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The "Bad" Black Consumer: A Study of African-American Consumer Culture in Washington, D.C., 1910s-1930s Open Access

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My dissertation is a social and cultural history of African-American consumption in the nation's capital during the interwar period. It argues that commodity culture fashioned a black consumer class that willingly and unintentionally stigmatized the Race during the rise of Jim Crow. This project specifically explores how members of the capital city's black elite worked to delimit the mobility of their constituency when they reproduced the idea that African Americans who conspicuously consumed were villainous or disreputable. It also looks at the role that mass culture played in distracting poor and middle-class black Washingtonians from addressing the structural forces that systematically disenfranchised peoples of African descent. Instead of collaborating to remedy the inequities that were responsible for creating a large black servant class, a number of African Americans within D.C. turned to the market to style themselves in ways that were in line with popular images of success. In so doing, they helped to preserve the reigning racial and class ideology of the era, which prefigured the white consumer as the ideal citizen and the black consumer as a potential criminal and threat to the existing social order. I focus on Washington, D.C. because it did not have a large black industrial working class in the early twentieth century. The absence of an organized black proletariat partially contributed to the emergence and dominance of a black consumer class, which reinforced the supremacy of the bourgeoisie instead of cultivating a blue-collar racial identity that countered middle-class "white" cultural norms. As this project maintains, black Washingtonians participated in marginalizing their community when they bought into mainstream ideas of what constituted status or propriety and publicly linked African-American consumption patterns with deviance. That is, commodity culture united various classes of the District's African-American residents to the dominant white society while undermining their ability to fully participate in collective action to resist the vagaries of racism or gain equality between WWI and WWII.

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