Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized Worldby Lawrence Otis Graham
Informed and driven by his experience as an upper-middle-class African American who lives and works in a predominately white environment, provocative author Lawrence Otis Graham offers a unique perspective on the subject of race. An uncompromising work that will challenge the mindset of every reader, Member of the Club is a searching book of essays ranging from examining life as a black Princetonian and corporate lawyer to exploring life as a black busboy at an all white country-club. From New York magazine cover stories Invisible Man and Harlem on My Mind to such new essays as "I Never Dated a White Girl" and "My Dinner with Mister Charlie: A Black Man's Undercover Guide to Dining with Dignity at Ten Top New York Restaurants," Graham challenges racial prejudice among White Americans while demanding greater accountability and self-determination from his peers in black America.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st ed
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.09(d)
Read an Excerpt
Why This Harvard-Trained LawyerWent Undercover as a Busboy at anAll-White Connecticut Country Club
I drive up the winding lane past a long stone wall and beneath an archway of sixty-foot maples. At one bend of the drive, a freshly clipped lawn and a trail of yellow daffodils slope gently up to the four-pillared portico of a white Georgian colonial. The building's six huge chimneys, the two wings with slate gray shutters, and the white-brick facade loom over a luxuriant golf course. Before me stands the one-hundred-year-old Greenwich Country Club--the country club--in the affluent, patrician, and very white town of Greenwich, Connecticut, where there are eight clubs for fifty-nine thousand people.
I'm a thirty-year-old corporate lawyer at a Midtown Manhattan firm, and I make $105,000 a year. I'm a graduate of Princeton University (1983) and Harvard Law School (1988), and I've written ten nonfiction books. Although these might seem like impressive credentials, they're not the ones that brought me here. Quite frankly, I got into this country club the only way that a black man like me could--as a $7-an-hour busboy.
After seeing dozens of news stories about Dan Quayle, Billy Graham, Ross Perot, and others who either belonged to or frequented white country clubs, I decided to find out what things were really like at a club where I heard there were no black members.
I remember stepping up to the pool at a country club when I was ten and setting off a chain reaction: Several irate parents dragged their children out of the water and fled. When the other kids ran out of the pool, so did I--foolishly thinking that there wassomething in the water that was going to harm all of us. Back then, in 1972, I saw these clubs only as places where families socialized. I grew up in an affluent white neighborhood in Westchester, and all my playmates and neighbors belonged to one or more of these private institutions. Across the street, my best friend introduced me to the Westchester Country Club before he left for Groton and Yale. My teenage tennis partner from Scarsdale introduced me to the Beach Point Club on weekends before he left for Harvard. The family next door belonged to the Scarsdale Golf Club. In my crowd, the question wasn't "Do you belong?" It was "Where?"
My grandparents owned a Memphis trucking firm, and as far back as I can remember, our family was well off and we had little trouble fitting in--even though I was the only black kid on the high school tennis team, the only one in the orchestra, the only one in my Roman Catholic confirmation class.
Today, I'm back where I started--on a street of five- and six-bedroom colonials with expensive cars and neighbors who all belong somewhere. Through my experiences as a young lawyer, I have come to realize that these clubs are where businesspeople network, where lawyers and investment bankers meet potential clients and arrange deals. How many clients and deals am I going to line up on the asphalt parking lot of my local public tennis courts?
I am not ashamed to admit that I one day want to be a partner and a part of this network. When I talk to my black lawyer or investment-banker friends or my wife, a brilliant black woman who has degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Business School, I learn that our white counterparts are being accepted by dozens of these elite institutions. So why shouldn't we--especially when we have the same credentials, salaries, social graces, and ambitions?
My black Ivy League friends and I know of black company vice presidents who have to ask white subordinates to invite them out for golf or tennis. We talk about the club in Westchester that rejected black Scarsdale resident and millionaire magazine publisher Earl Graves, who sits on Fortune 500 boards, owns a Pepsi distribution franchise, raised three bright Ivy League children, and holds prestigious honorary degrees. We talk about all the clubs that face a scandal and then run out to sign up one quiet, deferential black man who will accept a special "limited-status" membership, remove the taint, and deflect further scrutiny.
I wanted some answers. I knew I could never be treated as an equal at this Greenwich oasis--a place so insular that the word Negro is still used in conversation. But I figured I could get close enough to understand what these people were thinking and why country clubs were so set on excluding people like me.
