<Book Review>
From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle-Class Performances
Vershawn Ashanti Young and Bridget Harris Tsemo (eds.)
[Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011. 392 pp.]

Being middle class and black in America means having to constantly prove one's authenticity-- to assert one's blackness to others of your race, and one's "middle-classness" to others of your class. Young and Tsemo do a masterful job of compiling pieces that illuminate the many aspects of black middle-class performativity. The book is framed around E. Franklin Frazier's 1957 essay "Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States." The 50th anniversary of this seminal essay inspired a panel for the annual Modern Language Association conference, then a symposium at the University of Iowa, and finally, this book. The essays in this collection critique and complicate Frazier's writing—sometimes directly, like in Damien Weymer's "Hip-hop and Capitalist Interests" and sometimes indirectly, like in Venise Berry's "Pockets of Sanity."

The book contains a wide range of pieces, from academic essays and book and movie analyses, to creative fiction and poetry. The sections were presented in a logical way, with Young's excellent and thorough introduction laying the groundwork. He gave a history of the black middle class in America from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, to Barack Obama's inauguration. He then outlined each section of the book, with brief descriptions of the pieces within the section.

This collection is divided into four sections: Performing Responsibility, Performing Womanhood, Performing Media, and Performing Sexuality. Many of the essays could easily fit in another section. This, coupled with the fact that there are not introductions to each section, highlights how deeply and inextricably the concepts are intertwined. Though many of the pieces tackled more than one of the main concepts, the sections served as a guiding frame.

The first section focuses on how black leaders embody and understand the notion of responsibility. What responsibility does a black person who has "made it" have to "family, community, the race" (23)? Young raises this question in the introduction, and the authors in this section address it in different ways. Much of the foreword, written by E. Patrick Johnson, and afterword, written by Mary Pattillo, focus on this question as well. This is because they were written by black academics—those who have "made it" and must struggle to perform in a way that solidifies both their class and racial identity. The opening essay in this section, Houston A. Baker Jr.'s "Bourgeois Fugue: Notes on the Life of a Negro Intellectual," grapples with the difference between "bourgeois" and "boojie"—this is an effective way to frame a set of pieces on performance, authenticity, and privilege (46). "Bourgeois" means middle class—materialistic and conventional. "Boojie" is a more nuanced term that has different connotations depending on the situation. It is often derogatory, in reference to someone living outside of their means. It can also describe a "racial sellout"—someone who has a "folk background" but mimics "white behaviors" (8).

The second section focuses on womanhood and the roles that women inhabit in black performance. Many of the pieces in this section discuss the race- and class-based standards of appearance, with a particular attention paid to hair. Nazera Sadiq Wright's "Black Girls and Representative Citizenship," which examines "early 20th-century conduct books written by middle-class blacks to train middle class black girls to perform proper racial behavior," was very engaging (25). Also in this section is an excerpt from Lisa B. Thompson's Single Black Female, which uses humor and casual dialogue to illustrate the problems college-educated black women face in the 21st century. This is a nice change of pace, as much of the rest of the section, like Wright's essay and Claire Oberon Garcia's "Black Bourgeois Women's Narratives in the Post-Reagan, 'Post Civil Rights,' 'Postfeminist' Era" discuss the ideals of womanhood in times past.

The third section focuses on media—specifically, the idea of "conspicuous consumption" (172). The authors in this section illustrate how black artists (musicians, authors, visual artists) vacillate between creating "make belief, a world that paints a false picture of insulation from white contempt" and highlighting the discrimination that makes the "make belief world" impossible to attain (Young 26). This was apparent in Angela M. Nelson's essay "Middle-Class Ideology in African American Postwar Comic Strips." She emphasizes the perfect world shown in the comic strips—though many of the comics were full of drama and intrigue, they did not "highlight the important issues in black America, such as civil rights and banning segregation in all public transportation" (181). Damion Waymer's essay, "Hip-Hop and Capitalist Interests," shows how this world of "make belief" exists in a post Civil Rights era. He writes about rappers who are sponsored by expensive clothing and alcohol brands, and whose lyrics "indirectly encourage poor blacks to spend beyond their means" (172).

Also in this section was an essay by Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, titled "Put Some Skirts on the Cards! Black Women's Visual Performances in the Art of Annie Lee." Whaley analyzes Lee's paintings through a lens of "autoinscription"—how a viewer perceives a piece in a certain way due to their worldview (192). She examines how class and gender are performed in Lee's paintings. Particularly interesting was Whaley's analysis of Lee's New Tenants (Obama) as a painting that complicates our ideas of race and nationhood. Though the piece was well-written, there were no visual examples of Lee's work to refer to. This would have been just a small annoyance had it not been for the photograph of Annie Lee just a few pages prior, as well as the reprinted comic strips in Nelson's essay and the art preceding each section.

The final section focuses on sexuality, and how black middle class performance of sexuality is controlled by internal and external forces. Especially illuminating was Lisa B. Thompson's "Black Ladies and Black Magic Women," in which she analyzes two films that reject the stereotype of the "asexual" and repressed black middle class woman (305). Additionally, Bryant Keith Alexander's "'Boojie!': A Question of Authenticity" deepens the understanding of black hair as a performance by bringing in a male perspective of a complicated issue previously discussed in Performing Femininity. He also discusses what it means to be gay and black in a culture of compulsory heterosexuality and masculinity.

Overall, Young and Tsemo collected a diverse set of interesting and informative works. I appreciated the use of fiction and poetry, contrasted with essays that analyzed fiction. This contrast in styles made the ideas of authenticity salient—it showed that something does not have to be nonfiction to be "real." The different genres used also provide a more well-rounded view of the black middle class; specifically, the text gave academics and artists an equal voice. Since this collection was inspired by a symposium based on Frazier's essay, many of the pieces were written specifically for this book. This makes the book a valuable resource for those well-versed in black studies, as the pieces are mostly new while being grounded in Frazier's theoretical perspective. The book is also accessible to a layperson, and would be an great addition to a class on performance studies or race relations.

     — Reviewed by Marna Dunne

Marne Dunne is an undergraduate student at Bard College majoring in Psychology and Sociology. Her research interests include prejudice, stereotyping, and inequality.

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