Saturday, September 10, 2022

Saida Grundy's "Respectable"

Saida Grundy is a feminist sociologist of race and Assistant Professor of Sociology, African American Studies, and Women's and Gender Studies at Boston University. A proud graduate of Spelman College, she received her PhD in Sociology and Women's Studies from the University of Michigan and often contributes to the Atlantic.

Grundy applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Respectable: Politics and Paradox in Making the Morehouse Man, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Even low-income and working-class respondents had a preexisting vague notion that such moneyed Black families existed from television shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but living among the sons of these families in an up-close residential atmosphere unveiled the sometimes obvious but more often nuanced class markers and cues that many students were observing for the first time in their peers. Davis and Waller learned a new language of class recognition in their earliest days on campus. Fittingly, their realizations about class bookended each other in terms of where they located and articulated their class positions. I found Davis, whom I had known over the years as a friend of my sister, instantly likeable and charming over the phone. He presented himself as the consummate professional in his high-paced career at a premier public relations firm.

His self-deprecating humor about his early days as a freshman, however, made it clear he had not always been this way. He arrived on campus mesmerized not only by the buffet of backgrounds among his classmates but also by the opportunity to be in a place with so many peers on the same academic trajectory. Even though his public high school in a solidly middle income majority Black suburb enrolled over 3,000 students, Davis was one of only two Black males in the school’s rigorous college preparatory program. Few of his high school peers shared his social experiences, such as participating in the city’s “Beautillion,” a biennial coming-of-age ball for highschool-aged Black boys sponsored by various exclusive Black social clubs such as Jack and Jill of America, an invitation-only organization for well-heeled Black mothers and their school-aged children.

“I had a diverse group of friends and got along with everybody that I wanted to,” Davis recalled. “But there were certain differences in the way I grew up, some of my understandings of the world and some of the things that I [had done.] For instance, I was Beautillioned in my last year in high school. I went to Jack and Jill teen conferences, and most of the people I went to high school with had no idea what the hell that was.”
Respectable’s page 99 is deep into the ethnographic observation of what happens when a group of vastly diverse Black men from all over the country arrive on campus as freshmen at Morehouse College, the nation’s only Historically Black College for men. To land on this page without the previous pages’ descriptions may be disorienting, but the reader would immediately recognize a conversation about social class and how Black men who never really got much opportunity to think of their class position previously (in predominantly high schools, for example, their racial subjectivity was paramount to their identity) begin to realize how class is communicated within Black spaces, and what they do and do not have in common with the social standings of their classmates. Page 99 is an accurate slice of my work because Respectable truly is an analysis of race, gender and class. Furthermore this page is a snapshot of what the book emphasizes throughout— that class and gender make meanings of Blackness within Black spaces. Radicalization occurs not only in interracial encounters but in intraracial contexts, which is what is on display on this page.

What I like about these reflections by Davis and Waller (respondent pseudonyms) is that they are learning a new class language— not necessarily verbal, and often based on observable cues— about how to articulate class in themselves and detect it in others. There are many exceptional sociological studies on class in school settings, but what I like about this passage is that it does something none of those works do in emphasizing a racially specific class language. These aren’t cues what anyone would pick up outside of a Black space and setting. These young men were learning the specifically African American markers of class that would be lost on an outside observer. They came to school with some of this language, and they picked up even more as they interacted with other students. Over and over again the men in my study remarked upon a simple but overlooked truth about HBCUs: Black people are vastly diverse and in this and other passages men are not only relishing in that diversity but they are learning where they are located within it. When one removes the controlling variable of racial heterogeneity, Black people in Black spaces have rare opportunities to amplify all the other parts of themselves from ethnic differences to class and sexuality spectrums. In Black spaces, Black people are allowed to be dynamic in ways that we are otherwise limited under the white gaze.
Learn more about Respectable at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue