Bertrand Cooper speaks to Momtaza Mehri about the torsions of race and class in America.
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MOMTAZA MEHRI: What first awakened you to the meaning of class in your life?
BERTRAND COOPER: My father is black, and both his parents were the bad seeds of respectable middle-class black families. Growing up, he and his siblings were treated as embarrassments by ‘uppity’ aunts and cousins. When my father went to prison, no one in the extended family reached out to any of his children. We weren’t presumed to have a clean slate – just more trash heaped on the family tree. When my grandmother took me to church, I heard the respectable black folks rally against the morals, fashions, and music of the black underclass with no less fervour than Bill Cosby. Later on, I attended two different regional high schools, both quite large. The black kids from the hood did not usually sit with the middle-class black kids. My dad was out at that point, and the hood kids would come to our house to work out and hear dad’s prison stories. In school, fashion and language could obscure class, to an extent. Observing who visited the house emphasised the difference between using the underclass – as a metaphor, as a resource for black identity, as an aesthetic – and belonging to the underclass due to one’s birth into deprivation and squalor. So, the moment you put me in graduate school, the totality of my being recoils at the assertion that class in black America does not matter. I only know blackness filtered through class.
MM: The idea of your entire being recoiling in a grad school seminar is almost comic. By that point in my life, I was consciously aware that my enforced silence was instrumental in the flattening of intraracial class antagonisms. I had to conform to a set of social codes. In the humanities classroom, I had to tolerate the crisis-battered delusions of the downwardly mobile children of the middle classes with as much patience as I could muster. My own neuroses were not as accommodated. (Nikki Giovanni describing a specific kind of college experience as a ‘withdrawal into emotional crosshairs of coloured bourgeois intellectual pretensions’ springs mirthfully into mind).
BC: The worlds erected by class are further apart than most of us realise. To count as poor, a family of four must earn less than $27k. The middle of middle-class households, which we romanticise in politics as a stone’s throw away from poverty, earn $67k – more than double the highest earning family in poverty. Back in 2007, Pew Research Center reported that 37 per cent of black Americans believed the values of the black poor and middle class had diverged so greatly that calling us a single race no longer made sense. Of that sample, the black poor were the most likely to assert that they had little or no values in common with the black middle class. In line with this sentiment, every norm originating outside poverty was new to me. Among the black poor, the meaning of a word fluctuated with social context. ‘Nigga’ conveyed malice or friendship depending on the relationship between interlocutors– not so much in wealthy educated spaces. Offence was also adjudicated differently. Calling something offensive held no weight in my culture unless the collective felt similarly. In graduate school, sensitivities that were idiosyncratic to the few mattered. I’m not saying these shouldn’t matter. I’m just saying they didn’t in my culture.
MM: You’ve written that, in recent times, popular culture has been the terrain most visibly altered by the pursuit of social justice. Your work unravels the idea of ‘progress’, as measured by the representational gains we see gracing our screens and bookshelves. In your Current Affairs intervention, it seems as if, while cultural participation has been incrementally democratised, the generalised conditions of black life in the United States have barely improved over the past few decades. In some cases, they’ve even worsened. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
BC: Conceptually, black life is thought to be synonymous with exposure to a set of torments activists highlight in the aim of extracting public sympathy: poverty, unemployment, ghettoisation, imprisonment, extrajudicial violence, and environmental pollution. Arguing that these torments randomly afflict black Americans gives activists a rhetorical bludgeon, but comes at the expense of the truth for me and mine. A fifth of black Americans are poor, and eight out of every ten black prisoners belong to that fifth. This lopsided class distribution repeats itself across each of the aforementioned blights. Poor black life has, as you say, barely improved. The condition of the black middle and upper classes is debatable. I escaped poverty at 26. Nothing in my life now bears any resemblance to my days in a crack den.
