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Understanding the black elite by lawrence otis graham

The author explores the African-American upper class, a society he knows intimately. By Lawrence Otis Graham. He had spied on them on the beach, he said, and he could report that though they acted snobbish, they still ate watermelon. This ugly little joke showed, I thought, how uncomfortable even many of the most liberal white Americans are made by the idea of well-to-do black people. It is a discomfort that, sadly enough, has often been shared, ideologically and emotionally, by the wider black community itself.

  1. But I am, as they say in literature, being bitterly ironic there.
  2. Everyone is driven in a different way. Inside America's Black Upper Class," symbolizes in contradictory ways the complex sense of aspiration and ambition, achievement and acquisition, of African-Americans as a whole.
  3. These become stories of extremely complicated, demanding, and sometimes killing, manner. The result, constructed around fragments of Graham's autobiography, is a fascinating if unwieldy amalgam of popular history, sociological treatise and memoir that combine to demonstrate that prosperous black Americans are not isolated exceptions to the rule but form an extensive and cohesive group with distinct traditions and a strong sense of identity.

So immovably embedded in the American popular imagination understanding the black elite by lawrence otis graham so necessary to it, in some mysterious and tragic way -- is the equation of black with underclass that even icons of establishment success like Bill Cosby and Colin Powell have done little to seduce the public away from the conviction that the only authentic way to be black in America is to be poor. Although since the 19th century a growing body of literature has attested to another kind of African-American experience -- one of generations of material well-being -- books on the subject have most often been either ignored or greeted with a kind of amazed sensationalism, as shedding light on an entirely unknown world.

Hence the brouhaha surrounding the publication of ''Our Kind of People,'' Lawrence Otis Graham's ambitious portrait of well-to-do black Americans, positioned to be the star turn of this year's Black History Month. Graham, a Harvard- and Princeton-educated attorney, a lecturer and television commentator on American class, race and politics, the author of 12 other books -- and, not least important, the product of a family with deep roots in the group he describes here -- spent six years and in a sense all his life researching this encyclopedic popular study of the customs, social organizations, educational institutions, vacation enclaves and histories of wealthy African-American communities in a dozen cities across the country.

The result, constructed around fragments of Graham's autobiography, is a fascinating if unwieldy amalgam of popular history, sociological treatise and memoir that combine to demonstrate that prosperous black Americans are not isolated exceptions to the rule but form an extensive and cohesive group with distinct traditions and a strong sense of identity. Anyone who has grown up privileged and black in the United States will recognize the insular world Graham describes, an ''upper class'' tenuously defined, as any American social elite must be, by money, education and a few generations of cultured ancestors, with the addition of an obsession with light skin and Caucasian characteristics as indicators of high status.

It is a world whose rituals begin in the play groups of Jack and Jill, the national organization for upper-middle-class black children, and include vacations spent in enclaves like Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Developed between economic walls that have protected generations against the worst forms of racism, this is a cushioned existence, but hardly the theater for the aping of white society and rejection of black roots that it has often been charged with being.

AN INTERESTING BUT INCOMPLETE LOOK AT AMERICA

Franklin Frazier wrote in his controversial study, ''Black Bourgeoisie,'' with a hostility barely contained by the need for scholarly detachment. And the lives Graham sketches in pages of text are neither empty nor devoid of a sense of connection to a common African-American heritage.

Looking beyond the inevitable materialism and pretension -- no different from the behavior of any rising American ethnic group -- I was struck by just how determinedly black Graham's subjects are. As he points out, privileged black Americans were active in the civil rights movement and, though conservative politically, continue to have a strong record of social activism. Many have been pioneers in integration; a recurring lament is that of parents worried that their children, taking the high road to success in white schools and universities, will lose their sense of who they are.

This classic American conflict -- between the temptation to move away from roots into the general mainstream and the desire to acknowledge and preserve those roots -- appears to have increased the vigor with which well-to-do African-Americans cultivate a sense of black identity.

AN INTERESTING BUT INCOMPLETE LOOK AT AMERICA

We know who we are and where we came from. Although he is able to look with a properly ironic eye upon the absurdities of color snobbery within black circles, the pushiness of high-powered strivers, the peculiar position of middle-class blacks who dislike whites but dislike poor blacks still more, he is still terrifically impressed by what he sees.

Pulling Back the Curtain On the Black Upper Class

Too often a reverent tone makes his descriptions of fashionable neighborhoods, fancy educations and ''lovely homes'' sound not only decidedly non-U but like what in less politically correct days was called women's-magazine writing; an indiscriminate desire to shower praise and mention every possible name not only makes some chapters far too long but gives them the coy tone of 's Jet magazine social columns.

Most disappointing of all is the last chapter, an absurd resurrection of that old American bugaboo, ''passing'' -- light-skinned black people slipping like secret agents over the line -- that reads as if it had been tacked on to satisfy the expectation that a study of flourishing, well-to-do black Americans would be incomplete unless it added, as a sort of expiatory jab, a hint that they are all yearning to be white.

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A far more effective conclusion would have been a chapter devoted to a major implicit theme of the book, the question of the responsibility of the black elite to the black community as a whole, and of the disgraceful hostility that continues to exist between prosperous blacks and their less privileged brothers. Still, though Graham allows his book to end on a whimper, he has made a major contribution both to African-American studies and to the larger American picture.

It overflows with portraits of extraordinary personalities, like Madam C.

  • And Graham's honesty is strikingly thought-provoking, giving his subject a depth of humanity that is especially poignant and meaningful;
  • Franklin Frazier wrote in his controversial study, ''Black Bourgeoisie,'' with a hostility barely contained by the need for scholarly detachment;
  • Frazier was a trained sociologist, an intellectual writing something on the order of an academic study although his book sometimes took on the tone of a diatribe who was by inclination and professional obligation on the outside, writing objectively and analytically.

Walker, America's first black woman millionaire, or the members of Washington's historic Syphax family. And it is rich with anecdote the curious utilitarian friendship between Henry Ford and the black Detroit minister William Peck is only one example.

Inside the World of the Black Elite: An Interview With Margo Jefferson

There is material here for a latter-day Thackeray or Trollope. The most delightful parts of the book, in fact, are Graham's superbly evoked personal reminiscences, which sometimes rise to the level of high comedy -- for instance, his description of an interminable ride in the Williams Club elevator with ''the Waspiest black men in New York City,'' or the scene in which his snobbish Memphis aunt and uncle, their spines stiff with black pride, debate whether or not to let young Graham and his brother visit Graceland, home of that ''trash,'' Elvis Presley.

In the end one feels that there is an important American novel concealed in ''Our Kind of People,'' and one hopes that one day Graham will shake himself free of social history and write it. Andrea Lee is the author of the novel ''Sarah Phillips.