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Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920.

The broader contours of Willard Gatewood's examination of the black elite may be familiar to specialists in the field, but most readers, and particularly those who still assume that black society is a homogeneous mass untouched by meaningful class distinctions, will find this thoughtful and gracefully crafted book to be a revelation. Focusing on the developmental years of Jim Crow, from the collapse of Reconstruction to the end of World War 1, Aristocrats of Color illuminates the world of the nation's most influential and least-studied African-Americans. Although Gatewood may take some heat from critics who would prefer a more analytical and less anecdotal and descriptive approach, this is the work of a veteran scholar and it will find its place on a short shelf of useful social histories of the black experience during a critical and increasingly discriminatory period.

The book has four sections - "Origins," "People and Places," "Color, Culture, and Behavior," and "Changes and Continuities" - each with an arresting prologue devoted to relevant aspects of the lives of "the ideal or quintessential aristocrats of color": Mississippi Senator Blanche E. Bruce, his elegant wife, Josephine, and their descendants (p. x). As Gatewood defines it, a "colored aristocracy" of old families and fiercely exclusive pretensions flourished for roughly forty years, emerging in every major city in the nation during the decades after Reconstruction and merging into a larger, less restrictive but perhaps more prosperous black upper class in the 1920s. Identified by others and by themselves as "the best people," the "black four hundred," the "upper tens," the "bon tons," and the "blue veins" - and by their harshest critics, black and white, as the "fust families" - the members of the upper stratum of black society entertained elegantly, summered at Saratoga Springs, Newport, or Cape May, distanced themselves from the ill-mannered masses, defined themselves by "good breeding" and the "genteel performance," and traced their origins to free blacks and privileged antebellum house servants. As devoted to ancestor worship as their richest white counterparts, not a few of them claimed descent from "African princes, Madagascan noblemen, Caucasian statesmen, and Indian chieftains" (p. 344). Although rules of admission varied from place to place, the colored aristocrats shared a devotion to culture, education, and achievement. Light skin and wealth, though highly valued in their own right, were not in themselves enough. "Mulatto nobodies" and "black parvenu" without proper bloodlines, elite educations, social refinements, and the right connections rarely penetrated the charmed inner circle.

Denied acceptance by whites and deeply resented by the submerged black masses, the colored aristocrats were easy targets and Gatewood himself at times seems tempted to disparage their exclusivity and hauteur. But he manages, for the most part, to treat them with commendable sympathy. His most notable achievement may well be his assessment of their endeavors to mediate conflict between the races, to serve as cultural brokers between the two worlds of color, and to promote black civil rights. Despite a tradition of isolation from the black community and unstinting efforts to win assimilation into white society - despite even the insistence of some that they were "neither Negroes nor whites, but an ambiguous something-between" (p. 110) - upper-crust African-Americans, the author believes, generally "exhibited a sense of mission and took seriously their responsibility for the less fortunate of the race, even if they discharged that responsibility' at a safe distance'" (p. 345).

This is an engrossing book, full of telling anecdotes, colorful quotations, and meticulous descriptions of a tiny but significant minority within a minority. As promised in its preface, Aristocrats of Color painstakingly identifies the black elite and "explores its self-image, behavior, values, strategies, and relationship to the larger society, both white and black ...." (p. x).
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Author:McMillen, Neil R.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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