LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Our Kind of PeopleI: Inside America’s Black Upper Class (5 .5 pp) Through six years of interviews with more than three hundred prominent families and individuals, journalist and commentator Lawrence Otis Graham weaves together the revealing stories and fascinating experiences of upper-class blacks who grew up with privilege and power. Previously known for his provocative New York magazine expos of elite golf clubs, when he left his law firm and went undercover as a busboy at an all-white Connecticut country club, Graham now turns his attention to the black elite. Bibliography lists 2 sources. BBblkeli.doc
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Our Kind of People
Inside America’s Black Upper Class
Written by Barbara Babcock for the Paperstore, Inc., July 2000
Debutante cotillions. Arranged marriages. Summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard. All-black boarding schools. Memberships in the Links, Deltas, Boul, or Jack and Jill. Million-dollar homes. An obsession with good hair, light complexions, top credentials, and colleges like Howard, Spelman, and Harvard.
This is the world of the black upper class, exclusive, mostly hidden group that lives awkwardly between white America and mainstream black America.
Through six years of interviews with more than three hundred prominent families and individuals, journalist and commentator Lawrence Otis Graham weaves together the revealing stories and fascinating experiences of upper-class blacks who grew up
with privilege and power. Previously known for his provocative New York magazine expos of elite golf clubs, when he left his law firm and went undercover as a busboy at an all-white Connecticut country club, Graham now turns his attention to the black elite.
Simply looking at the table of contents gives an overview of this quiet class of privilege: The Origins of the Black Upper Class; Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest; The Black Child Experience: The Right Cotillions, Camps, and Private Schools; Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse: Three Colleges That Count;
and The Right Fraternities and Sororities. As well as The Links and the Girl Friends: For Black Women Who Govern Society ; The Boule, the Guardsmen, and Other Groups for Elite Black Men; and Vacation Spots for the Black Elite. We also become acquainted with the Black Elite in Chicago,Washington, D.C., New York City; Memphis, Detroit,
Atlanta, and receiving honorable mention: Nashville, New Orleans, Tuskegee, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. And finally:Passing for White: When the “Brown Paper Bag Test” Isn’t Enough.
According to Kirkus Reviews (1998), this non-fiction work is a record of the pleasures and the follies of an elevated black society. According to Graham, all racial, ethnic, and religious groups lay claim to their own privileged class that group which,
either because of family name, wealth, title, education, or other circumstance fashions itself a cut above the rest.
This class sets itself apart with their clubs, their fraternities, and their sororities,
while looking skeptically at any outsiders who can never make the grade. The reasons for forming such exclusive groups are often perfectly honorable, most commonly because members have been denied access to other organizations in the larger population. But matters can get out of hand, as Graham (Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World, 1995) perhaps unwittingly demonstrates in his examination of what he calls the black elite. His is less of a critical examination and more of a glossary of people, places, and things constituting the black upper class. And as one might expect, this realm of the right colleges and degrees and pedigrees is downright incestuous, a world where cotillions and coming-out parties still matter. Graham, an insider and attorney,
knows it well. Yet his contemporary savvy matters less, in the end, than does his appetite for historical detail.
Graham insights into the story of blacks in vacation spots like Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Sag Harbor on Long Island, N.Y., for instance, are fascinating. Nevertheless, the ongoing claustrophobia of privilege (with many of the same people and
their cliques cycling and recycling) can weary a reader. One walks away with the impression that Graham’s effort could have been cut in half and all one would have missed is an extra afternoon of ceaseless croquet, followed by cucumber sandwiches down by the gazebo.
Our Kind of People is the first book written about the limited world of the black upper class by a member of this hard-to-penetrate group. A conservative network of families dating back to the first black millionaires of the 1880s, the black elite has developed its own rules for membership and for maintaining a place in a world that is unaware of its vast contributions.
