Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class

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Debutante cotillions. Arranged marriages. Summer trips to Martha's Vineyard. All-black boarding schools. Memberships in the Links, Deltas, Boulé, 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—an exclusive, mostly hidden group that lives awkwardly between white America and mainstream black ...

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Overview

Debutante cotillions. Arranged marriages. Summer trips to Martha's Vineyard. All-black boarding schools. Memberships in the Links, Deltas, Boulé, 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—an exclusive, mostly hidden group that lives awkwardly between white America and mainstream black America.

Our Kind of People is the first book written about the insular 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.

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. Best known for his provocative New York magazine exposé 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.

Sometimes gossipy and always poignant, 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.

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.

Both poignant and inspirational, Our Kind of People gives readers a firsthand look into a very private community that has played a major role in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Post
“A provocative and important study of the world of priviliged African Americans.”
Los Angeles Magazine
“Captivating...From debutante cotillions and the right vacation spots to who’s in and who’s not.”
Entertainment Weekly
...[A] fascinating chronicle of a hidden community...
Andrea Lee
...[A] fascinating if unwieldy amalgam of popular history, sociological treatise and memoir....Gaham clearly loves and admires the people he is writing about, and this is both the charm of the book and its great failing....Still...[Graham] has made a major contribution both to African-American studies and to the larger American picture. — The New York Times Book Review
Jack E. White
Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class is the literary equivalent of the nose job Graham obtained so that he could 'further buy into the aesthetic biases that many among the black &#233lite hold so dear.'...instead of reporting on the foibles of the black upper crust, Graham sucks up to it, providing little more than a breathless list of neighborhoods, vacation spots and social clubs dominated by folks who can pass the 'brown paper bag' test.
— Time Magazine
Library Journal
In this work, Graham, who exposed bias against African Americans in his sharp-tongued account of working at an elite country club Member of the Club, LJ 5/1/95, here focuses on "America's black upper class": a conservative, well-to-do group that dates back to the first black millionaires in the 1870s and whose members are associated with institutions like the Links and the Oak Bluffs area of Martha's Vineyard.
Kirkus Reviews
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. The class sets itself apart with their clubs, their fraternities, and their sororities, while looking askance 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. His 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 coteries 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 interminable croquet, followed by cucumber sandwiches down by the gazebo.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060183523
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/6/1999
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.33 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

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.

I recall summertime visits from my maternal great-grandmother, a well-educated, light-complexioned, straight-haired black southern woman who discouraged me and my brother from associating with darker-skinned children or from standing or playing for long periods in the July sunlight, which threatened to blacken our already too-dark skin.

"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 and around 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 noted her 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.

Our Kind of People. Copyright © by Lawrence Otis Graham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Ch. 1 The Origins of the Black Upper Class 1
Ch. 2 Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest 19
Ch. 3 The Black Child Experience: The Right Cotillions, Camps, and Private Schools 45
Ch. 4 Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse: Three Colleges That Count 63
Ch. 5 The Right Fraternities and Sororities 83
Ch. 6 The Links and the Girl Friends: For Black Women Who Govern Society 101
Ch. 7 The Boule, the Guardsmen, and Other Groups for Elite Black Men 127
Ch. 8 Vacation Spots for the Black Elite 151
Ch. 9 Black Elite in Chicago 182
Ch. 10 Black Elite in Washington, D.C. 213
Ch. 11 Black Elite in New York City 246
Ch. 12 Black Elite in Memphis 272
Ch. 13 Black Elite in Detroit 294
Ch. 14 Black Elite in Atlanta 321
Ch. 15 Other Cities for the Black Elite: Nashville, New Orleans, Tuskegee, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia 349
Ch. 16 Passing for White: When the "Brown Paper Bag Test" Isn't Enough 376
Afterword 394
Acknowledgments 396
About the Author 401
Photography Credits 402
Index 403
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2000

    COMPELLING - ENGROSSING

    A REAL STUDY OF A SUBCULTURE I KNEW LITTLE ABOUT. A SOCIOLOGIC ESSAY. HANDLES A DIFFICULT STUDY WITH CARE AND EASE.VERY INSIGHTFUL.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2014

    Loved this book!

    Loved this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2000

    The Nose Knows

    While somewhat enlightening about their so called 'class' and struggle to keep it Lawrence and others in his circle whether they want to admit it or not should welcome some counseling on why they hate themselves so much. Their nose knows the truth. I give him a 'C' for MASS CHARACTER ASSASSINATION.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted May 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted September 19, 2010

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    Posted June 29, 2010

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    Posted January 28, 2010

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    Posted January 26, 2010

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    Posted July 17, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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