MM: In his autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes noted that ‘the ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance’. For those that had, it still ‘hadn’t raised their wages any’. The Harlemite intellectuals, however, thought the millennium had come. As you’ve written, were George Floyd alive, he would not be able to find a job within the creative industries which have launched (and abandoned) various initiatives and schemes in his name. Floyd didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. The very doors he has opened for others would have been closed to him. It seems like those who stand to materially benefit from our death-fuelled, image-drunk, representation-as-reparation cultural juncture are those already well-positioned enough to succeed in these fields. Securing a seat at the table is a lot easier if you were already waiting in the wings of the room. How do you see these dynamics shaping ‘the culture’?
BC: Although we are increasingly exposed to black popular culture that often depicts the black poor, it remains the product of the black middle and upper classes. It’s their interpretation of the black poor, and they’re not required to notify white audiences when they act as interpreters. These same white audiences throw money at the top assuming racial affinity entails camaraderie, but increased representation of upper- and middle-class black people that spiked during the 2010s hasn’t translated into opportunities for me or my friends. I’ve been told many times that this is acceptable because ‘the black middle has cousins in the hood’, but these cousins aren’t in the writers’ room. I notice that having a gay cousin doesn’t grant straight people perpetual and unfettered access to gay stories, nor does having sisters and mothers justify men’s ownership of women’s stories. I don’t know why the scrutiny of liberals – who are protective of so many other subgroups – vanishes when the subject is simultaneously poor and black.
MM: The music industry sells the theatricality of urban poverty. Increasingly, musical subculture remains one of the last creative avenues where the black poor have a presence. What are your thoughts on the cultural appetite for black poverty?
BC: Ubiquity and participation are untethered. The RIAA counts 150 album streams or 1,500 song streams as a ‘sale’, though no money is exchanged for the specific song or album, and it doesn’t limit the count to unique users: it can be one fan on five devices. Examining digital album sales and concert grosses shows how people vote with their dollars. Measured this way, the appetite for poor narratives is meagre. 50 Cent is the only black hip-hop artist to sell over 10 million albums in the 21st century. Among the top 20 concert grosses, no black hip-hop artists feature. The cultural appetite for black poverty is – by any measure of what people actually pay for – pretty circumscribed. A genre like drill doesn’t meet the requirements for conditional incorporation. Even when something does meet these conditions, the appetite is weak. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – relevant here only because it is wrongly presumed to be a memoir of black poverty – sold 386,000 copies in its peak year. Just seven million people saw the movie Moonlight in theatres. I say ‘just’ because a third of the US votes Democrat. It’s fun to write essays about liberals and poverty porn, but it belies the depths of the apathy even liberals hold toward stories grounded in poverty.
MM: ‘Conditional incorporation’ is a useful frame in an era where the pitiful returns of hypervisibility are so often mistaken for actual power. A politics of resentments festers, the kind that begrudges a cause, or even a people, for hogging the attentional capacity of a zero-sum culture. From London to New York, Rotterdam to Marseille, I’m also thinking of bally-clad youth and their relationship to creating culture while preserving their own anonymity. Many drill artists hide their faces. A kind of self-effacement competing with braggadocio in a climate where corporate powers like YouTube partner with the London Met in order to monitor and ‘moderate’ the drill scene. Cultural participation can never be disentangled from the risks of visibility. To be seen is to be surveilled.
This makes me think of a Stuart Hall interview in which he opined on the tenacity of youth culture, particularly those third-generation black and Asian kids who he praised as being creatively and culturally ‘on top of the world’, despite not knowing ‘where their next meal is coming from’. I love a bit of Hall as much as the next diasporic theory broette, but that sort of breathless conclusion has always struck me as something only an Oxbridge-trained intellectual could deliver with a straight face. I’d rather ask those kids themselves if they think the price they are paying has been worth it.
