With The World from Brown's Lounge: An Ethnography of Black Middle-Class Play Michael J. Bell provides a narrative and interpretation of the play behavior of middle class blacks within the context of Brown's Lounge, a neighborhood bar in West Philadelphia. At the time he did his field research at Brown's, Bell was a white, male, doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. The book appears to be either his original dissertation or a somewhat edited dissertation.
The prose is accessible and not marked by the frequent subordinate clauses and qualification of statements that mars a good deal of academic writing (Bell xi, 1-7). According to Bell The World from Brown's Lounge is a "study in black American folklore" (Bell ix). However he does not use the word folklore in the traditional sense of myths, tales, and traditions usually passed on orally or through folk art, but rather as the "artistic communication .
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[that] links us together in our day-to-day interactions" (Bell ix). This folklore is studied in context, not merely as an academic exercise that might be done by reading a textbook about the folk beliefs of a people without regard to their lives. Bell describes what he saw in Brown's and claims that it is folklore but pointedly refuses engage in an argument as to whether or not the material in the book is in fact folklore. For the purposes of The World from Brown's Lounge the reader must assume that the book is folklore.
Frankly, this distinction seems artificial; the text can and should be judged on its methodology and analysis and not on attempts to fit the book to a particular niche genre. Bell claims that the black middle class is (or at least was at the time the book was written) largely ignored in research with the focus being on the behavior and lifestyle of the poorer class. Even when the middle class has been addressed it has tended to interview individuals who "exemplified" their race and not observe members of the black middle class acting with each other.
In essence Bell contends that at that time the research was done, the literature failed to recognize that the black middle class existed at all (Bell 1-5). The methodology Bell used was to sit in Brown's Bar at various times throughout the day, observing the patrons and participating in their interactions for a period of about eighteen months beginning in 1972. The observation periods were typically three hours each. Bell describes himself as an active participant as he engaged in the discussions that occurred at Brown's as well as participating in the consumption of alcohol.
The regular patrons were aware of what he was doing and that descriptions of their activities might appear in his doctoral dissertation and possible a subsequent book. Bell recorded the conversations that occurred so that he might study them later. In addition any individual who wished to could listen to any tapes, but no one chose to do so. Although Bell was aware that his presence in the "black" bar would affect the patrons, by being up front with them he hoped to minimize his affects on the patrons.
In the process Bell did extended interviews with some of the key patrons (Bell 1-5). Interestingly he received a grant to engage in this research, which is good work if you can get it. Bell intended that his work describe how the day-to-day activities in a neighborhood bar reflect the values of the members of the neighborhood. He claims the study describes how the activities at Brown's allow the patrons to conform to "their desire to create and live within a world that allows them to be both black and middle class" (Bell 5).
To do this he describes interactions between the patrons, at times actually quoting entire conversations and then attempts to classify and analyze them. These conversations are, at times, interesting, but are common to many social situations and not indications of middle class black behavior in the 1970s. Bell tries to make them so however. He claims that this behavior is an example of middle class blacks playing with each other verbally and non-verbally by "talking shit," "styling," and "profiling" (Bell). Bell writes that these conversations are improvisations with deep, sophisticated meaning for middle class blacks.
For example in a discussion on page 110 and analyzed on page 111 Bell offers the following. " From these two sentences Bell draws the following analysis. Harriet was seeking direct information. Gill responded in the same fashion as "if it were a request for information and nothing else. " This is straightforward enough and patently obvious.
However Bell is not satisfied with this explanation and seeks a deeper meaning, "[i]n asking after Jimmy, Harriet made it clear that she believed that it was appropriate for her to know his whereabouts. " One feels the need to ask why Bell decide would emphasize such a point. Fundamentally he may be correct, but a simpler, more straightforward conclusion seems to be preferable; Harriet was curious about Jimmy. It is difficult to believe that at anytime during this process that Harriet consciously assumed it was proper for her to know where Jimmy was the day before.
Similarly, Bell analyzes other conversations throughout the book. Instead of taking the discussions at face value Bell appears to believe each "interaction is a continuous exchange of images of self—of who and what one is—in order to convince the others present that all present are capable of acting coherently and correctly" (Bell 8). This belief implies that each person at Brown's is taking part in an improvisation performance determined to establish himself as an individual person and as a member of the group.
In reality, it is far more likely that such conversations at Brown's and similar ones at other bars and coffee shops are just that, conversations between people trying to relax and have a good time. The book suffers from a variety of problems besides the over analysis mentioned above. While reading the book one feels that Bell was describing a species that he is completely unrelated to in the same way that a zoologist might describe the behavior of a species of bird or mammal.
Although the motivation for this distance appears to be an attempt to be as neutral as possible, certainly a laudable goal, when Bell describes or analyzes the activities in Brown's and fails to place them within the contact of being middle class, black, or even human the book suffers. In fact, Bell states this is what he is doing in the preface, instead of limiting his study to a particular ethnic group, age group, or occupation Bell defines his study to a particular place, Brown's (Bell x). This tightly focused limitation seems to greatly restrict the relevance of Bell's work to other situations or people.
Despite this self-imposed limitation, Bell makes frequent references to the behavior the middle class, though in Brown's it is not the middle class, it is the only class. Bell's research lacks a clearly defined identity. Although Bell purports to be providing a description of description of the black middle class at play, he provides no insight as to how the behavior of the middle class patrons differs from or is similar to the behavior of lower or upper class blacks as well as the behavior of classes of other races in their own neighborhood bar.
Much of the behavior Bell describes seems to be no different than one might see in any local bar or coffee shop for even by watching a rerun of the television comedy Cheers. As pointed out in "A Note on the Author" in the last page of the book, Bell received his PhD and at the time of publication was an associate professor of English and folklore at Wayne State University. In addition he has published a variety of articles on urban folklore in a number of scholarly journals.
A quick search of the databases at Questia reveal a number of books that referred to The World from Brown's Lounge, but for the most parts these were merely listings in the bibliographies at the back of these books, although Loic Wacquant refers to it in 2004 as a "fine book" in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (181). All in all, Bell has adequate, if not impressive academic credentials in this area. The book could do with more careful editing. Although naturally the conversation among the patrons should not be edited, when Bell is providing narrative he should maintain consistent, grammatically correct standards.
An example of a failure to do so is his inconsistent of his treatment of some words. For example, the term "middle-class" appears in the book's title and on page 1 and "middle class" on page 5 even though both are used to describe the same thing. Occasionally Bell uses questionable grammatical constructions that should be corrected as well. To his credit, Bell uses occasional inline citations and provides an extensive bibliography that is useful. The World from Brown's Lounge has no index, a feature that would prove useful to students and scholars using the text for literary searches.
Due to the unusual meanings of many of the words used in the context of Brown's a glossary would be helpful as well. Ultimately the book is not particularly satisfying. Perhaps in 1972 when the research was done or in 1983 when the book was published the book had more impact, but in today's world The World from Brown's Lounge seems remarkably flat and uninteresting. One questions just what if anything Bell contributed to anthropological academic knowledge that justified his receiving a PhD with this dissertation supporting his candidacy, much less what justified its subsequent publication as a book.
Although some of the play was interesting to read, Bell's over analysis reduced it the trivial. Bell's attempts to provide significance to ordinary conversations in a bar read more like long academic stretches in hopes of securing a doctorate than to do meaningful work.
- Bell, Michael J. The World from Brown's Lounge: An Ethnography of Black Middle-Class Play.
- Urbana, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983 Wacquant, Loic. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.
- New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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