“I don’t know how you ended up so bougie when we came out of the same family,” said my baby sister, one day over the phone.
I was taken aback. Me? Bougie?
And yet, I was. Painfully so. And had been, at this point, for several years. But I was still offended. At the time she made this comment, I was living in Washington, D.C., chasing a short-lived stint as a decidedly non-combative TV pundit. It was a cool job n’ all, but it paid zero out of zero dollars. I was, according to my tax bracket, probably the working poor. Yet I had a large basement apartment in Capitol Hill to myself, could taste the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and often frequented rooftop parties in the no-longer-Chocolate City.
She told me how on TV I spoke so “proper.” Wait, what? We’re both the children of an architectural engineer and a schoolteacher. How am I supposed to sound? This is my real voice!
Yet, bougie. Like, look down on Applebee’s and refuse to eat there bougie. I was bougie. And no one in my family was bougie. I was raised by a man who only purchased cars made by Ford. By a woman who thought “art” was a bunch of ceramic chickens and ducks. How did this even happen? I’m from St. Louis, Mo., spent my formative years in a mostly black working-class suburb and enjoy Velveeta without irony. I can’t be bougie—can I? I just like nice shit! Like, I’m “fancy,” but not, you know, extra fancy. I put on my palazzo pants one leg at a time, like everyone else!
But, you know what? I lost this battle with my sister so long ago that I just had to accept it.
Hello, my name is Danielle Belton. I am bougie.
I’m trying to remember when this became a thing.
This bougie thing.
I was not raised to be “bougie black.” I was actually raised to be a “Terminator”—like, the Arnold Schwarzenegger kind, but not murderous. Someone who could easily move around in spaces and find success without the burden of their resume getting thrown in the trash just because your first name happened to be Keisha. I was raised to be polite. And even-tempered. And rational. And even slightly boring. But not a bad kind of boring. More like a predictable kind of mundanity that comes from just focusing on career or school and avoiding “The Trap” at all costs.
“The Trap” is racism.
“The Trap” is the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The Trap” is actual prison or being a statistic—like on drugs, or dead, or worse. I know you don’t think there’s anything worse than death, but…trust me on this one, there are varieties of hells racism can condemn you to where you’ll wish they’d just killed you instead.
But being a Terminator meant the endgame was to infiltrate the spaces most black people couldn’t get into, then open all the windows and doors and let all the other Negroes in. My father was essentially this in all his years in the aerospace industry, choosing a career in management, confident in his ability to get black people hired and paid in that lily-white space.
All the piano lessons and art classes and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at 13 and watching all of the Eyes on the Prize documentary on PBS when I was 16 was meant to prepare me for my life of door-and-window opening. Of looking like a “harmless” kind of black, an acceptable black, a “respectable” black when in actuality I was going to take over and run everything and free us all...somehow.
My parents had a plan for me. This plan was not to turn me into Whitley Gilbert.
The Whitley Gilbert thing was a side-effect of all their hard work of emphasizing school and career at the detriment of everything else. A boyfriend? Boys are problems; you don’t need a boyfriend. Friends? Sure, you can have them, but c’mon, are you really going to alter large portions of your life for people who aren’t your family? And family? Sure, we love you and all, but we also love you enough to let you go be a successful Terminator. Can’t stand in the way of that. Move thousands of miles away from us and conquer. We’ll still be here whenever you have time.
My mother died last December due to her battle with Alzheimer’s, and all I can think is I gave up living near the people I love more than anything in the world for my career, and they encouraged it. And I’d give anything for just one more day with her, so I guess I’d better make this career thing count. It better be a great career. The best career. And I better Harriet Tubman this shit and get someone free in the process. Otherwise, what’s the point?
But back to this bougie thing.
The first time I was in a bougie situation, I was, ironically, living in the decidedly not bougie place of Bakersfield, Calif. I was invited to a house party and there was sangria. Like really fancy, nice sangria with fruit in it. Like with “Blood Oranges” and other fruits I wasn’t familiar with. At the time, I didn’t really drink and was not particularly cultured when I did drink. All I knew were wine coolers and Boones Farm. Sangria? What’s that? Who drinks Sangria, I thought. God, y’all so bougie. Y’all too good for some Bartles and Jaymes.
Then I took a sip. It wasn’t bad. And being a Terminator, I knew I needed to play it cool. To act like I’d had sangria before or knew what it was when I had not and did not. I remember calling my sister—don’t remember which one anymore (I have two)—and telling her about this bougie shit these white folks were doing out in Bakersfield. I was not bougie. I did not understand it. And I did not try to.
