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Pittsburgh-based author's book explores 'Class Interruptions' in novels by Black women

University of Pittsburgh professor Robin Brooks
Emily O'Donnell
Courtesy of the author
University of Pittsburgh professor Robin Brooks

As a child of working-class Miami, Robin Brooks noticed the vast range in wealth among the people who lived there, from the poor to the millionaires. She didn’t yet know to attribute this disparity to “social class,” but she saw the differences.

Her interest sharpened during the Great Recession that began in 2007. By that time, Brooks had grown up and launched her career in academia. She watched the social sciences focusing more on how class functioned. She wondered what her field, African diasporic literary studies, had to say on the subject.

A lot, it turns out: Novelists number among our culture's keenest students of class. Brooks’ findings are gathered in “Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction” (University of North Carolina Press).

Brooks, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh, examines how Black American and Afro-Caribbean novelists like Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor have explored class, especially through what Brooks calls “cross-class pairings”: relationships between Black characters from different classes, like middle-class Lester and working-class Willie in Naylor’s “Linden Hills” (1985).

In part, “Class Interruptions” is dedicated to debunking a host of myths, assumptions, and stereotypes about social class. That includes conceptions of what “class” is: Brooks contends it concerns more than just income level or occupation, and often involves the need for one group of people to define themselves in contrast to another group.

Much of “Class Interruptions” concerns the beliefs people in any of those groups holds about people in any other.

For one, as Brooks said in an interview, “We still have this big assumption that all Black people are poor. So the fact the fact that my book literally juxtaposes Black working-class people and Black middle-class people, that right there squashes that stereotype.”

Moreover, she writes, members of a given social class tend to generalize about everyone in another class. “They act this way they sound this way, they do these types of things, or they have this certain type of behavior. Right? That's a myth,” she said.

Brooks also addresses the way class, in this neoliberal age, has increasingly come to be seen as a matter of personal life choices, rather than structural inequalities and systemic racism.

The novels Brooks focuses on, all published in the past 50 years, include “Linden Hills,” Morrison’s “Love,” Dawn Turner’s “Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven,” and Olive Senior’s “Dancing Lessons.”

Today, Brooks considers herself a “straddler” – a working-class person who has moved into the middle class, in her case thanks to her academic career. But she said it’s essential to continue to highlight and discuss issues of class.

“It's a sensitive topic to talk about intra-racial class antagonism,” said Brooks. “Because Black people are already marginalized themselves. … But these are topics I talk about, these 'dirty laundry' topics, because if we never discuss these things, how can we make progress on them, right?”

She said "Class Interruptions" provides a roadmap toward that progress.

"My book is very much so solution oriented and forward-looking, so this is not a pessimistic book," she said. "I'm a person who was into cross-class alliances and have allies from different backgrounds, including different racial back backgrounds. And I literally say this in the book, and I think that I think that unity is key. You know, a level of unity.

"No, I don't believe in utopias, right? But I do believe that we can have a level of unity where we can agree that at least everybody's basic needs can be met. And so definitely in the book, the writers that I explore, they are addressing these issues so that we can destabilize this unjust status quo that we currently have."

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: