BAR Book Forum: Candice M. Jenkins’s “Black Bourgeois ”
The zeitgeist of Black literature shifted in the past decade, from Black progress to precarity.
“The author hopes readers will gain a clearer sense of how race complicates class for black subjects.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Candice M. Jenkins. Jenkins is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her book isBlack Bourgeois: Class and Sex in the Flesh.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Candice M. Jenkins: One of the things I argue in Black Bourgeois is that black literary texts from the 1980s, 1990s, and very early 2000s are anticipating a shift that happens more explicitly around 2012, with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. At that later point, the zeitgeist of what we now understand as the present moment begins to shift, from a moment that embraces black privilege (think of the long-standing popularity of The Cosby Show, or of the way that the false notion of the “post-racial” circulated widely as Obama rose to political prominence) to one that instead highlights black vulnerability to state and extralegal violence. Black Bourgeois looks at so-called contemporary texts that still precede our immediate, “Black Lives Matter” present moment. The book reveals how these overlooked texts from the post-Civil Rights era represent the “black” body as a disruption to the expected operation of privilege, a privilege based on the belief that relative material wealth will buffer black people from anti-blackness; the book also reminds us that this contradictory relationship between blackness and privilege, particularly, the realization that as a black person, your class status will not save you, is not simply a recent phenomenon. Instead, that seemingly abrupt shift in climate—from post-Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, from an emphasis on blacks’ privilege and progress to an emphasis on our precarious positioning in varied social and political spheres, suggests a critical pendulum swing between two interrelated positions, perpetually in tension. What I call, in the book, the “black and bourgeois dilemma”—namely, the notion that while one of the assumed benefits of material privilege is the protective cloaking of the body, “blackness” as an idea relies on exposed and hyper-visible, racially marked flesh—has a lot in common with, for instance, DuBoisian double-consciousness and other historical ideas of black duality. Arguably, then, such duality is a continued preoccupation of both black experience and black expressive culture.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Mainly, this book reinforces what many activists and organizers likely already know—blackness is not a monolith. When I write, in the book, about black vulnerability and precarity, I’m opening up those terms to think about a group that is not often seen as needing organizers’ or activists’ attention: materially privileged black Americans. And perhaps, in the most practical terms, that group really does not need activists’ attention—not via direct action. My interest in the book is certainly not to shift effort away from the kind of crucial grassroots activism meant to improve the circumstances of the black poor and working class. Rather, I hope to change thinking about the reach of and the nuance contained within our senses of black community. I try, in Black Bourgeois, to look more closely at what African American literature and cultural production has recently had to say about black folks whose life experiences or current circumstances lie outside of, or in a different relationship to, that poor and working class experience. And what these literary and cultural works suggest is that such privileged black subjects are never particularly safe within their privilege. Not only is “bourgeois” status, for black folks, itself a fairly tenuous position in terms of actual economic resources, but the vulnerability of our very black bodies complicates all notions of social, political, or corporeal safety. In the book’s conclusion, I gesture towards the idea that this sense of racialized precarity in spite of privilege, this paradoxical way that black vulnerability continues to matter, may well be a way to renew our sense of shared fortunes, even in a moment when some would argue that the old “linked fate” theory of black community no longer applies.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
One of the ideas Black Bourgeois works against—and it’s a way of thinking about blackness and class that I have been pushing back against since my first book, Private Lives, Proper Relations (2007)—is the notion of an inseparable link between blackness and poverty, a notion that has become naturalized in American sociopolitical discourse. We see this in all sorts of places in the culture; very recently, former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire for making a comment that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” which perfectly encapsulates this kind of thinking. In Biden’s mind at this moment, when we’re talking about “poor kids” we always already are talking in a coded way about black kids, and, conversely, “middle-class” kids are always, prima facie, white kids. Now, my goal in resisting this sort of thinking is not to dispute the fact that black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to be living in poverty, or similar statistics. Nor is it to downplay how the long-standing generational wealth many whites possess, and that many blacks do not—the racial wealth gap, in other words—makes “middle class” mean something very different across racial lines. Instead, Black Bourgeois asks us to think in a more rigorous and nuanced way about existing variations in how blackness and class intersect. These embodied intersections reveal the already complex ways we currently live with and through blackness. This is key, for me, because the practice of assuming an inseparable link between blackness and poverty actually impoverishes (no pun intended!) our ability to talk in rigorous ways about class and its complications in black culture.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I can answer this in a couple of ways—if we are talking about whose work makes my work possible, clearly Hortense Spillers, whose famous essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) is absolutely foundational to my thinking, would be my response. Most of us could only dream of producing a piece of scholarship that has resonated for so many years, among so many thinkers, across such a broad range of fields. Just in the past handful of years, in my own admittedly partial reading, I have seen Spillers’ work cited and built upon across black studies by scholars of film, art history, anthropology, and religion, in addition to, of course, scholars of literature and culture. To put this another way, I was reading Spillers’s work when I was in graduate school, and I teach it to my own graduate students now, some 30+ years after it was published, which should tell you something about Spillers as an intellectual titan, and about her work’s enduring legacy. If I were to answer this question with an eye more towards pure, creative inspiration, Toni Morrison is the writer whose words speak to me the most profoundly—on almost a spiritual level. She looked at, and wrote about, black people and black communities with such deep love and with such a sharp eye for the truth. It still pains me to talk and write about her in the past tense, but her writing thankfully lives on, and it’s always a joy to introduce new students to her work.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
While I love the idea of imagining new worlds—my next intellectual project turns to the analysis of a long-standing fascination of mine, black speculative fiction, so this is certainly an idea I embrace—I think my own scholarship, and especially Black Bourgeois, is more interested in helping us to see the world that is, with greater precision. In considering how contemporary African American texts grapple with the contradiction of black bourgeois subjectivity, and why these texts so often highlight the body in their portrayals of the black middle class, I’m hoping that readers will gain a clearer sense of how race complicates class for black subjects. For me, this work of studying the stories we tell about our lives is about truly seeing us—seeing black communities, black nuance, black humanity, more clearly. Black Bourgeois helps us to better grasp how people are navigating and grappling with these contradictions, and why those complexities matter, even or especially in our current moment. And once we can see that clearly, perhaps the new world that we could begin to imagine, starting from that space of clarity, is a world that is utterly unlike this one we are living in—a world in which racial and class hierarchies don’t exist, and in which black lives truly matter.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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