Sometimes gossipy and always touching, Graham visits and profiles upper-class families and institutions in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, always revealing who passes the “brown paper bag and ruler test” and who doesn’t. With photographs and stories, the author takes us to the mansions they built in the 1880s, as well as to black-tie debutante cotillions and dinners hosted by the “best” families and social groups today.
He visits families that trace their lineage to prominent whites, profiles major politicians, and interviews guests who attended a famous $60,000 wedding held in 1923 by New York’s wealthiest black family. He takes us on a limousine ride with the richest black man in America and introduces us to socialites who are adept at screening celebrities, Baptists, and “new money” blacks out of their circles.
Graham reveals the history of the black summer camps and boarding schools that opened in the 1920s, and the black insurance firms and banks that were founded in the 1930s. Our Kind of People even takes us into the Wall Street offices and Fifth Avenue apartments of today’s millionaire black bankers and entrepreneur, who make up the new wave of elite African Americans.
Weaving together these stories, with his own first-person narrative, one that tells of his childhood experiences in black elite social clubs and of wealthy family friends who “passed” for white in order to gain access to better jobs, Graham reveals a group that has been simultaneously heroic, snobbish, generous, and ambitious – just like the rest of the world.
Conclusion/Personal thoughts about this book
(to the studentif your personal opinion differs from the one given herethis is the place that it is inserted and this example is removed. Your assignment includes giving a personal opinion.)
Lawrence Otis Graham is a nationally known attorney and commentator on race, politics, and class in America. A contributing editor at U.S. News ; World Report, he is the author of twelve other books, including Member of the Club and Proversity: Getting Past Face Value, as well as articles in the New York Times, Essence, and Glamour. The reason I mention this is that I am often intrigued by writers who do “well” – that is succeed at their craft. There is something fun about reading an author who writes well, as when reads for the story as well as the writing style.
The question then becomes would I recommend reading this book to others. Would I be tempted to make different recommendations to whites than to blacks? I don’t think that I would. From my perspective, there are too many books in the world and too little time, consequently I would probably not choose, or recommend this book from my personal perspective.
I can readily acknowledge that this book examines the history and experiences of an elevated black society, and yet also is exploring larger societal issues such as racial, ethnic and religious elitism. However I feel that there are times when all of us are elitist. It may be about a particular piece of sports gear in a sport you are mad about. It may be a particular knowledge about wine, or the use of good cheeses, or even the varieties of garlic. There are times when I do see myself as a snob, I may not feel particularly good about it, but that seems better than to deny that at this age and stage, the attitude is there. Acknowledging those bits and pieces of ourselves that we actually, truthfully see does not seem as though it should be a negative thing, let along a bad thing.
Correspondingly, I also know that, I would not read or recommend books about the Kennedys or Princess Diana. I know that there are others who do not live as I do, but there is a part of me that doesn’t care. I do not need to feel guilty about that decision, and have chosen instead to save basic guilt issues for my relationship with my mother.
I know that there are class divisions in society, and readily admit I would rather have money than do without it; but I really do not care to read about the elite, since I feel that all of us have elitist tendencies, some base them around money, some around race, and some around knowledge or experience. I suppose that if I were really honest, there is a part of me that would wonderohyou are in that personal space now. That is all right.With experience and maturity, you will soon be out of it and set your sights on new horizons.
And at the same time always striving for balance, I found the following personal review of Our Kind of People from someone who knew Graham in high school: I DO believe that this author is living his transformation within the pages of his books. Not
that this is BAD or WRONG, I actually think it has been helpful to all the color lines in America because he has walked the tight rope that splits the hard truths about racism on BOTH sides (Black ;White).I tip my hat to this writer for being able to present his HARD TRUTHS in a provocative way to spark so much success and interest.
Two sides of the same coin? Certainly good art is anything that makes us think.
____. 1998, December 15. Our Kind of People : Inside America’s Black
Graham, Lawrence Otis. 1999, January 1. Our Kind of People : Inside America’s Black Upper Class.