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Week of 30 August 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 1

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Scholars revisit fiery '57 critique of black middle class

By Hope Green

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.

CAS Sociology Professor James Teele is the editor of a new book that examines the career of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


CAS Sociology Professor James Teele is the editor of a new book that examines the career of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


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 in America."

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."

Strong language
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.

E. Franklin Frazier and Black Bourgeoisie


"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 Frazier
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 changes."

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 perspectives.

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 scholars."


30 August 2002
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