Critique of the Black Middle Class in the Afro-Modernism and Black Arts movements

Image from Lorraine Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun" 1961

Image from Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” 1961

Similar themes are seen in novels from the Afro-modernism and Black Arts movements. Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion both critique the black middle class and assimilation into the white culture, as displayed in A Raisin in the Sun.

In this photo, there is a black family, the Youngers, sitting around a table in a humble home. The room looks small and simple, with two framed photos of ships and curtains as the only decorations. There are four people in the photo, two younger women, one elderly woman, and one young man. There is a newspaper and a purse on the table and what appears to be some kind of clutter in the left corner of the room. This family can be considered middle class, or at least lower middle class, because the man is wearing a nice suit and the woman on the far left is wearing a nice dress. The style of the clothing, house, and the black and white colors suggest that this photo represents an older time.

These people are clearly unhappy, possibly in the middle of a difficult conversation. The woman in the forefront of the photo has her head down with her fist on her forehead. The old woman in the center has a concerned look on her face and is making a hand gesture. The woman on the right wears a depressed or pensive expression. The man’s face is more composed, and his mouth is open as if he is speaking.

What we see here, is a representation of the black middle class in the early 20th century. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun portrays the realistic financial and personal struggles of a black family that is trying to move up in the world. In the plot of the play, the old woman inherits ten thousand dollars from the life insurance of her deceased husband. They try to use this money to move in to a suburban white neighborhood. The play highlights subtle discrimination from white society and shows criticism of assimilation.

Watercolor by Palmer Hayden from the Harlem Renaissance and Afro-modernism

Watercolor by Palmer Hayden from the Harlem Renaissance and Afro-modernism

In this painting, a black woman and man are featured dancing in what looks like a jazz club, based on the saxophone player and drummer on the left. There are more black folks dancing on the right. This style of art, with the bright colors and fluid structures, is representative of the Harlem Renaissance. It is bold and exciting, and proudly expresses black culture.

The Afro-modernism movement, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, is all about celebrating blackness. According to Addison Gayle’s article “The Harlem Renaissance: Towards a Black Aesthetic,” this era is divided into nationalists and assimilationists. Nationalism aims to “solidify the group consciousness”; it is “in favor of cultural plurality” and argues against assimilation (Gayle 80-81). Assimilation is the belief that in order for black people to survive, they must mesh into the white culture.

In the novel Quicksand by Nella Larsen, the first description of the black middle class is in the opening of the story at Naxos, a southern black college. “This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine… It was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern. Teachers as well as students were subjected to the paring process, for it tolerated no innovations, no individualism” (Larsen 6-7). Here the protagonist, Helga Crane, mirrors the sentiments of nationalists in the Afro-modernism movement. The school’s method of stifling individuals’ creativity reflects the process of assimilation, stripping the black race of its uniqueness. Helga is enraged by this and it causes her to leave Naxos and the south altogether.

When Helga lives in New York, she makes a point of separating herself from the assimilation movement. “Like thousands of other Harlem dwellers, she patronized its shops, its theaters, its art galleries, and its restaurants, and read its papers, without considering herself a part of the monster. And she was satisfied, unenvious. For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference” (35). In this passage, Nella Larsen is highlighting the historical context of the Afro-modernism movement. She separates the nationalists (who favor Harlem) from the assimilationists (who try to conform to the white people’s New York City). This shows the criticism for assimilation.

It is interesting that Larsen also critiques, on the opposite side of the spectrum, black nationalists. She uses Helga’s friend Anne as a hyperbolic example. “’To me,’ Asserted Anne Grey, ‘ the most wretched Negro prostitute that walks 135th Street is more than any President of these United States, not excepting Abraham Lincoln’” (37). This statement seems outrageous to the reader, making nationalists seem too extreme in their valuing of blackness. Importantly, Larsen critiques nationalists for simply inverting the hierarchy; believing that blacks are intrinsically better than whites is still racist. Rather than fixing discrimination problems, they are just turning the tables so that they are the ones on top.

The protagonist embodies an ongoing theme from the Afro-modernism movement, which is the search for one’s identity. Helga had a white mother and a black father. She had a difficult childhood and was orphaned early on, then raised by her white uncle. Because of these circumstances, she never really feels like she belongs. She travels from Naxos, to Chicago, to Harlem, to Copenhagen, and back again, each time she eventually feels unsatisfied. “Little by little the signs of spring appeared, but strangely the enchantment of the season, so enthusiastically, so lavishly greeted by the gay dwellers of Harlem, filled her only with restlessness. Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent” (36).

Unite, Barbara Jones (1971) from the Black Arts movement

Unite, Barbara Jones (1971) from the Black Arts movement

Moving up to the 1960s, the Black Arts movement takes a different approach to black identity. As displayed by the above image, the Black Arts movement still cares about artistic value. The colorful background and style of the image give it artistic value, but it serves another purpose as well. The word “UNITE” is shown all over the background of the picture, and in the foreground of the image, there is a crowd of black people, all with one fist raised high in the air. These give the piece of art a political value as well. Focusing on the purpose of the aesthetics outside of its artistic expression is a staple of the Black Arts movement.

