Between Scorn and Longing: Frazier's 'Black Bourgeoisie.' (E. Franklin Frazier)(Rethinking Race)

Article excerpt

Introduction

E. FRANKLIN FRAZIER (1894--1962) IS GENERALLY REMEMBERED FOR TWO LEGAcies, both the subject of considerable controversy. First, his work on the African American family is praised by his supporters for its historical scope and empirical rigor, while his detractors accuse Frazier of initiating the "pathological" critique of the matriarchal household and laying the groundwork for the notorious Moynihan Report. Second, he is remembered, either fondly or irritably, as the scurrilous polemicist who cavalierly scribbled Black Bourgeoisie while enjoying gourmet lunches in Parisian bistros in the early 1950s.

When Black Bourgeoisie was finally published in the United States in 1957, two years after the French edition, Frazier become an instant celebrity who was in demand as a speaker and made good copy in the African American press. The American Sociological Association presented him with the MacIver Award, which he found amusing because he regarded the book as more of a debunking satire than serious scholarship. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the limelight during his last years and willingly made the rounds of sorority clubs, Negro associations, academic groups, and charity banquets where he "flung critical and witty barbs at middle class colored Americans" in the audience.(1) Undergraduates crowded into his clases at Howard to hear him berate them for aspiring to enter a world of delusions and "nothingness."(2) And after his death in 1962, newly radicalized students discovered Frazier and used Black Bourgeoisie as ammunition against old guards everywhere.

Frazier's work on the African American middle class is generally regarded as peripheral to his serious scholarship on race relations and the African American family. "Impressionistic" or "Menckenesque burlesque" are typical characterizations of Black Bourgeoisie.(3) The issues raised in Frazier's 1955 book, however, were both a political concern and object of serious study throughout his life, from his first polemic in 1918 -- in which he rebuked the "priestly class" for "turning nations into stone and the past into sacredness" (Frazier, 1918)--to his last essay in 1962 -- in which he berated black intellectuals for their "abject conformity in thinking" (Frazier, 1962). Even after his death, Frazier could still be heard expressing the same message, as disgruntled as ever with the "petty tyrants in the Negro churches" and "their counterparts in practically all other Negro organizations."(4)

Frazier's own class history gave him particular insights into the dilemmas of the black bourgeoisie. His father, a self-taught bank messenger who died when his son was only 10 years old, left Frazier with a fierce thirst for knowledge and upward mobility. While the young Edward decided quite early that he was an atheist with an unshakable contempt for organized religion, he inherited his father's commitment to the Protestant Ethic. At college, for example, he pursued a rigorous program of self-improvement. Coming from "a family that did not have a literary tradition," Frazier decided to take four years of English courses in college and "by writing a composition every day, I learned to write" (Frazier, 1961). It was this kind of initiative and drive that enabled Frazier to climb out of the ghetto, yet it was not enough to enable him to succeed in the meritocratic world of the white professional middle classes. For all his accomplishments -- the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association (1948), author of the first serious textbook on The Negro in the United States (1949), consultant to the United Nations -- he was never offered a tenure-track job in a predominantly white university and the praise he received from his professional peers for his contributions as a Negro social scientist was intentionally backhanded.

Frazier certainly knew firsthand the world of the black bourgeoisie. As a young man he had learned a great deal about middle-class customs and foibles from his in-laws, pillars of religious respectability in North Carolina, and later he was sharply observant of his wife's social set in Washington, D. …