Yet, I didn’t tell them that I liked it.
Our mother, bless her soul, did not like bougie blacks.
The dislike, though, wasn’t a real hate. It was a pre-hate. It was this thing where you dismiss something before it can cut you off first. My mom was born into a world of sharecropping and beans every night for dinner. She chopped and picked cotton. She helped raise her seven brothers and one sister as the eldest child in the family. She still remembered how folks of better means looked down on them or called her brothers “bad” or treated her poorly. And she carried this pre-hate with her to college, where the bougie blacks were cold. Then she carried the pre-hate to St. Louis, where she would make her home and meet my father. And she still had the pre-hate long after she became who she was the entire time I knew her, up until her diagnosis of dementia.
This was a woman who dressed up in heels and makeup to bring me my gloves at elementary school when I forgot them. This was a woman who was married to a man who worked so hard and well that she didn’t have to get a job. This was a woman who always wanted to learn how to play the piano so she made all three of her children play the piano, even though one-third of us was vehemently opposed to it.
This was a woman who lived in a lovely mid-’90s ranch house, who didn’t worry about money, whose favorite hobby was to go to the mall and shop. She was college-educated and a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and used to be a schoolteacher and was beautiful and petite and exercised constantly. She didn’t curse, always used proper English and wanted her children to do the same. She was, in fact, the ladiest-Southern-lady-to-ever-lady. We had a living room no one ever sat in and a dining room we only ate in twice a year because, she, the neat-freak, didn’t want me, our father or my sisters dirtying it up. She couldn’t use an ATM or pump gas—these were my father’s jobs. And she was the star of her family and the light of all our lives, but she was scared to death of bougie black people.
Even though, by all appearances to those who were not bougie, she lived like one.
But she was not bougie.
She was just a country girl who happened to like nice things.
The one time during my childhood she was invited to do some bougie shit, I had to beg her to go. It was for a women’s networking group in the then fancy-pants, everything-named-for-horse-racing neighborhood we’d just moved into in North St. Louis County.
Back then, there were not many black families in this new neighborhood, so the few black women living there made a little club and invited her. But my mom, being my mom, missed the old working-class neighborhood we’d lived in and her old friends who were all schoolteachers or letter carriers or custodians. She did not trust this new group of black ladies.
My mom fretted. She hemmed and hawed. I could look in her eyes and see the fear. That old pain of rejection. But I was ambitious, even as a child. I wanted more for both myself and my mother. Even though she’d denied me when I desired to do status humpy shit as a child. Like she wouldn’t buy us name-brand clothes—my baby sister and I once had to share a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt she gave us for Christmas that both our parents made us feel guilty for even wanting. She also was opposed to me being in the National Honors Society, Inroads or Jack and Jill, or participate in a cotillion.
Despite this, I still wanted this for her. If only so she’d make some friends (my mother was a charmer, but painfully shy at times). I also didn’t understand her fear, because as a child I didn’t get that whatever happens to you as a kid sticks with you forever. Those old shames. Those old hurts. Those old rejections. It didn’t matter that they all lived in the same suburb or that she was just as smart, if not smarter than those other women, or that unlike nearly every woman in that group, she was among the few who lived a life of relative leisure.
Bougie black people had this way of making all that melt away for my mother, filling her with a panic.
“What would I even talk about?” she asked me.
“Talk about your kids! Talk about politics!” I said, knowing my mother LOVED reading the newspaper, going to the library every weekend to check out more books to read and loved to argue about whatever was going on politically in this country.
My mother, after all my peer pressure, went to a grand total of one women’s networking group meeting and never went back.
Even though they had begged her to attend.
All she did was complain. And she ultimately did what she always did—she chose to reject them before they could reject her, even though most of the women had a background similar to hers. But she didn’t see that. She only saw fancy cars and designer labels, even though she, too, had nice clothes and drove a Lincoln.
When I named my old pop culture and politics blog The Black Snob, it truly was a joke. A girl I went to college with once told me that I “looked stuck up” based on how happy I looked on my 19th birthday when all my then-friends brought me presents in the school’s university center. She was pregnant at the time and only 18 and felt left out, and I was just some fancy-pants kid living that whole “not pregnant” life. Once she actually met me, she realized I was pretty chill. So chill, in fact, that for some reason, I constantly volunteered to watch her kid when she went out to party with our friends. Again, I was raised to be blandly predictable and safe, meaning even though there was only a year difference between us, I didn’t go to clubs, drink, smoke or do anything but go to class and run the student newspaper. Of course, you could leave an entire baby with me! And at that age, I adored children and could play with them for hours.
