Our Kind Of People

Karen Grigsby Bates reviews 'Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class' by Lawrence Otis Graham

Published February 4, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| Although they might be surprised to discover it, the most highly pedigreed black Americans have a lot in common with the Nation of Islam -- at least, when it comes to disclosing information about themselves. As Malcom X once noted, those who tell don't know, and those who know don't tell.

And so Lawrence Otis Graham probably found it tough sledding to research "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class." Graham functions here as something like a modern-day Ward McAllister, the social arbiter of the Gilded Age who observed those individuals and families who made it into Mrs. Astor's ballroom and anointed them "The 400" who counted in New York society. While Graham, like McAllister, admits to his own solidly middle-class background (or upper-middle-class, as he clarifies), he has spent enough time among the black upper echelon to feel qualified for his task.

Apparently it didn't occur to him that one reason this hidden class has been written about so little is that they know who they are and they regard anyone else's knowledge of them as superfluous. They're not terribly interested in having their bloodlines charted and their I-gots enumerated to outsiders, and they're not terribly impressed when someone who purports to be one of them violates the omert` that surrounds their existence. As one dowager confided to me, "Those people are the people who want to be noticed. We do not."

Well, never mind. Graham is, as he keeps telling us throughout the book, an Ivy League-educated (Princeton, Harvard Law) African-American in his 30s who has spent his life among similarly situated people. His pedigree is good but not good enough to qualify him as a member of a Very Grand Family, as he points out with wistful frequency. This Old Guard is a group he alternately admires and criticizes. Some among its number, he notes, provide generous financial support for black political causes and cultural institutions. Others have little to do with the community at large and feel no solidarity with the struggling masses. "Why would I be socializing with some caseworker or mailman who goes to NAACP events?" one Detroit socialite sniffs. "I'd have about as much in common with them as a rich white person has with his gardener."

Graham sees class and skin tone as inextricably connected. He writes several times of feeling very dark in a room of creamy black socialites, noting somewhat mournfully that he doesn't possess the straight hair and the pale skin of the Inner Circle. (He married someone who does, though.) But he also points out that while the Old Guard continues its quiet, insular existence, a new meritocracy has arisen: Earl Graves (publisher of Black Enterprise), the late Reg Lewis (philanthropist and CEO of Beatrice Products), Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones are typical of successful, accomplished blacks who didn't come from Grand Families.

You have to give Graham credit for trying -- and for being so self-flagellatingly honest that he admits to having had a nose job "just so that I could buy into the aesthetic biases that many in the black elite hold so dear." If you had a nickel for every time Graham uses the words "elite," "exclusive" and "prestigious," you'd have enough to buy a summer house on Martha's Vineyard. Then you could meet Lawrence Otis Graham in his natural milieu. And if you don't recognize him, don't worry: He can't wait to tell you exactly who he is.

By Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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