the particular ethos and arguments of that specific class of Black bourgeois. It is, perhaps, what some people are actually getting at when they start the hoary, incredibly dumb question of whether or not she is “Black” or “Black enough.” That question seems thrilling to a non Black audience but for a Black audience I think the question is really--will she be able to offer us something different besides the politics of the Black bourgeois? Which is to say, the same politics of unquestioned US empire and carceal violence, but with a pathway built in to uplift the right Black people.
It is perhaps unfair to expect Harris to offer anything different. This has been the way forward for Black politicians on a national stage for nearly 60 years. They take that Baldwin quote “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”--and focus on the love, as we have all been implored to do so often.
The argument against the Black bourgeoisie is so often that that class garners the windfall of any freedom struggles while policing-literally and figuratively--the Black working class and Black political radicals for their own gain and to placate white institutions. Malcolm X wrote about this dynamic at length in his autobiography--he was, in fact, railing against the people he’d encountered while living in Boston, probably the parents of the kids my mother went to all those stuffy parties with. Charles Frazier wrote his indictment of the class in 1968 and produced this short film about it. Of the many novels written about the Black bourgeoisie, I have two clear favorites. The first is Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills, which imagines that the hollow center of this class’s existence is literal hell, and writes about a Black upper middle class subdivision that mirrors the circles of Dante’s Inferno. The other is Chester Himes’ 1962 novel Pinktoes. He wrote it as a takedown of his cousin-in-law, Mollie Moon, the founder and president of the National Urban League Guild. Moon was a Black socialite, famous for throwing interracial galas and parties to raise money for the NAACP and other causes in the 1950s and 60s. Himes’ novel is deeply misogynistic and also super fat-phobic--the real Mollie apparently struggled with her weight. For all its vitriol and mean-spiritedness, I find it fascinating because it seems to collect a lot of the vinegar that is contained in so many critiques of the Black bourgeoisie and make it plain, inviting you to drink it straight, no chaser.
Currently, the most popular depiction of the Black bourgeoise is The Real Housewives of Potomac. If you are not a Real Housewives devotee, you perhaps will be unfamiliar with the real draw of these shows, which is less the infighting and more the very keen anthropological eye that the editors cast on each franchise’s subculture. The New York Housewives are Upper East Side former society women; Atlanta is all about the wealth and power of Black entertainment. Potomac took longer to catch on, maybe because it is about that very particular, narrow focus of Black bougie moms.
One thing that gets lost in critiques of this class is how deeply, deeply weird that world is. Real Housewives of Potomac puts the surrealism of Black bougie life on display. One of the cast members has a pet parrot named T’Challa who she potty trained. Alongside her seven month old son, a task she does with little self-reflection, as if it were easy. One of the reasons I love my mother’s stories about the Boston Black middle class is because of the absurdity. She had a friend growing up, a little girl adopted by one Black upper class family but given up because she was too bald headed. Another Black upper class family adopted her, happy to take up the challenge to make her hair grow. This story used to reduce me to tears of laughter when I was growing up, but my mother could never understand why. It was because of the performance of Black bougie femininity. You do something as absurd as potty train a parrot or force hair out of your bald headed baby or look for justice in the machinations of a super power. And you make such a task a vision of ease.