Class Interruptions: The Wrong Side of The Tracks

Happy Women’s History Month! Women’s History Month had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” Throughout the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987 after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”

To start the celebration of Women’s History Month, we’ve decided to share an excerpt from Robin Brook’s Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction. Through interviews with authors, textual analyses of the fiction, and a diagramming of cross-class relationships, Brooks offers compelling new insight on literary portrayals of class inequalities and division. She expands the scope of how the Black women’s literary tradition, since the 1970s, has been conceptualized by repositioning the importance of class and explores why the imagination matters as we think about novel ways to address long-standing and simultaneously evolving issues.

Brook’s Class Interruptions was recently featured on our Black History Month 2022 Reading List: The Black International Experience.

Mapping the Intraracial Class Dynamics in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills and Dawn Turner’s Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven

It is not just white people who refuse to acknowledge different class status among blacks; many of us want to ignore class.

BELL HOOKS, Killing Rage: Ending Racism

You don’t want to have nothing to do with what’s on the other side.

MISS LILY, in DAWN TURNER, Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven

In the contemporary neoliberal moment, discussions of the U.S. housing market, particularly as it relates to African Americans, have been colored by problematic and discriminatory practices. Even after the passage of legislation such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, de facto segregation, redlining, predatory mortgage lending, gentrification, and bias among real estate actors (agents, brokers, realtors, and property managers) remain commonplace (see figure 1.1). The subprime mortgage crisis especially represented a climax for greed in the housing market that had a negative ripple effect across numerous arenas. Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dawn Turner’s Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven (1996) engage with many of these practices. These two novels evince striking similarities, most notably in the portrayals of their fictive neighborhoods, which interrogate the sensitive topic of intraracial class divisions, even as broader structural predicaments lay the groundwork for and reinforce these divisions. Both novels depict a strict physical barrier between the African American working- and middle-class neighborhoods. In Naylor’s novel, a marble banister and a stream of water separate working-class Putney Wayne and suburban Linden Hills. A conspicuous ten-foot fence, in Turner’s novel, separates the working-class community on Thirty-Fifth Street on one side of the fence and the elite residential area of Lakeland on the other. In both novels, the friendship between a working-class character and a middle-class character, a cross-class relationship, breaches the separation between the classes. This chapter argues that the cross-class relationship trope in Naylor’s and Turner’s novels exposes class myths to dismantle antagonism impelled by neighborhood structures as well as to confront the long history of discrimination in housing against African Americans.

A group of men standing around a person sitting at a desk
FIGURE 1.1 President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (AP Photo).

By visualizing class division through space, both novelists convey how the neighborhood spaces are ideologically charged. Many of the main and minor characters in the novels grossly stereotype one another and create invisible barriers that complement the physical barriers of separation. These visible and invisible barriers fuel misinformation, prevent the characters from building relationships with one another, and lead to various forms of destruction in both communities. In fact, both novels conclude with the death of a key character, implying that intraracial class antagonism can lead only to a breakdown of community; there is never a happy ending. At the same time, both novels present the cross-class relationship as potentially representative of the broader working- and middle-class communities in the fictive urban cities they portray. Naylor’s and Turner’s novels demonstrate the importance and possibility of productive relationships that span class lines, and the pairing of a main character with another character of the same race but from a different class background ultimately offers readers a glimpse of hope that intraracial class antagonism can be quelled with mutual understanding. The novels can help us think about ways the productive relationships upset limitations imposed by class ideologies and can suggest ways to challenge unjust power relations.

A summary of both novels will facilitate the ensuing discussion. Naylor’s Linden Hills has a double plot line, one concerning the Nedeed family, particularly the women in the family, and the other chronicling Willie and Lester’s journey performing odd jobs throughout the Linden Hills community to earn money for the holiday season. My focus is on the friendship of Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, who first met in school and are now twenty years old. Naylor begins her novel with meticulous descriptions of the Linden Hills neighborhood layout and a historical view of its creation. She presents it as a structural hierarchy and the brainchild of Luther Nedeed, the African American patriarchal figure in the novel, who purchases the land during the 1800s. Over the years, the Nedeed family saw “the outlines of his dream crystallize into a zoned district of eight circular drives that held some of the finest homes—and eventually the wealthiest black families—in the county” (13). Lester is a resident in the affluent Linden Hills neighborhood, while Willie lives on the other side of the banister in Putney Wayne.

Focusing like Linden Hills on two contrasting neighborhoods, Only Twice chronicles the Saville family’s journey toward upward social mobility. The novel begins with the Saville family preparing to move from their middle-class neighborhood to the upper middle-class Lakeland community to be “among the ‘bourgeoisie’ ” after Mr. Saville assumes a new profession (16). The very plot of the novel enmeshes economic and geographic mobility. Like Willie and Lester’s friendship, which underscores a cross-class dynamic between Linden Hills and Putney Wayne, Turner’s protagonists, Tempestt (Temmy) Saville and Valerie Nicholae, also develop a cross-class relationship. Temmy moves to the elite Lakeland, where she meets Valerie, who is from the working-class area of Thirty-Fifth Street but has been living in the basement of the Lakeland apartment complex for the past year with her older brother who is the residential janitor. While Temmy lacks Lester’s mature level of class consciousness, she, too, forms a cross-class relationship that begins at school (a cross-class space in both novels). This chapter focuses on the novels’ chronicling of these relationships.

Robin Brooks is assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh.