Gloria Naylor Showed Us the Quiet Monster of Classism in the Black Community
"Linden Hills" taught me to see how the pursuit of status dominated life in my class-conscious Black neighborhood
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I wish I’d discovered Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills earlier in life. The acclaimed novelist’s 71st birthday would’ve been on January 25, and I’ve realized her book, which calls attention to the modern-day classism rooted in Black culture, probably would have saved me a lot of anxiety and heartbreak if I had first encountered it as a teenager starving for acceptance in a Black middle-class neighborhood.
When I was 17, I found my place in the world through clothes. A passion for fashion pulled me out of my shell as a shy, awkward girl. I was no longer the kid in middle school who retreated into books to cope with the realities of an “ugly duckling” stage.
I strayed from my bookworm-ish tendencies and placed more importance on my appearance to fit in. I ditched the eyeglasses I’d been wearing since first grade for contact lenses. I got dental braces to close the gap between my two front teeth. I started getting perms that straightened my hair on a regular basis.
My physical makeover helped me develop friendships with a small group of girls who were popular. They introduced me to my first boyfriend who was a football jock, which further grew my social circle. Finally, I felt what it was like to be accepted and I was terrified of having that feeling taken away.
On weekends, I started using the money I made from my evening jobs to buy stylish, expensive ensembles. I loved the thrill of browsing clothes in stores, smelling the crispness of new fabric as it went over my skin, and absorbing the compliments from other people in the hallways of our high school.
My fashion fetish was more than a vanity tool and means of self-expression; it was a way of adapting to the social hierarchy in my neighborhood. Having brains didn’t matter unless your Honor Roll status put you in good standing with one of the Big Four families in our community. You weren’t special for having your first car if it was the average hand-me-down Honda; you were applauded for having a Lexus or Mustang convertible, vehicles that implied your parents were straddling a different tax bracket. Similarly, wearing the right clothes from the right stores signaled that you were poised to mingle with the right folks who were going to the right places.
Despite the difference in decade and location, Naylor thoroughly examines the same egregious class code in Linden Hills. The book contains the author’s signature poetic lyricism and biting insight, as first seen in her claim-to-fame novel, The Women of Brewster Place, all the while serving as a critical reminder of how classism remains an understated issue in Black communities.
I believe the dilemma concerning Black America’s class divide doesn’t get enough attention for several reasons. For one, many people—including a number of Blacks—think fighting against one injustice at a time is sufficient. Sometimes a focus on combating classism gets avoided because it’s assumed that the issue will undermine the fight against problems that are perceived to be more threatening, like racism and misogyny.
Another cause could be that many people still don’t see the socioeconomic hierarchy as harmful to our communities. To some, success is success, no matter how one attains it, or at what costs. The majority of Blacks in the U.S. have suffered deprivation and inequality for so long that some of us are willing to endure the drawbacks that come with financial security and a high social status.
Naylor continually points out this indifference to the dangers of classism in Linden Hills. Set in the mid-1980s, the novel centers a fictional upper-middle class suburb that, for over a hundred years, has prided itself on becoming a symbol of Black wealth. Luther Nedeed, a ruthless third-generation real estate mogul and mortician, rules with an iron fist, much like his great-great grandfather who established the town in 1837.
The story’s context aligns with Naylor’s belief in Black-owned businesses and social progress. In her lifetime, she also advocated for land ownership as a way for African-Americans to gain equal footing in a world that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart.
“Don’t be running after white folks for a few crumbs, “said Naylor in an interview. “Build your bakery. Build your own house. Get yourself some land and a basic profession so that people will have to come to you. If Black folks had taken that advice, the texture of the Black community would be very different today.”
Still, in Linden Hills, Naylor shows the negative effects that can spawn from Black enterprise when it meets unchecked financial privilege. The author writes the novel through the lens of two poets, Lester Tilson and Willie Mason, who barely straddle the line between have and have-not. In an effort to make extra money during the Christmas season, Lester and Willie decide to work odd jobs in Linden Hills, discovering firsthand the hypocrisy, vile secrets, and generations-old tradition of “selling out” that riddles a community preoccupied with upward mobility and affluence.
From the dialogue to the character descriptions, Naylor takes the reader on a journey that highlights what Linden Hills residents are willing to risk in order to maintain their power in a town where self-worth is determined by who they know and what they own.
Maxwell Smyth, a business executive, is one of the locals painted as a composed and calculating individual who’s overly concerned with his reputation and determined to leave no room for error on his quest to live the good life. He tries to convince his friend and subordinate, Xavier Donnell, that marrying Lester’s sister, Roxanne, is not good because she’s a Black woman who’s not as socially adept or financially well off as Maxwell thinks she should be.
“But, you’re going to have to face some hard, cold facts,” Maxwell tells Xavier, “there just aren’t enough decent ones to choose from. They’re either out there on welfare and waiting to bring a string of somebody else’s kids to support, or they’ve become so important that they’re brainwashed into thinking that you aren’t good enough for them.”
Naylor also addresses intraracial issues, like homophobia and colorism, which further complicate relationships and the class divide among residents in Linden Hills. She highlights the tendency for locals to involve themselves in image-hungry, loveless marriages steeped in convenience and tradition.
Lester and Willie, for instance, witness the wedding of a groom that Luther convinced to abandon his same-sex liaison to marry a woman and start a traditional family, the more socially acceptable choice for a young man climbing the success ladder.
“No one’s been able to make it down to Tupelo Drive without a stable life and family,” Luther tells Winston, the groom-to-be.
On the other hand, Luther’s great great-grandfather, the town’s founder, was rumored to have brought his “octoroon” child bride with him when he first set out for Linden Hills in the 19th century. An emphasis on his spouse’s light skin is continually emphasized, which drives home the point that a fair complexion was, and often still is, viewed as more valuable and a symbol of privilege.
To me, the genius of Naylor’s story lies in what many considered a play off the allegory of The Inferno by 14th-century writer Dante Alighieri. Like the main character in The Inferno, Linden Hills residents confront more inner demons and a loss of identity as they aspire to move further down the hill of the decadent neighborhood. The closer they get to the bottom, the more success they’ve attained, along with misery and corruption.
“You know, my grandmother called it selling the mirror in your soul,” Lester says in the novel. “I guess she meant giving up that part of you that lets you know who you are. So you keep that mirror and when it’s crazy outside, you look inside and you’ll always know exactly where you are and what you are. And you call that peace. These people have lost that, Willie. They’ve lost all touch with what it is to be them. Because there’s not a damned thing anymore to let them know.”
Reading passages like these, I often felt like Naylor wrote Linden Hills just for me. She helped me identify the language that describes the isolation, the insensitivity, and the hyper-awareness of class differences that shaped the psyches of youth like me in search of acceptance. As early as high school, and without fully realizing it, I’d learned how to navigate the community politics of my neighborhood and how to treat people based on who I thought they were, in terms of economic and social standing. My fashion addiction eventually led to a superiority complex and helped me fall further out of touch with reality as I nursed my own delusions of what constituted Black success.
It wasn’t until I won “Best Dressed” during our Senior Superlatives contest that I recognized my foolish behavior. I remember feeling elated that I’d beat out every other so-called fashionable student in my class, but when I showed my mom the small trophy I’d won, all she said was “Is that it?” with a look of sincere disgust on her face. Her words stung because they allowed me to see myself for who, or what, I was turning into, and I hated that person.
In college, the allure of being part of the “it” crowd that fueled my fashion fetish eventually waned, and I reclaimed my love of reading and creative writing. Had I not felt compelled to make a change for the better, chances are I wouldn’t have picked up Linden Hills and discovered Naylor’s in-depth examination of classism in our community.
Like racism and sexism, class division isn’t a new phenomenon impacting Black culture. With each generation, “keeping up with the Joneses” gets packaged differently to the masses, but a deeper look shows that it’s the same hurtful actions meant to keep Blacks in needless competition for material gain at all costs.
There’s plenty of work to do when it comes to bridging the gap between classes in our communities. I believe one way forward is to diversify our networks. It’s crucial to resist echo chambers and silos that encourage groupthink and closedmindedness. To meet and interact with those who think, work, move, and live differently.
In recent months, we’ve been inundated with charged political rhetoric and attacks on democracy that should make all of us, regardless of class, race, or sex, re-examine the role we play in harming each other. I believe Naylor’s Linden Hills is one of those timeless works that urges us to do better, if we want better.