BC: I think the juxtaposition within that statement can illustrate the impotence of popular culture. Asian Americans are the highest-educated, highest-earning, least-incarcerated group in the country, and, in this sense, diametrically opposed to black Americans. Yet, Asian Americans came into their current socioeconomic standing while still being relatively invisible in popular culture. Not to mention, two centuries of white American prominence in creative professions hasn’t remedied poverty for the nearly 30 million white folks living in it today—so why would it alleviate the struggles of anyone else? But my framing speaks to my own needs. If the deaths of the poor are being leveraged to advance certain projects in popular culture and convince particular audiences that their political identities depend on the consumption of these projects, that concatenation needs to confront poverty or the extrajudicial punishment of the poor for me to be satisfied. As long as classism persists, I am a token benefitting from the artificial scarcity of black writers born into poverty.
MM: Authenticity is its own currency. You’ve mentioned how other black people in academia would often defer to you. Both inside and outside black communities, black poverty is seen as the ultimate marker of authenticity. The ghetto imparts a kind of mystical knowledge and organic cool on its inhabitants. Everyone siphons off the ghetto, including other black people who orbit it and mine it for its pain, candour, and genius. To black people who have only vicariously experienced ghetto life through popular culture, there’s often a sense of inadequacy when faced with its actual residents as real people, not as the undifferentiated hood hoi polloi. What has authenticity meant to you?
BC: To me, every black person of every class is authentically black. But the white audience cultivated thus far doesn’t agree, and, truthfully, black audiences aren’t entirely convinced either. The route to white sympathy hasn’t changed. Black people with limited experience of poverty have the advantage of understanding the tastes of the middle classes they have been surrounded by, but the expectations of white audiences mean they must either omit their backgrounds or trade in class-blind generalities. The criteria of black authenticity insists on black creators offering white audiences a window into something exotic.
In terms of my own authenticity, the generation that raised me had been terrorised by the one-drop rule. When the oldheads told me never to forget that I was a nigga, they thought they were saving my life. Accordingly, they told me I was a nigga as often as they could. Pain was another of our determinants. As a child, I got into an argument with a friend over who was ‘blacker’ based on who was beaten more violently by their parents. For better or worse, the one-drop rule has lost its sway, supplanted by the idea that visible blackness is vital to a black experience.
MM: In Britain, we have breached another ‘first’, the country’s first – though unelected – POC prime minister (or BME, to use the British parlance). This watershed appointment landed like a damp squib, especially when compared to the previous decade’s Obamamania that enthralled the commentariat far beyond America. Before arriving in England, Rishi Sunak’s parents were part of the Indian diaspora in East Africa. Sunak, along with his tech heiress wife, is worth an estimated £730m ($844m), making them the wealthiest residents in Number 10’s history. That these milestones are so enmeshed says something about our present moment.
BC: When it comes to leadership positions, the pandemic and recession are likely to thin out the ranks of those appropriately credentialed and connected people of colour, leaving just those whose wealth and income can withstand such erosion. Wealth being the value of assets minus debts, the question is: if an economic downturn increases your debts, decreases your asset values, and reduces your income, do you still have enough to participate in politics? For anyone on the cusp of poverty, the answer is probably no, which is disappointing given the high hopes of the last decade. After Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, the pressure for representation at the highest levels rose in tandem with the mounting corpses. The year Trayvon died, black students made up around 7% of Harvard’s freshman class. By 2022, 15% of Harvard’s incoming freshmen were black, surpassing representation relative to the total population of Americans between 18 and 24. Harvard was Obama’s alma mater, and most of the black students at Harvard mirror Obama in that they’re not rich – they’re from the solid middle. Again, not a stone’s throw away from poverty.
The 1% rhetoric is very popular in the US, and in some cases it’s accurate. But it often obscures the hostilities the other 79% of Americans display toward the poor. When a neighbourhood – one made up of teachers, nurses, police, tradespeople, and other folks earning between $45k- $100k annually – denies zoning for shelters, refugee housing, and low-income housing, that’s not usually because some millionaire flew in and torpedoed the project against the local will.
MM: How has prodding at questions of class affected your relationships in the writing/media world?