The movement criticizes Afro-modernism for being constrained by double-conscious (Jarab 588). In this era, black aesthetics are valued for their use outside of tradition roles, such as political meaning. Novels during this movement are much less subtle in their assessments than past novels, such as Quicksand.

In John Oliver Killens’ novel The Cotillion, there is a strong critique of the black middle class and their assimilationist tendencies throughout the novel. The protagonist’s mother, Daphne, is a prime example of an assimilationist. “Your grandmother was an impudent negra and didn’t appreciate what my father was doing for her. He tried to uplift her but she wouldn’t be uplifted. She was an ungrateful wretch. Always overstepping the boundaries of her position. That is why he finally had to throw her out. She was a sassy negra. That is why I got disinherited. It was all her fault” (49). Here Daphne praises her white father, who was a wealthy slave owner, and disgraces her black mother, who was a “field negra.”

Daphne also tries to push assimilationist ideas onto her daughter. “Daphne sweetly remembered now, almost weepingly, how hard she’d worked down through the years to mold her little girl into a thing of beauty and a joy eternal, how she used to make the girl pull her lips in and keep them in when she was a baby, so they would grow thin like hers, and how she use to put clothespins on the baby’s nostrils just to pinch them into thing and slender” (44).  Daphne believes that beautiful is equivocal to white, but Yoruba grows up to believe that black is beautiful. This shows Yoruba trying to break away from her mother’s middle class ideals.

There is also a stress of going natural in this movement. It is the ideal that black is beautiful and black people should show their pride by not doing their hair or dressing to conform to white culture. This is personified when Yoruba changes her hair to a natural style. “No wig for this Black and beautiful child, not even for her mother’s sake. She had made her debut into truly Black society. And there was no turning back” (213). Here it is implied that in order to be truly black, you must have natural hair. This shows the distancing of black society from white norms and styles. And it also exemplifies a narrow view of what blackness is.

When Yoruba’s boyfriend, Ben Ali Lumumba, comes over for dinner, he dresses up in his best white facade to please her mother. “But if Yoruba didn’t dig Ben Ali’s masquerade (as she characterized his thing this Sunday), her mother dug it the most. The American suit, the British accent, the clean-cut look swept Lady Daphne off her feet. It was as if Lumumba had put his white coat down in the mud for her” (147).

Throughout the meal, Lumumba continues to play the role of the assimilationist, by agreeing with everything Daphne believes. Here Killens satirizes the black middle class through Lumumba’s performance, showing how black people act white to move up in the world. And also through dialog with Daphne, Killens portrays middle class as strongly believing that white is right and that is the only way; it makes her sound ridiculous to the reader. For example, Lady Daphne asks Lumumba if he has been to the motherland, and he responds talking about Africa. Then she responds, “I mean the Mother Country. I mean my, I mean our Mother Country. England – England” (150).

If the two authors from different movements observed the Youngers from A Raisin in the Sun, they would have very different reactions based on the critique in their novels. Larsen does not come straight forward and criticize the middle class people. Rather than attacking them for their choice to assimilate, she exposes it as an institutional problem. Naxos was the machine that processed black youths into the white mold. She does not blame the black middle class for their situation. She would criticize them for moving to a white neighborhood, but overall Larsen would probably sympathize with the Youngers because they are all just trying to find a place in this world for their family. It is similar to Helga Crane’s search for identity.

Killens, however, would have stronger opinions about the Youngers. He would consider them to be assimilationists who are not proud enough of their blackness. Seemingly small things like white hairstyles, music  clothing, and speech, would be considered conformity and because of it they would be considered less black. Killens would be outraged to know that the family moved to an all white neighborhood where they were not welcomed. He would probably feel that this middle class family is throwing away their culture and their people to integrate into the white society.

The Afro-modernism and Black Arts movements have very different perspectives on black identity. Afro-modernism encourages expression of blackness and celebration of the individual’s identity. Larsen’s Quicksand critiques the black middle class for stifling this celebration and expression. Whereas the Black Arts movement has a more narrow and political approach. It calls for black people to  unite and stay in touch with their race to overcome the white oppressors. Killens’ The Cotillion criticizes the black middle class for trying to assimilate into the white culture and essentially betraying their African roots. In all their differences, both movements are crucial pieces of history that brought us to where we are now.

Today, the black middle class is widely accepted by white and black people. However, some still hold negative attitudes toward them, feeling that they are deserting their black heritage and trying to act white. A video blog on YouTube called the Pink Elephant channel discusses today’s black middle class. At 5:32, this man describes how many people feel that the black middle class are “sell-outs.” This is essentially the same idea behind assimilation.



Gayle, Addison. “the harlem renaissance: towards a black aesthetic.” Midcontinent American
Studies Journal 11.2 (1970): 78-87.

“Harlem Renaissance.” Ed. Michael Delahunt. Artlex Art Dictionary, 2010. Web. 14 May 2013. <;.

Jarab, Joseph. “Black Aesthetic: Cultural or Political Concept? Callaloo 25 (1985): 587-593.

Jones, Barbara. Unite. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <;.

Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion; Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident, 1971. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Poitier, Sidney: still with Poitier, Dee, McNeil, and Sands in “A Raisin in the Sun. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 14 May. 2013. <>.