Synopses & Reviews
The Origins of the Black Upper Class
Bryant Gumbel is, but Bill Cosby isn't.
Lena Horne is, but Whitney Houston isn't.
Andrew Young is, but Jesse Jackson isn't.
And neither is Maya Angelou, Alice
Walker, Clarence Thomas, or Quincy Jones.
And even though both of them try extremely
hard, neither Diana Ross nor Robin Givens
will ever be.
All my life, for as long as I can remember, I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the "brown paper bag and ruler test" and those who didn't. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren't.
"You boys stay out of that terrible sun," Great-grandmother Porter would say in a kindly, overprotective tone. "God knows you're dark enough already."
As she sat rocking, stiff-lipped and humorless, on the porch of our Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, summer home, she would gesture for us to move further and further into the shade while flipping disgustedly through the pages of Ebony magazine.
"Niggers, niggers, niggers," she'd say under her breath while staring at the oversized pages of text and photos of popular Negro politicians, entertainers, and sports figures who were busy making black news in 1968.
Great-grandmother Porter, the daughter of a minister and a homemaker, was extremely proud of her Memphis, Tennessee, middle-classroots. While still a child, she had worn silk taffeta dresses, had taken several years of piano lessons, and had managed to become fluent in French. Her only daughter had followed in her footsteps, wearing similarly elegant dresses, taking music lessons, and attending the private LeMoyne School a few years ahead of Roberta Church, the millionaire daughter of Robert Church, the richest black man in the South. She often reminded us that one of her sisters, Venie, then grown and married, had lived for years on Mississippi Boulevard next door to Maceo Walker, the most affluent and powerful black man in Memphis. Great-grandmother was proud of many things, such as being a Republican like the Churches and most other well-placed blacks in those early years. Like all blacks in racist southern towns in the early 1900s, she despised the insults, the substandard treatment, and the poor facilities that the Jim Crow laws had left for blacks. But like many blacks of her class, she was able to limit the interactions that she and her family had with such indignities. Rather than ride at the back of the bus and send her daughter to substandard segregated public schools, she and her husband bought a car and paid for private schooling. For my great-grandmother, life had been generous enough that she could create an environment that buffered her family against the bigotry she knew was just outside her door.
Even though it was 1968, a period of unrest for many blacks throughout the country, Great-grandmother -- like the blue-veined crowd that she was proud to belong to -- seemed, at times, to be totally divorced from the black anxiety and misery that we saw on the TV news and in the papers. In public andaround us children, her remarks often suggested that she was satisfied with the way things were. She often said she didn't think much of the civil rights movement ("I don't see anything civil about a bunch of nappy-headed Negroes screaming and marching around in the streets"), even though I later learned that she and her church friends often gave money to the NAACP, the Urban League, and other groups that fought segregation. She said she didn't think much of Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin or their loud Baptist music ("When are we going to get beyond all this low-class, Baptist, spiritual-sounding rock and roll music?"), even though she would sometimes attend Baptist services. She was proud when a black man finally won an Academy Award, but was disappointed that Sidney Poitier seemed so dark and wet with perspiration when he was interviewed after receiving the honor.
An outsider might have looked at this woman and wondered whether she liked blacks at all. Her views seemed so unforgiving. The fact was that she was completely dedicated to the members of her race, but she had a greater understanding of and appreciation for those blacks who shared her appearance and socioeconomic background.
Disappointed and disillusioned by how little she saw of herself and her crowd in the pages of Ebony magazine, Great-grandmother looked up and once again focused her attention on me and my brother.
And then she thought about her hair.
Stepping back inside the house for her ever-present Fuller brush and comb, she was, no doubt, frustrated by the fact that her great-grandchildren were several shades darker than she, with kinky hair that was clearly that of a Negro person.
My brother and I notedher disappearance into the house and thus once again ran out of the shade and danced around the sand- and pebble-covered road, breathing in the sunshine and the fragrance of the dense pine trees that rose from the layers of sand and brush.
"Young men -- young men," her voice called from the rear bedroom, "you aren't back in that sun, are you?"
"No, ma'am. We're in the shade, ma'am," my eight-year-old brother, Richard, called back with complete conviction as he stopped just out of my great-grandmother's range of vision, thrusting his bare brown chest and oval face into the ninety-six-degree July sun, boldly willing his skin to grow blacker and blacker in defiance of her query.
Debutante cotillions. Million-dollar homes. Summers in Martha's Vineyard. Membership in the Links, Jack & Jill, Deltas, Boule, and AKAs. An obsession with the right schools, families, social clubs, and skin complexion. This is the world of the black upper class and the focus of the first book written about the black elite by a member of this hard-to-penetrate group.
Author and TV commentator Lawrence Otis Graham, one of the nation's most prominent spokesmen on race and class, spent six years interviewing the wealthiest black families in America. He includes historical photos of a people that made their first millions in the 1870s. Graham tells who's in and who's not in the group today with separate chapters on the elite in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, and New Orleans. A new Introduction explains the controversy that the book elicited from both the black and white communities.
About the Author
Lawrence Otis Graham is an attorney and commentator on race, politics, and class in America. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, he is the author of thirteen books, including Member of the Club, which features his undercover experience as a busboy at a discriminatory country club. His most recent book, Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, was a national bestseller. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence, U.S. News &World Report,and the Best American Essays. He lives in Manhattan and Chappaqua, New York, with his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham.
Table of Contents
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 -- The right fraternities and sororities -- The links and the girl friends: for Black women who govern society -- The boulâe, the guardsmen, and other groups for elite Black men -- Vacation spots for the Black elite -- Black elite in Chicago -- Black elite in Washington D.C. -- Black elite in New York City -- Black elite in Memphis -- Black elite in Detroit -- Black elite in Atlanta -- Other cities for the Black elite: Nashville, New Orleans, Tuskegee, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia -- Passing for White: when the "brown paper bag test" isn't enough.