A Chat with Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes is an expert on race, ethnicity, and urban society. His work has focused on topics such as segregation, the link between race and ethnicity, and the black middle class. His latest book, Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family, is his most personal—telling the history of his family while examining the precariousness of the black middle class. He wrote the book with his wife, Syma Solovich, and published it in April 2017. UC Davis College of Letters and Science writing intern Noah Pflueger-Peters sat down with Dr. Haynes to talk about his new book and his compelling life and research
A Chat with Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes and Syma Solovitch (photos by Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Noah Pflueger-Peters: Can you tell me a little about your new book?

Bruce Haynes: “The book is very personal and yet very sociological. I happen to be the grandson of George Edmund Haynes, who’s a semi-famous person, but in a sense, an unsung hero. I have an interesting story about social mobility within my own family that happens to get tied to this legacy. I needed my co-author and wife, Syma Solovitch, to use her literary sense to bring together the story about my grandfather, the story about my family, and the upward and downward mobility that occurred across the 20th Century.

“The book is unusual because it’s written like a memoir but it also has chapter notes and the research is pretty extensive, so one can learn quite a bit about race and history in New York and Harlem. I call it a sociological memoir because the driving narrative is the story of the generational shifts across my family. There is a kind of focal point that makes it memoir-like because it’s about my memories growing up, but it’s not memories about my life, it’s memories about the social life I’m growing up in.”

NP: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to communicate your family’s history and bring sociology to the public. Is that the main reason you chose to write the book, or are there more?

BH: “Let me give you a little depth to that. A scholar at Northwestern [University] named Aldon Morris recently wrote this book called The Scholar Denied, and it’s about W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School and how they were ignored even though they were doing empirical sociology a decade before The University of Chicago scholars, which is where the profession tends to situate the founding of the discipline. My grandfather was one of three scholars who were part of this Atlanta School and he was protégé of Du Bois. I was excited to learn about it and excited to find a letter from Du Bois on the desk of my grandmother [written] back in the ’50s, which meant they were still in contact and close enough that he would send a personal note.

“Just after he [George Edmund Haynes] had completed his Ph.D. in 1912, the first black Ph.D. at Columbia, he founded the National Urban League, which was built as an interracial organization from the get-go. He then became the highest black official in the Wilson administration under the Department of Labor where he ran the Bureau of Negro Economics. This was the era when Du Bois was saying, ‘Close ranks,’ and my grandfather was preaching equal work for equal pay and interracial cooperation in 1919. These are progressive ideas that don’t really come onto the table until the 1960s, so he gets no credit.

“And that’s just granddaddy. My grandmother [Elizabeth Ross Haynes] was a contemporary of the first black Ph.D., Anna Julia Cooper. My grandmother had her M.A. in 1923 from the University of Chicago and she wrote the first study of black domestic workers in 1919 at the Department of Labor because she ran the women’s division underneath my grandfather. She gets no credit, but she was the No. 2 person running that thing. Then she ended up running for New York State Assembly in Harlem in the 1930s and she was the first black person on the YWCA’s national board.

“There are all these firsts. These are major people in the [Harlem] Renaissance, major people in the migration of black folks to New York and Chicago, major people in black institutions both in the South at Fisk [University] and the National Urban League. Only Du Bois gets mentioned out of all of these scholars, both men and women, who were trailblazers in sociology and social work, taking empirical work to make real changes in the social world. All of that nobody knows. Part of that’s the way we tell history, but part of that’s just being lazy. I thought, ‘I’ll die with all this stuff in my head and no one will know it.’ That’s why I had to write the book.”

NP: Why do you think they’re not as well known as some of the other activists of the era?

BH: “I believe a couple of reasons. They were not as conservative as Booker T. [Washington], but not as radical as Du Bois. [My grandfather’s] focus was on black rights. He was big in the church in this whole thing about interracial cooperation and this was not popular then. He loved the church and he thought racial uplift should be done by the church, being the strongest black institution, and I think that’s where he split from Du Bois.

NP: Is your family the reason you got into sociology?

BH: “Ironically no. I knew my grandfather was an educator, I knew he was the founder of the Urban League, I knew my grandmother wrote some books, and I knew she had something to do with social work, but that’s about it. My father didn’t focus on it. In the book, if you get a chance to read it, you’ll see how I came to get the painting [a portrait of George Haynes] and how it kind of put me on a journey to learn more about him.

“I learned a lot when I chose to write the book because I started digging and I realized, ‘Wow, this person did this’ and ‘There’s this little piece over here.’ People know this stuff, but none of it’s together. [George Haynes is] in migration studies, he’s in economics, he’s in sociology, he’s in social work, he was part of the Harlem Renaissance, he was part of the church and interracial movements within the church, but he’s written about more in anecdotal ways. He’s sort of like this minor character who always seems to pop up.”

NP: How far back did you go in your family history? Three generations?

BH: “Actually, I went back four generations. I traced my family out of slavery and how they acquired land, so that’s me, my father, my grandfather, and then the great-grand, although we only learn about the distant history of the great-grands.

“I interviewed my brother [George Haynes Jr.] as well, who was in the Nation of Islam. It’s because he was willing to share his very personal life story that I was able to capture such a richness on the streets of Harlem, because he went there and I didn’t, and that’s part of the two different stories I capture in the book. It’s quite a journey that we take you on.

