Getting to Grassroots: Author Clarence Lang

by kris bishop on September 17, 2009


Clarence Lang “All scholarship is autobiographical.  I often wonder, then, whether my scholarly interest in the dynamics of class among African Americans stems from a desire to grapple with my own contradictions as someone from a working-class background who grabbed certain opportunities, squandered others, and in the process became a black middle-class professional who lives and works very differently from most African Americans.

When I think of the experiences that may have contributed to my research, I can pull from the fragments of my memory moments from my childhood when I gazed at manifestations of race and class, long before I developed the language to interpret what I was seeing.  It is significant that I grew up in an apartment building in a declining commercial district of Chicago’s South Loop, in a transition point between downtown and the South Side.  I remember that many of the people who constituted the high rise’s community were, like my mother, strivers who worked downtown and considered the building a stepping-stone to greater respectability.

From the window of my tiny twenty-sixth floor apartment, I vividly recall seeing, just a few blocks west, the State Street corridor of public housing where my parents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends grew up, and where several family members and school classmates continued to live.  What circumstances intervened to deliver me to the relative comfort I enjoyed?  How did my address mean a different existence for me than for those in the Chicago Housing Authority?  And for that matter, what prevented my family from living in one of the swanker Lake Shore Drive or Hyde Park apartments or mansions that I often spied on the way to the zoo, the movies, or the museum?  How did residing there make those inhabitants’ lives different – better – than mine?

I recall visiting my maternal grandmother frequently in the Dearborn Homes projects, and viewing from the hallway windows the lush downtown skyline; it was a short bus ride in terms of distance, yet a world away in the opulence it embodied.  I remember, too, witnessing my mother climb the lower occupational rungs of the telephone company where, like many other working-class black Chicago women of her generation, she took advantage of new employment opportunities made possible by the black social movements of her youth and institutionalized by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Of course, this career didn’t save her from constant worries about how to pay bills and save money.  Although we were far from destitute, seeing the homeless and down-and-out – who had a much more visible presence in the South Loop then, before gentrification – made a vivid impression on me, at a very young age, of the precarious nature of my household’s financial stability.

At the elite Jesuit high school I attended on scholarship, I encountered African Americans who were at once culturally familiar and curiously different – individuals who drove their own Volvos and Jeeps to school, participated in cotillions, hosted Jack and Jill parties, lived in exclusive black enclaves on the city’s South Side, and hailed from families that were degreed and prominent.  Many years later, when I was drawn to campus politics as an undergraduate, I was frustrated to learn that while many of us black students spoke a common rhetoric of black militancy and multiculturalism, we understood it in dramatically divergent ways that put us in serious conflict with each other as well as with conservative white students and administrators.  This was a catalyst for me to begin thinking deeply about the fragmented character of black racial unity.  Influenced heavily by painful lessons from my campus activism, I made a belated – and in many ways, desperate – decision to become a professional scholar.  While earning an M.A., and then a Ph.D., in History, I remained engaged in black movement politics, joining first a grassroots community organization in St. Louis, Missouri, then later becoming a member of a national coalition of progressive black scholars and activists.  Both provided a heady environment fraught with the same dilemmas of race and class that I had been negotiating, in some form, since pondering the view from the windows of my childhood.  Grassroots at the Gateway

By graduate school, I had already made a commitment to the study of race, class and social movements, and the history of their relationship.  I had also discovered the ways in which historical scholarship shadowboxes with the contemporary period in which it is produced.  Beyond the purely personal, my book is animated by a desire to grapple with the political ramifications of the growth of a post-Civil Rights black middle class and the expansion of what has erroneously been termed the black “underclass.”  From this standpoint, the presidential election of Barack Obama is symbolic of the maturation of black elected officialdom, and a fulfillment of a key black freedom struggle goal.  Yet, Obama’s victory occurred amidst a chain of events that illustrated the dismal conditions of the black majority: the disfranchisement of black voters in the 2000 elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s upending of the Fourteenth Amendment; ongoing judicial assaults on the landmark Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts; the obscene deprivations of race and class horribly exposed by the Hurricane Katrina crisis; and the legal cases of the “Jena Six” in Louisiana and Shaquanda Cotton in Texas, which personified the racial inequities of the criminal justice system.  This is to say nothing of the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing decline in the quality of life of American workers across race and occupational lines.

Perhaps the Obama presidency may mean an opportunity for a new period of progressive social change.  Or perhaps it may altogether suppress a black transformative grassroots politics, enshrining the idea (trumpeted by Black Enterprise publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr., among others) that African Americans have “no more excuses” for failure.  Either way, the relationships among black people will be deeply affected by this historical moment in ways too soon to fathom.  A central argument of my book is that the Great Depression of the 1930s realigned the class structure of Black America, facilitating the emergence of a working-class politics that dominated black social movements for several decades.  The current home mortgage crisis, the cutbacks in the public sphere (where black middle-class professionals are disproportionately employed), and the crippling depression that promises economic austerity for the foreseeable future, all seem to augur a similar decomposition of the post-Civil Rights black middle class and a new social alignment.  Whether this will produce a renewed mass-based black insurgent politics rooted in the working majority is an open-ended matter.  For my part, I hope that my book will contribute to a discussion of historical possibilities.”


Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75

Paper: 978-0-472-05065-9


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