Our kind of people: social status and class awareness in post-reconstruction African American fiction Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Williams, Andreá N.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Postbellum African American fiction provides an index to the complex attitudes toward social status and class divisions that arose within post-Civil War black communities. As I argue, African American narratives in the last quarter of the nineteenth century encode the discourse of class in discussions of respectability, labor, and discrimination. Conceiving of class as a concept that does not necessarily denote economic conditions, both well-known and largely ignored narratives of the period emphasize moral and ideological parameters for judging social distinctions. Writers theorize whether intraracial class stratification thwarts black sociopolitical advancement, fracturing black communities from within, or conversely, fosters racial uplift led by the black "better class." Though the fiction variably delineates social classes, each of the texts under study in Our Kind of People imagines classification as an inevitable and useful means of reforming the turn-of-the-century American social order. Subverting the class disparity spurred by Gilded Age materialism, Frances E. W. Harper's novels Trial and Triumph (1888-89) and Iola Leroy (1892) examine conventional social designations and supplant them with a morally-inflected language of class. The works of Katherine Tillman, Sutton Griggs and Paul Laurence Dunbar elucidate the problematic relation between labor and status, given black people's proscribed access to diverse occupations. Stories from Charles W. Chesnutt's The Wife of His Youth (1899) explore the concept of "class-passing," interrogating status as a social performance that antagonizes competing factions within African American communities. In The Marrow of Tradition (1901), however, Chesnutt highlights intraracial class divisions to foreground the similarities between middle-class whites and blacks, thereby challenging Jim Crow segregation by promoting class-based social relations. The study concludes by examining the concept of "The Talented Tenth" (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois's articulation of the social and political saliency of intraracial stratification. "The Talented Tenth" aptly encapsulates the predominant class ideology reflected in post-Reconstruction African American literature. By underscoring class as an analytical category central to historicized readings, Our Kind of People complicates critical approaches that heretofore have analyzed postbellum African American literature primarily in terms of race, gender, and religion.
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  • Andrews, William L.
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