But the whole snob thing was a joke. Originally.
Still, people made their assumptions based solely on the name and my uptight, prudish nature. Plus, I had all these random things that made me seem like I was more connected or posh than the raggedy Midwesterner I actually was. The first “sign” that I was not quite as I seemed was when I coincidentally met Donna Brazile during her book tour back in the early days of the Obama administration. At the time, I was going through a period where I’d forgotten how to dress (it happens) and was fond of just wearing whatever was comfortable. I’d just come out of a deep depression and had lost a bunch of weight. I thought literally nothing of the photo I published of me meeting Brazile for the first time, but one of my readers commented that I did not look how they expected me to. Namely, I did not look like the stylish daughter of upper-middle-class parents, let alone someone who would call themselves “The Black Snob.” I looked like, to be honest, a giant nerd, which is what I actually am.
This was my first glimpse into what would eventually become my life—the highly competitive world of fancy-pants people who regularly went to the Obama White House and enjoyed “day parties.”
What I found was since my blog’s name alone invoked an air of superiority, people were more than happy to tell me that, they too, were “black snobs.” And I, being a Terminator, just sort of let them think that I was too, for better or worse. I eventually would move to Washington, D.C., blow a bunch of money on a slightly better wardrobe where at least I looked like I cared, and rediscovered the same girl who once argued with her parents over—well, to be honest, literally everything—as I desired more than they could ever give me, coupled with my own desire to be a highly competitive black nerd in a magical land of bougie black nerds in D.C.
What was “magical” was that since everyone was basically just a well-dressed nerd in the District, I finally, for the first time since never, felt seen and heard. People wanted to be my friend. People wanted to hear what I had to say. People wanted to get to know me, for me. My experience with the status-humpers and the elites alike was not negative, as it was for my mother; it was affirming. In me, they saw a sister, a friend, a colleague, a peer. Or, if nothing else, a fellow over-educated black in the land of over-educated black people. But for the first time since never, it seemed like it was a good thing to be Danielle Belton, in all her “snobbery,” whereas in St. Louis, it had been bad to be me.
St. Louis was a tough experience for me growing up. I didn’t fit in. I was ostracized and bullied in school. I was an outcast for almost my entire time living there, until college. And, again, in college, I was boring. The only “un-predictable” thing I did was join Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., which, considering both my mom and eldest sister are Zetas, shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was to people, as I’m not really a joiner, thanks to feeling like an outsider most of my youth.
But as an adult, making friends is easy, as I am chatty and sociable and people seem drawn to me, no matter my many moods. My adult friends are a varied sort. Not all of them are bougie. Not all of them are intellectuals. Not all of them are nerds or geeks or from financially stable backgrounds. But the one thing everyone has in common is a love for learning and a fondness for nice shit.
The learning is obvious: they are all well-read and up-to-date on the latest debacle in the news. The nice shit, though, could be much more varied: a limited edition Marvel figurine or a pair of Gucci shoes; a springtime venture in France or a summer trip to Martha’s Vineyard; a delicious meal at some place you’ve never heard of or a handcrafted cocktail at some speakeasy; a first-class plane ticket or a nice hotel they saved up all year for. Some are great with money. Others are in debt due to their fondness for whatever their fancy vice was. Some seem to solely survive based on the kindness of their better-off friends and family. But, god, they are all easier to talk than my former childhood tormentors, who also liked various signifiers of wealth but thought that’s what made a person, not, you know, actually being thoughtful or kind.
I think if my mother had tried, she would have found that not all bougie people are terrible. Don’t get me wrong—there are plenty of shallow, ridiculous people in the world of the bougie black. I just don’t befriend those assholes. I chose to surround myself with fastidious, fabulous, fun, frank and fancy negroes, as you can find those folks in absolutely any city, any state, any place and any tax bracket.
But would my mom pre-reject me, her now bougie child? Absolutely not. I was, and will always be, the Terminator she raised and poured all her love into. I don’t think my mother ever once called me bougie, no matter how high I climbed on the black social ladder. I was just Danielle, her middle daughter, her baby. It pains me that by the time I was finally stable—financially and mentally—she didn’t really get to see it, as dementia had robbed her of her memories of me, my sisters and her husband, our father. For her, my story would forever be unfinished, me riding off to live in D.C., again, in 2013, after a brief stint at home, to a fate uncertain.
But she would never say I was bougie. Because bougie is bad and nothing that ever came from my mother could ever be bad in her eyes.
She simply created a child who liked nice shit.
She simply created herself.