revisit fiery '57 critique of black middle class
Slavery had been abolished for only 31 years when sociologist E. Franklin
Frazier was born in Baltimore in 1894. His father, lacking better opportunities,
was a bank messenger. Frazier was able to pursue an academic career, blazing
trails in the study of race relations. But over the years he grew disillusioned
with other black professionals and intellectuals, who, he argued, forgot
their heritage and distanced themselves from the problems plaguing the
majority of American blacks.
This lament is the central theme of Frazier's controversial 1957 book
Black Bourgeoisie, a highly unflattering critique of the American black
middle class. Nine eminent scholars take a fresh look at the work in a
compilation of essays, E. Franklin Frazier and Black Bourgeoisie (University
of Missouri Press, 2002), edited and with an introduction by CAS Sociology
Professor James Teele.
"The case for another look at the volume," Teele writes, "seemed
bolstered by the decline, since the 1970s, in a serious discourse on race
Into the fray
Frazier was hardly a stranger to controversy when he published Black Bourgeoisie.
While in graduate school in New York City, he was jailed for picketing
Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith's 1915 blatantly racist film about two
Southern families during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Later,
he was fired from his job as director of the Atlanta School of Social
Work at Atlanta University when he published a newspaper article promoting
racial equality. In the piece, he theorized that prejudiced whites suffer
from a psychological disorder, which he called the "Negro Complex."
At that point, in 1927, he enrolled in a doctoral program at the University
of Chicago, studying with a group of influential sociologists that included
Robert Park, a pioneer in the study of ethnic and race relations.
Frazier was known for his thorough scholarship and went on to hold prestigious
academic posts: he was chairman of the sociology department at Howard
University in Washington, D.C., and gained wide acclaim for his 1939 book
The Negro Family in the United States. In 1948 he became the first black
president of the American Sociological Association.
Yet although Frazier had arrived as a solid member of the black middle
class, he was also becoming its harshest critic.
"In Washington and other cities where he had lived, Frazier saw all
these middle-class blacks who were focused on showing how they had succeeded,"
Teele says. "He started thinking about it back in the 1920s, and
it ate at him over the years."
A position with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization in the early 1950s widened his perspective, but left him
even more disillusioned with the situation in the States.
"He traveled to Africa for the UN," Teele says, "and some
people think that's what convinced him that black leaders in America weren't
doing what they should. In Africa he saw that they were more effective."
Frazier wrote Black Bourgeoisie toward the end of his career. In the book
he posited that the old black middle class that had emerged after the
Civil War, which maintained strong cultural traditions and community values,
had evolved into a complacent, insular group. With debutante balls, fraternities,
and displays of conspicuous consumption, he wrote, the black middle class
was living in what he called "a world of make-believe," emulating
a white culture that would not open its doors to them.
"Because of their social isolation and lack of a cultural tradition,"
Frazier wrote, "the members of the black bourgeoisie in the United
States seem to be in the process of becoming nobody."
Frazier also had it in for black-owned newspapers for overstating the
success of black businesses. Not surprisingly, Black Bourgeoisie was poorly
received in the black community, which regarded the book as dogmatic and
filled with distortions, generalizations, and caricatures. Yet even if
exaggerated and ignored examples of black leadership in his own time,
Teele says, his tough talk had the ring of truth, and it awakened a dormant
social conscience in the black middle class. Radical civil rights leaders
picked up his theme in the 1960s, but they were not the only ones.
"Those who criticized Black Bourgeoisie as a throwoff and not a serious
scholarly work were kidding themselves," Teele says. "He had
been studying class relations all his life. All of his criticisms were
good, but people were embarrassed by them. They felt he was airing their
dirty linen in public. They did begin to pay attention, but they didn't
want to give Frazier the credit for it - they just began to quietly make
Started with conference
Material for Teele's book originated in a one-day symposium on Frazier
hosted by the GRS African-American Studies Program in the early 1990s,
an event that Teele helped run. Adelaide Cromwell, a CAS sociology professor
emerita and the program's founding director, had always hoped to give
the proceedings wider exposure, and a few years ago encouraged Teele ("collared
me," he says affectionately) to compile the conference papers in
a volume. All five of the presenters revised their essays for inclusion
in the book. Teele then recruited four additional scholars to add their
Among the contributors are John Hope Franklin, author of the acclaimed
From Slavery to Freedom:
A History of African-Americans, first published in 1947 and still in print,
and Anthony Platt, author of the biography E. Franklin Frazier
Reconsidered (Rutgers, 1991). Another contributor is Wornie Reed (GRS'76),
director of the Urban Child Research Center at Cleveland State University
and president of the Association of Black Sociologists.
After many years of neglect, says Teele, students in history, sociology,
political science, psychology, and African-American studies are reexamining
Frazier's legacy, making the new book a timely read.
"This diverse audience," Teele writes in his introduction, "recognizes
that all of these disciplines were used by Frazier in his work on race
relations, the family, and black community life and that he invariably
addressed important questions in his work, thus leading him to assume
the different roles of activist and theorist, detached scholar, and radical
advocate of social change at various times in his life. Therefore, this
volume should be of interest to policymakers and activists as well as