"A kind of end to blackness": Reginald McKnight's He Sleeps and the body politics of race and class

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The novelist Reginald McKnight confesses that he has often felt he was not "two-fistedly black" because he grew up in largely white environments and was not raised in the "community of the poor" that he describes in the epigraph.1 McKnight's words provide a clue to why notions of black authenticity continue, in the twenty-first century, to be linked to black poverty, despite contemporary evidence of a visible, vocal, and sizable black middle class. The image of the black fist recalls the black power movement of the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s and an associated black cultural nationalism that grew to prominence during the period. Along with the movement's emphasis on a black community unified in its resistance to racist oppression, however, came its greatest misstep: The movement's nationalist rhetoric collapsed intraracial differences, particularly class differences, and represented all African Americans as essentially the same. Thus, while the "black nationalist affair" of black power may have been "principally a 'new' black middle class phenomenon," as the scholar Cornel West has written, it was hardly acknowledged as such at the time; instead black power contributed to the public redefinition of blackness as militant urban rebellion. In the writer Randall Kenan's words, "to be black was to be poor, disenfranchised, to live in . . . what became the 'ghetto,' to distrust 'the man' and to be very, very angry." In certain arenas-like hip-hop music and its associated cultural products, the vast majority of which position life on impoverished urban streets as an arbiter of the racial "real"-such perceptions of so-called authentic blackness seem hardly to have changed since 1980 and the beginning of black power's decline. Indeed, black nationalist ideology has become commonplace in racial discourse.2 Yet black cultural nationalism is now juxtaposed to, if not plainly opposed by, black postmodernism, which frequently seeks to challenge the accepted wisdom on black racial authenticity.3 While many rap and hip-hop artists evoke a 1970s brand of nationalism in their music, writers like McKnight appeal to postmodernist sensibilities in their literary work, interrogating the so-called inauthenticity of the black middle-class self. Efforts like McKnight's surrealist 2001 novel, He Sleeps, suggest that while it might once have been plausible, if not entirely accurate, to invoke race and class as corollary concepts ultimately synonymous with black disadvantage- Assuming the black person's position to be fixed on the lower end of social and economic hierarchy-such a correlation is no longer universally applicable to that multifarious and diverse group we might, with optimism, call "the black community." Black postmodernism does more than critique discourses of racial authenticity, however. In moving us beyond empty assertions about who is (or is not) black enough, it allows us to ask a few related but perhaps thornier questions: How does class privilege inform our understanding of blackness in the postmodern or post-civil rights era?4 And how does that privilege shape the black individual's relationship to race, to gender and sexuality, and to the very body she or he inhabits? Asking these questions in a volume inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of E. Franklin Frazier's polemic on the subject of black class privilege, Black Bourgeoisie, demands that we grapple with one of Frazier's most incendiary assertions about the black middle class: his suggestion that middle-class black men are unable "to play the 'masculine role,' " and thereby "resemble women."5 Frazier's seemingly odd recourse to male sexual identity in his discussion of black class privilege relates to what I see, in McKnight's novel, as an inevitable relationship between black middle-class status and black masculinity, as lived through the corporeal or bodily self. Indeed, for Mc- Knight black bourgeois status, especially as that status is localized in a wayward and inadequate black body, has everything to do with black sexuality and the intimate connections that underwrite or even create racial character. Not coincidentally, McKnight's He Sleeps takes place in Senegal, West Africa. This African setting-which highlights the protagonist's Americanness, not just his blackness-ironically allows the novel to comment on, specifically, African American middle-class identity and that identity's relationship to larger narratives of the black body. The various predicaments faced by McKnight's protagonist, entwined dilemmas of geography, sex, and class, imply that, in the twenty-first century, being black and bourgeois not only complicates but redefines African American racial performance; He Sleeps, finally, raises the provocative question of whether the black middle-class self is really a black self at all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFrom Bourgeois to Boojie
Subtitle of host publicationBlack Middle-Class Performances
EditorsVershawn Ashanti Young, Bridget Harris Tsemo
PublisherWayne State University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9780814334683
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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