March 28 to April 7, 1992
I invented a completely new r‚sum‚ for myself. I erased Harvard, Princeton, and my upper-middle-class suburban childhood from my life. So that I'd have to account for fewer years, I made myself seven years younger--an innocent twenty-three. I used my real name and made myself a graduate of the actual high school I attended. Since it would be difficult to pretend that I was from "the street," I decided to become a sophomore-year dropout from Tufts University, a midsize college in suburban Boston. My years at nearby Harvard and the fact that my brother had gone there had given me enough knowledge about the school to pull it off. I contacted some older friends who owned large companies and restaurants in the Boston and New York areas and asked them to serve as references. I was already on a short leave of absence from my law firm to work on a book.
I pieced together a wardrobe that consisted of a blue polyester blazer, white oxford shirt, ironed blue slacks, black loafers, and a horrendous pink, black, and silver tie, and I set up interviews at clubs. Over the telephone, five of the eight said that I sounded as if I would make a great waiter. During each of my phone conversations, I made sure that I spoke to the person who would make the hiring decision. I also confirmed exactly how many waiter positions were available, and I arranged a personal interview within forty minutes to an hour of the conversation, just to be sure that they could not tell me that no such job was available.
"We don't have any job openings--and if you don't leave the building, I will have to call security," the receptionist said at the first club I visited in Greenwich.
I was astounded by the speed with which she made this remark, particularly when I saw that she had just handed an application to a young-looking Hispanic man wearing jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and sunglasses. "I'm here to see Donna, your maŒtre d'," I added defensively as I forced a smile at the pasty-looking woman who sat behind a window.
"There's no Donna here."
"But I just spoke to her thirty minutes ago and she said to come by to discuss the waiter job."
"Sorry, but there are no jobs and no one here named Donna."
After convincing the woman to give me an application, I completed it and then walked back into the dining room, which was visible from the foyer.
I came upon a white male waiter and asked him, "Is there a Donna here?"
"The maŒtre d'?" he asked. "Yeah, she's in the kitchen."
When I found Donna and explained that I was the one she had talked to on the phone forty minutes earlier, she crossed her arms and shook her head. "You're the 'Larry' I talked to on the phone?"
"Yes," I answered.
"I beg your pardon," I said.
"No. No way," she said while refusing to take the application I waved in front of her.
"We just talked on the phone less than an hour ago. You said I sounded perfect. And I've waited in three different restaurants--I've had two years of college-- You said you had five waiter jobs open-- I filled out the application-- I can start right away--"
She still shook her head. And held her hands behind her back--unwilling to even touch my application. "No," she said. "Can't do it."
My talking did no good. It was 1992. This was the Northeast. If I hadn't been involved, I would never have believed it. I suddenly thought about all the times I quietly disbelieved certain poor blacks who said they had tried to get jobs but no one would hire them. I wanted to say then and there, "Not even as a waiter?"
Only an hour earlier, this woman had enthusiastically urged me to come right over for an interview. Now, as two white kitchen workers looked on, she would only hold her hands tightly behind her back and shake her head emphatically. So I left.
There were three other clubs to go to. When I met them, the club managers told me I "would probably make a much better busboy."
"Busboy? Over the phone, you said you needed a waiter," I argued.
"Yes, I know I said that, but you seem very alert, and I think you'd make an excellent busboy instead."
In his heavy Irish brogue, the club manager said he needed to give me a "perception test." He explained it this way: "This ten-question test will give us an idea of your perception, intellectual strength, and conscious ability to perform the duties assigned to you as a busboy."
I had no idea how much intellectual strength and conscious ability (whatever that meant) could be required of a busboy, but here are some of the questions he asked me:
1.If there are three apples and you take two away, how many do you have? Member of the Club. Copyright © by Lawrence Otis Graham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
The author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People, and a contributing editor for Reader's Digest, Lawrence Otis Graham's work has also appeared in the New York Times, Essence, and The Best American Essays. He lives with his wife in Manhattan and Chappaqua, New York.
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IT'S TRUE I'M NOT A AVID RESTUARANT GOER BUT WHEN I DO GO OUT TO EAT I ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK MEMBER OF THE CLUB, BECAUSE THE BOOK GIVES SUCH INFORMATIVE INSTRUCTION ON HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR IDENTITY AND ALSO LEARN HOW TO REALLY GET A TABLE IF YOU REALLY WANT TO EAT IN A CERTAIN ESTABLISHMENT MR. GRAHAM CLEARLY EXPLAINS THE WAY AFRICAN-AMERICAN ARE TO DO SO.