BC: I have been met with kindness, support, and curiosity by those in the writing world. I suspect it’s because my writing observes deprivation without moralising about the intentions of others. If my observations upset you, do something. If they don’t, I can’t change that, and I lack the punitive impulse necessary to draw blood from a stone.
MM: Do you think delving into the psychology of class has its uses in animating and strengthening a working-class political consciousness?
BC: I’m not sure that class as currently conceived is much of a rallying tool. Mainstream class discourse assumes a worker’s relationship to the means of production creates shared political interests. Since the majority of the middle class does not own the means of production, they are deemed ‘working class.’ Per the US Census, middle-class households earn between $28k and $141k annually. Being an employee is insufficient to make the life of someone earning $140k similar to that of someone earning $28k or less, and this dissimilarity will reveal itself in their political interests. Additionally, knowing my relation to the means of production does not tell you how to be in my company. That single identification gives little insight into my beliefs, attitudes, or animosities. If all you know about India is the typical relation of varying groups to the means of production, that will not prepare you to socialise at an Indian wedding.
MM: There’s an inherent melancholia to your writing on class, especially when class mobility means leaving everyone and everything you know behind. It’s palpable in your NYT essay on hunger and disordered eating. You make it plain that social mobility is often arbitrary. A few lucky breaks can make all the difference. For me, it’s been a generational slide downwards in classed terms. My parents were thrust into refugeehood and the life-altering trivialities of the maddening British class system. They struggled to make sense of these transnational rifts in class formation and disaggregation, and I was raised with this sense of permanent destabilisation. I also knew that, had it not been for a civil war and a migration story, I probably would have been an Afropolitan daughter of elites, writing for the same magazines I do now, but saddled with far less student debt. I would be immeasurably more annoying. I would be a terrible thinker and a much more ‘successful’ writer.
Instead, I experienced grim housing conditions and accompanying health conditions, substandard educational environments, and a constant lack of resources. I felt very alienated by how class was superficially discussed and intentionally obfuscated in the mainstream, and I think this is common among those of us raised in similar circumstances. In any case, downward mobility will continue to be the story of black millennials. In the UK, more than half of black children are now growing up in poverty, while almost half of children born to middle income black families in the United States fall to the bottom of the income ladder as adults.
Have you experienced class mobility as a kind of severance?
BC: Certainly. I am a lunatic born of lunatics. My mother recalls homelessness as one of the best times of her life. My father would sit up late out of longing for the power he could wield in prison and the vicious opportunities such a place offered him. Sixteen years later, even after attaining a middle-class life post-release, he’d wonder in the dark if ‘this was all there is’. I was in every way suited to the world of the poor save for two: I didn’t want to be imprisoned and I didn’t want to die. These are inevitabilities among the poor men whose company I enjoyed most, so I left. But I miss them. The only music I need is rap, primarily gangsta and drill, and my favourite songs remind me of the stories my uncles told. I tend to befriend waitresses and sex workers because I know these women are likely to share my background. They’re not less traumatised than the men, but they usually direct that inwards. It’s a way for me to have a partner and friends who are like me, but without the risks that hound poor men. So many of the early, violent deaths of rappers come down to seeking the familiar.
It’s an ambivalent grief. Nostalgia and familiarity are among the most pleasurable sensations we have, serotonergic to the point that they become indulgences we need to restrain so we can think clearly. I know that my life on the other side of poverty is full of things that are valuable, but since I grew up without them, they can never induce nostalgia. They can never be familiar.
MM: Has finding some stability changed how you think and write about precarity?
BC: To give a short answer, I don’t really know. Contrast makes details easier to see, and stability has shown me the inversion of every pain which I previously suffered, and now I see the angles once hidden from me. Well, I feel, rather than see them.
Bertrand Cooper is a writer and education professional based in Los Angeles. Drawing on twenty six years of deprivation and a Master’s in Education Theory and Policy, his writing explores the depictions of poverty in society. Currently, he is writing a book on popular culture and class divisions among Black Americans.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet working across criticism, translation, anti-disciplinary research practices, education, and radio.