“I’ll give you just one little story out of it. When I was in college, my mother called me up and said, ‘Mamie Canty went to jail.’ This was an old, half-blind lady who I had known as a seamstress my whole childhood and who lived in a really dangerous neighborhood. I came to find out she was [former drug lord and crime boss] Nicky Barnes’ bookie! It suddenly dawned on me that that’s why no one ever bothered us. I used to think it was just because Dad was a tough guy who used to sit outside and wait for us in the car, but no, it was because everybody in the neighborhood knew who she was except us!”

NP: What kind of attention has the book received since its release?

Picture of authors of bookBH: “I think it’s received excellent attention. It got reviewed in The New York Times, it got reviewed in the Washington Post, we got a starred Kirkus review, we got reviewed by Goodreads, we’ve made a couple of local summer reads lists, we’ve made it to Capital Public Radio, and we’ve made it to KQED. All the reviews have been positive and so we’ve been really happy about that. It sold out the first academic printing within a month, so that was definitely good for an academic book.”

NP: Now that you’ve published Down the Up Staircase, what’s your next project?

BH: “I have another book that will be coming out with NYU Press, which is about black Jews. It uses a case of people who identify as black and Jewish to investigate racial processes and how race and ethnicity are related concepts. It makes a strong theoretical case using this empirical case. That book will come out probably springtime next year, if all goes as planned. Then I’ll probably turn back to the question of race in the black middle class, which is what I started my career on. [Down the Up Staircase] is about the black middle class, but it’s more personal.

NP: Why study the black middle class?

BH: “The black middle class is a unique space in our society. On one hand, they deal with racial inequality all the time, but on the other hand, their material wealth makes people feel like everything’s good. There are a lot of contradictions and then they’ve got to live and work out those contradictions. My whole life has been one huge, weird contradiction along those lines.

“The black middle class has always been precarious precisely because equality came too little too late, so the mainstream managerial jobs didn’t even open up until the ’60s and ’70s. I think people don’t acknowledge how deeply ingrained the segregation was in our society and how remnants of it and even new processes that resegregate remain. So you’ve got these multiple forces at work still with the black middle class. It’s kind of a changing same, and so I think kind of catching up with what’s changing and what’s the same is important.

“In some ways, my life is very similar to my grandfather’s: I’m writing about race, I’m writing about inequality, I’m working in an institution, I’m working for the state. But I’m living in a white neighborhood and my wife is Jewish. Not that I don’t deal with racism, but certainly I have opportunities that he did not, and so there’s a real recognizing of change while still recognizing the obstacles that still remain.”

NP: If your family history ties you to Harlem, what drew you away from it to Davis?

BH: “What drew me to Davis was the reputation of the university system, the fact that [influential urban sociologist] Lyn Lofland was here, and that a lot of the faculty wrote books here. Being a book writer, I wanted to go someplace where people appreciated us. Davis also had a very strong reputation for being a strong university and still appreciating teaching, which is something I valued a lot and still do.

“I see myself as an educator, which is a little bit different than just a sociologist. I see us as having a certain responsibility to create dialogue in a democracy. Maybe it’s kind of a [John] Dewey-esque idealism, you know? I feel like people need to be informed about the things that are going on around them that maybe they affect, or that affect them, that they’re not aware of, and this takes us down a sociological path very quickly.

“Everything that came up in the [2016] election came up in my intro class. We were doing Marx and Orwell, so we’re talking about propaganda and transforming language and manipulating people through surveillance and all the things that are quite contemporaneous in our society. It seemed like what we’re talking about is important.”

NP: What has been your experience teaching, working with, and interacting with students at UC Davis?

BH: “I really like Davis students. There’s a wide range of skillsets amongst our students, but I find our students very committed and I find them to be, as a group, nice people who want to treat each other civilly.

“I felt good on this campus in a way this campus both as an institution and the students responded to the apparent uncertainty that was created for our undocumented students, for our foreign-born faculty, for our faculty who travel abroad. The institution responded in a way that made me feel good to be a part of it. This was a time where I felt, ‘Wow, people really get it.’” 

NP: When you’re not teaching and researching, what do you like to do? Do you have any hobbies?

BH: “I was an avid soccer player until a few years ago when I [started] aging. I love music, I cycle, I do yoga, I’m dabbling in a little Buddhism. I’m a sports guy. If you stick a ping pong table in front of me, I’m going to be playing, but the older I get, the more creaky I get. In my head, I’m still 35.” 

NP: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

BH: “I would reiterate the importance of my wife in executing a readable project and moving us in a more literary direction. I just felt like she needed to get the props for that. Otherwise, I’d be making the same mistake that earlier generations did by ignoring my grandmother. She’s the woman behind the scenes, but I get all the credit and it’s ironic because that’s a theme in the book. I understand why, but I see how it all happens, how it all unfolds in history, and how someone becomes unsung."


Haynes teaches Intro to Sociology (SOC 1), Race Relations (SOC 130), and Sociology of Urban Life (SOC 143B).

Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at The Columbia University Press website.

Noah Pflueger-Peters graduated from UC Davis in June 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in English and minors in Communication and Professional Writing (UWP).